Is there a principled, conservative case for populism? The word is associated with mobs, demagoguery, and growth of government power in the vague name of “the people.” It’s natural for conservatives to see the vices of populism as dangerous to liberty, conjuring images of the French Revolution as an early, horrifying case of unrestrained democracy trampling individual rights.
Right now, of course, populism is all the rage. Federalist senior correspondent John Daniel Davidson recently wrote about how Alexis de Tocqueville, the famed French observer of American life in the early nineteenth century, theorized that increasingly democratic American politics were not producing leaders who were “good and wise.” Davidson asserted that “democracy hasn’t worked out the way our Founding Fathers” thought it would and that the deep envy democracy produces towards any kind of “artificial aristocracy” has led to the inevitable showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
Davidson sets up Trump as the populist, demagogic destroyer of the pseudo-aristocrat Clinton, both being a far cry from the “natural aristocracy” that founders like Thomas Jefferson believed would lead the nation. It seems current American politics are “Exhibit A” of democracy run amok. But is the future for an America wracked by the sordid politics of a populist warpath so bleak? Not necessarily.
It is a mistake for American leaders and those currently recoiling at the populist fervor gripping the nation to simply blame populism’s existence on a few demagogic pot stirrers. Populism precedes the populists: wise leaders know how to channel it into something meaningful.
What It Takes for Populism to Succeed
The ideas that underlie any movement matter. Undoubtedly, most unrestrained populist crusades around the world have led to noxious forms of socialism and nationalism. But not all populism is created equal. There was a wide philosophical gap between the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Both populist movements formed as a reaction to the 2007 financial collapse, yet one venerated private property, the other aimed to abolish it
To be successful, and not destructive, a populist movement requires a strong core of principles that keeps its goals tethered to constitutional and cultural restoration. It must also have a relatable leader with a strong core of convictions to see the movement through. Effective American populist movements have operated within the framework of the Constitution, and have been powerful forces for restoring liberty and rooting out corruption. Without this context, populism leads to failure and disaster.
Today’s populism is ideologically nebulous and lacks focus. Popular movements can and have issued important course-corrections in American history, but only by allowing their populism to be guided by the wisdom of the Founders’ constitutionalism.
The Founding Fathers included democratic elements in the American system for good reason. The rights of petition, speech, and assembly—the ability of ordinary Americans to participate in civil society and in government—have been the backbone for the adaptability of our civilization, in the way that the constitutional protection of individual rights has been the bulwark of stability and freedom.
When the American public feels powerless, popular movements have captured that sentiment to make course corrections, for good or ill. No true restoration of American culture, government, and institutions can occur without some element of “democracy.” As Jefferson once said, “Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass.”
To be sure, American history is filled with failed populist leaders and movements, such as those that propelled easy-money advocate and perennial presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan and Louisiana kingpin Huey Long. Although each connected to a section of the American electorate, they were unable to focus beyond their constituencies’ narrow economic interests—they were the mere “factions” James Madison believed the vast, federal republic would weed out.
But there are just as many failed “elitist” political creeds: pro-British Tories, Federalists, and even the Rockefelleresque Republican Party of the mid-twentieth century fell out of touch with their fellow countrymen and watched their influence crumble.
Two movements in American history, the Jacksonian Democracy of the early nineteenth century and the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, demonstrate populist energy can be effectively channeled to implement dramatic shifts toward limited government. Leaders of these movements balanced sincere connection to the common man with appeals to the nation’s founding principles.
The Jacksonian Outsiders
A wave of populist, democratic energy swept Andrew Jackson into office in the late 1820s. Reacting to a financial collapse of 1819, an army of political outsiders came to Washington on the coattails of the Battle of New Orleans’ hero.
Many have tried to compare Trump to Jackson, but while both elicited a certain class-based horror from elites in some respects they could not be more different. Jackson never failed to serve his country, and was almost absurdly brave. Trump is seemingly a man of infinite political flexibility, Jackson utterly immovable in his views—always genuine, even if mistaken.
Although the Jacksonian Revolution has often been portrayed as a thoughtless rabble of frontiersmen storming into office on the back of a careless proto-Caesar, the movement did not lack core principles. The campaign that brought Jackson into office was bumptious and at times made absurd accusations against political enemies (that Jackson sometimes foolishly believed). However, Jackson and his closest advisors had a clearly defined creed that they relentlessly pursued once their champion was elected.
