Six Thoughts on Our Populist Moment - Encounter Books

Six Thoughts on Our Populist Moment

From the Contributors to Vox Populi
December 26, 2017

In Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism, a new collection of essays that marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of The New Criterion, editor Roger Kimball and fellow contributors reflect on the rise of populism in recent years, at home and abroad. Collected below are six extracts from essays by Daniel Hannan, Roger Scruton, Conrad Black, Roger Kimball, Andrew C. McCarthy, and Victor Davis Hanson that reveal just how contentious this issue remains.

Populism is not good or bad:

“My point is that populism is not intrinsically a bad thing. It may be either positive or negative according to context. The essential feature of all populist movements is their belief that an elite is governing in its own interests rather than that of the general population. To make an obvious point, the validity of the populist argument depends on the extent to which that assessment is accurate.

Some populist movements rely on scapegoating, on attributing every misfortune to a privileged or powerful minority. These are the ugly movements, the ones that offer anger and division rather than solutions. “Are you poor? Are your children jobless? It’s not your fault! It’s all the fault of international financiers/powerful foreigners/Jews/the one percent!”

Such populist movements depend on what we might call a piece of faulty circuitry in the human brain: a tendency to see patterns where none exist. This tendency evolved for good reasons on the savannahs of Pleistocene Africa. Taking short-cuts, spotting minute traces of human involvement, recognizing similarities, and extrapolating from them: all these were vital survival strategies. The trouble is that, in our complicated and populous modern world, our hunter-gatherer brains can overshoot. We infer human agency where none exists. We anthropomorphize. We see faces in potatoes (but not potatoes in faces). We yell at our laptops when they malfunction. We discern hidden hands behind random events.”

Daniel Hannan is a writer and Journalist.


Populist politicians are demagogues, not democrats:

“Populists are politicians who appeal directly to the people when they should be consulting the political process, and who are prepared to set aside procedures and legal niceties when the tide of public opinion flows in their favor. Like Donald Trump, populists can win elections. Like Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, they can disrupt the long-standing consensus of government. Or, like Nigel Farage and the Brexiteers in Britain, they can use the popular vote to overthrow all the expectations and predictions of the political class. But they have one thing in common, which is their preparedness to allow a voice to passions that are neither acknowledged nor mentioned in the course of normal politics. And for this reason, they are not democrats but demagogues—not politicians who guide and govern by appeal to arguments, but agitators who stir the unthinking feelings of the crowd.”

Sir Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher.


Populism is constitutional and inevitable:

“Populism is generally taken to mean a political movement that challenges the incumbent political elite and may overwhelm it. If in doing so, or at a subsequent stage, the movement becomes violent or departs from the confines of the orthodox constitutional system altogether, it ceases to be populist and becomes revolutionary or anarchic. In long-running democracies, economic fluctuations and occasional vagaries of talent of the political leadership assure that there will be populist political activity that will try to win big political prizes by constitutional means and by exploiting and evoking public discontent with the political class.”

Conrad Black is a Canadian-born British peer, former publisher of The London Daily Telegraph, The Spectator, The Chicago Sun-Times, and The Jerusalem Post, and founder of Canada’s National Post.


‘Populism’ is a rhetorical weapon used to delegitimize political opponents:

“Populism, in short, seems incapable of escaping the association with demagoguery and moral darkness. Like the foul-smelling wounds of Philoctetes, the stench is apparently incurable. Granted, there are plenty of historical reasons for the association between demagoguery and populism, as such names as the brothers Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Father Coughlin, Huey Long, not to mention Mr. Browning’s friend Adolf, remind us.

Still, I suspect that in the present context the apparently unbreakable association between populism and demagoguery has less to do with any natural affinity than with cunning rhetorical weaponization. “Populism,” that is to say, is wielded less as a descriptive than as a delegitimizing term. Successfully charge someone with populist sympathies and you get, free and for nothing, both the imputation of demagoguery and what was famously derided as a “deplorable” and “irredeemable” cohort. The element of existential depreciation is almost palpable.

So is the element of condescension. Inseparable from the diagnosis of populism is the implication not just of incompetence but also of a crudity that is part aesthetic and part moral. Hence the curiously visceral distaste expressed by elite opinion for signs of populist sympathy. When Hillary Clinton charged that half of Donald Trump’s supporters were an “irredeemable” “basket of deplorables,” when Barack Obama castigated small-town Republican voters as “bitter” folk who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment,” what they expressed was not disagreement but condescending revulsion.”

Roger Kimball is Editor and Publisher of The New Criterion and President and Publisher of Encounter Books.


The election of President Trump was not a populist revolt:

“Trump performed impressively in attracting 2 million more voters than the 61 million the Republican standard-bearer Mitt Romney had in 2012. But Democrats have now hemorrhaged over 4 million voters since Obama’s high-water mark of nearly 70 million in 2008. In that same eight-year time frame, the U.S. population has grown by about 18 million.

All that said, had just 80,000 votes (roughly half a percentage point) shifted to Clinton in three tightly contested battleground states (Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), we would not be talking about a populist revolt in the United States. We would be talking about how Americans elected a former First Lady and twice-elected U.S. senator who has been a pillar of the political establishment for a generation. Trump won by a hair, so the pillar is now a relic.

There is, in addition, more than a little irony in the fact that Trump, the populist, was rejected in the “direct democracy” sense but nonetheless prevailed thanks to the Electoral College, one of the most anti-democratic institutions created by the U.S. Constitution.”

Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at National Review Institute and a contributing editor at National Review..


Progressive culture simply does not appeal to the majority of the country:

“What we learned on Election Day is that progressive culture— identity politics, radical feminism, boutique environmentalism, metrosexual careerism—appeals to no more than half the country, even if it’s the more influential and wealthier half. When Middle America found itself targeted by globalization and was culturally caricatured for its supposed irredeemable and deplorable habits by the smug winners of internationalism, is it a surprise that it looked desperately for a politician who promised to put them back to work and to honor rather than deride their manner of living?”

Victor Davis Hanson is the Martin and Illie Anderson Senior Fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

Learn more in Vox Populi: The Perils & Promises of Populism.

Encounter Books is an activity of Encounter for Culture and Education, a tax-exempt, non-profit corporation dedicated to strengthening the marketplace of ideas.
In this Article

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.

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