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Vox Populi

The Perils & Promises of Populism

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Publication Details

Hardcover / 216 pages
ISBN: 9781594039577
AVAILABLE: 11/28/2017

Vox Populi
The Perils & Promises of Populism

The rise of populist movements across the political spectrum poses a vital question: what role should populism play in modern democracy? In ten trenchant essays, the writers of The New Criterion examine the perils and promises of populism in Vox Populi, a new collection that marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of this critical journal.

Beginning with a reflection on the problems of populism for American conservatism (George H. Nash), the essays expound broadly and deeply on populist unrest—on the populist revolts of ancient Rome (Barry Strauss), the rise of popular referenda and the Brexit vote (Daniel Hannan), American populism and the legacy of H. L. Mencken (Fred Siegel), populism and the Founders’ generation (James Piereson), populism and identity (Roger Scruton), populism around the world (Andrew C. McCarthy), and populism’s historical impact on the American party system (Conrad Black). The book concludes with a discussion of the struggle to keep government in the hands of a free people (Roger Kimball).

Just what perils and promises are found in populist ferment may be the question of our age. Taken together, these ten essays consider “the voice of the people” in the light of history, in a collection that only The New Criterion could assemble.

About the Author

Roger Kimball is President and Publisher of Encounter Books and Editor and Publisher of The New CriterionHe writes regular columns for American GreatnessThe Epoch Times, and The Spectator, US edition.

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The ten essays that comprise this book began life in The New Criterion throughout the course of our thirty-fifth anniversary season beginning in September 2016.

We had already begun thinking about commissioning a series on populism when the world was stunned by the successful British referendum, in June 2016, to take Britain out of the European Union. In the United States, the effervescent presidential campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were, in their different ways, pushing the term “populism” to the forefront of public debate and, indeed, public anxiety. In continental Europe, kindred phenomena had focused public attention on a wide variety of figures and movements that were hailed or dismissed as “populist.”

Still, I don’t suppose that there is any term that has instilled more confusion over the last couple of years than “populism.” In many ways, it is a word in search of a definition. For many people, “populism” is like the term “fascism” as George Orwell saw it: a handy negative epithet, a weapon, whose very lack of semantic precision is one of its chief attractions. Anything or anyone you don’t like can be effectively impugned if you manage deploy the F word and get it to stick. But what does it mean? Ninety-nine times out of a hundred it means little more than “I don’t like this person or this policy.”

Connoisseurs of cant will have noticed that the term “racism” has a similar all-purpose, content-free aura of malignity, but exploring that malodorous development is a topic for another day.

When it comes to understanding populism, history can be as con- fusing as it is illuminating because many of the standard historical examples one encounters have but a tenuous connection with what is today denominated as “populist.” Most surveys of the subject start with Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, the Roman Tribunes who in the late Republic agitated for land reform and grain allotments for the poor. As Barry Strauss reminds us in “Populares and Popu- lists” below, they also introduced mob violence to the metabolism of Roman political life and were, a decade apart, murdered, in the case of Tiberius, or driven to suicide, as for Gaius, by their patrician opponents.

But what lessons do the Gracchi brothers, or later Roman pop- ulists like Gaius Marius or Julius Caesar, have to tell us about the signal populist movements of our own day? Doubtless, they offer a salutary admonition, but, at least in the United Kingdom and the United States, any supposed parallels seem tenuous. I would extend that epistemic stinginess to more modern allotropes of populism like Huey Long and Father Coughlin, two other figures who make at least cameo appearances whenever populism is the topic du jour.

It is often said that “populism” is “anti-elitist,” but again, when it comes to phenomena like Brexit or the election of Donald Trump, I am not sure that the effective opposition is between elites, on the one hand, and us common folk, on the other. Often, I believe, the putative “elites” turn out not to be particularly “elite” or elevated, merely to be possessed through no virtue of their own of an abun- dance of state power.

My own feeling is that most contemporary examples of what are called “populist” movements are at bottom movements to force the question “Who rules?” Populism, in this understanding, is primarily

about the question of sovereignty. I am convinced that the issue of sovereignty, of what I call in my concluding essay in this volume the location of sovereignty, has played a large role in the rise of the phenomenon we describe as “populism” in the United States as well as in Europe. For one thing, the question of sovereignty, of who gov- erns, stands behind the rebellion against the political correctness and moral meddlesomeness that are such conspicuous and disfigur- ing features of our increasingly bureaucratic society.

The issue of sovereignty also stands behind the debates over the relative advantages and moral weather of “globalism” vs. “nationalism,” as well as the correlative economic issues of underemployment and wage stagnation. Those whom James Madison castigated as “theoretic” politicians may advocate “globalism” as a necessary condition for free trade. But the spirit of local control tempers the cosmopolitan project of a borderless world with a recognition that the nation state has been the best guarantor not only of sovereignty but also of broadly shared prosperity. What we might call the ideology of free trade—the globalist aspiration to transcend the impediments of national identity and control—came to seem to its critics an abstraction that principally benefits its architects.

Below, I quote Edmund Burke’s 1770 essay Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents on the Court of George III. Burke criticized the Court party of his day for circumventing Parliament and establishing by stealth what amounted to a new regime of royal prerogative and influence-peddling. It was not as patent as the swaggering courts of James I or Charles I. George and his courtiers maintained the appearance of parliamentary supremacy. But a closer look showed that the system was corrupt. “It was soon discovered,” Burke wrote with sly understatement, “that the forms of a free, and the ends of an arbitrary Government were things not altogether incompatible.” That discovery stands behind the growth of today’s administrative state.

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