The motto of the country’s most prominent Jacksonian newspaper was “The world is governed too much,” and their movement took aim at the centralizing economic agenda of the 1820s. They railed against the crony capitalism believed to be devouring the American way of life and denounced a permanent political class that had entrenched itself in the corridors of power.
As president, Jackson stopped the re-charter of the Bank of the United States, severing the connection between business and government; vetoed state infrastructure projects he believed served a local rather than national purpose; and threw numerous bureaucrats out of their comfortable positions. To cap off Jackson’s presidency, the national debt was extinguished in 1835, a monumental achievement for a modern nation.
The Jacksonians succeeded because their leader did not merely appeal to the base interests of voters. Jackson’s populist appeal was not directed toward grasping for economic power and special government protections for followers of his popular movement, but rather popularized the simple idea of restoring lost national virtue and maintaining constitutional government. The Jacksonians succeeded because they focused on restoring “lost rights,” and connected this to the frustration many Americans had with the direction of their country—not because they offered to replace a corrupt system working for one class of people with a similarly corrupt system working for another.
James Parton, a historian often critical of Jackson, nevertheless understood why the seventh president had achieved such great success in America and drew the near-universal esteem of his generation. In the conclusion of his 1860 biography of Jackson, Parton wrote about how Old Hickory stood out as a leader, even among men of such high caliber as Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. Ultimately, Jackson and those who led his movement into power understood what the “educated classes” missed, according to Parton.
Parton wrote that Jackson was “in accord with his generation. He had a clear perception that the toiling millions are not a class in the community, but are the community. He felt and knew that the government should only exist for the governed; that the strong are strong only that they may aid the weak…”
Reagan’s Populist Revolution
A century and a half after Jackson’s presidency, conservatives mounted a challenge to a much-expanded government that culminated with President Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. The Jacksonian creed of “the world is governed too much” had been reversed in the twentieth century to celebrate the federal government’s ability to govern every citizen’s life—equality would be guaranteed rather than remain simply protected by the rule of law.
Guided by the conservative movement William F. Buckley and others constructed, Reagan invoked the founders’ principles, and insisted on returning to federalism, lower taxes, and less DC intrusion into Americans’ lives. Reagan attacked the idea that “a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capitol can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.”
While a handful of thinkers brought the conservative movement to life, it reached its zenith with Reagan, who brought these principles to the common man. Some of the best thinkers of the movement understood that their ideas would be better accepted and embraced by the average American than the increasingly left-wing elite. As Buckley famously said, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston phone book than the entire faculty of Harvard.”
Historian Craig Shirley wrote that Reagan was “true American populist, suspicious of the concentration of power by government or by corporate America. Even in his day, he railed against the corruption of the Export-Import Bank and sought to curb its abuses and was successful.”
Populist movements in states set the groundwork for the Gipper’s move from California to the White House. The Sagebrush Rebellion pushed back against government mismanagement of Western land, and California’s Proposition 13 launched a grassroots tax revolt across the country.
Like Jackson, Reagan was seen as a leader who could reestablish the country’s faith in the mission of American civilization and return power to self-sufficient individuals and communities where the true strength of the country had always been. Also like Jackson, Reagan offered only the promise to lift the burdens of government overreach off an industrious American people, not an easy solution or a handout.
The Future of Populist Conservatism
Although numerous populist movements have gone astray and led to despotism, the unique brand of American democracy offers a source of strength for conservatives, not a weakness. Successful populist movements engage Americans’ real problems and encourage citizens’ virtue. With issues like the crony capitalist Export-Import Bank, rent-seeking occupational licensing, taxpayer bailouts of irresponsible public and private institutions, and local governments seizing private property for cash, conservatives have an incredible opportunity to step in and make a powerful case against big government corruption.
The Tea Party, which targeted insider corruption in Washington DC and made restoring constitutional limits a central issue in American politics, was in this tradition. Far too many conservative leaders wrote this movement off rather than harnessing it—and now we have Trump.
The anger and populist feeling of the American electorate can still be channeled toward restoring the fading traditions of the American republic. That undertaking requires leaders who can champion individuals and communities over the state’s coercive power and effectively communicate how government intervention, crony capitalism, and political centralization damage our everyday lives.
Trump is unlikely to be the statesman to succeed and create a lasting movement based on the popular discontent of the moment, but from the chaos he has produced, other more farsighted leaders could establish an enduring coalition.
The power of American populism will either be harnessed by leaders who can both share the people’s anger at corruption in Washington and channel it into restoring the country’s principles and institutions, or it will consume the very essence of what made America—and the American people—great.