The peril of America's populist confusion

Beware the populism of style, which bristles at all forms of rule, rejecting the very need for submission to economic, political, and cultural norms and institutions

(Image credit: (Mark Wilson/Getty Images))

A cottage industry of political theorizing has sprung up in the days since the resounding defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor at the hands of political neophyte Dave Brat. Some pundits said it was immigration that did Cantor in. Others highlighted the influence of talk radio. Still others fastened onto Cantor's less-than-charming personality.

And then there were those who pointed to populism.

I agree that populism had a lot to do with Brat's surprise victory — but I'm not as sanguine as some others about what it portends for our politics. My attitude toward populism varies widely depending on which of two kinds we're talking about.

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One form of populism promises to be a positive development in our politics. The other is potentially disastrous — both in the United States and throughout the democratic world.

The first is a populism of substance. It is motivated by justified outrage at specific instances of injustice and corruption in the economy and political system, as well as a generalized sense that the political and economic order of the United States has evolved to serve the interests of the few at the expense of the many. It looks with disgust on the self-dealing and influence-peddling that infects both Wall Street and Washington, leading elites in both places to grow filthy rich while the rest of the country sees its jobs vanish and wages stagnate over time. This form of populism hopes for policies that address these problems, including structural reforms to keep big government, big business, and big banking from colluding in ways that clash with the interests of ordinary Americans.

Democrats and Republicans both fear and long to tap into this populist energy — but ideological commitments as well as concerns about holding together long-established electoral coalitions keep either party from embracing it wholeheartedly or consistently.

On the Democratic side, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), for one, favors slapping the banking and corporate sectors with stronger regulations, but she has much less interest in reining in the size, power, and scope of government.

Republicans, meanwhile, love to denounce the incompetence and oppressiveness of government, but their loyalty to big business and tax-averse billionaire donors usually keeps them from consistently expanding their critique to take on the excesses that plague the corporate and financial sectors. (Brat did some of this in taking aim at "crony capitalism," and analysts are surely right that it played an important part in his upset victory.)

I've written my own populist jeremiads over the past few months, so I sympathize with some of what both Warren and Brat have been saying.

What I don't support at all is the second form of populism that is also working to reshape our politics.

This is a populism of style, not substance. Facilitated by technology that gives a voice to every citizen and amplifies it throughout the globalized universe of social media, the second form of populism isn't provoked by any injustice or pattern of corruption in particular, but rather rejects the legitimacy of rule by elites, authorities, and settled institutions of any and all kinds. Government, business, the media, churches, even "the establishment" in general — the populism of style pronounces all of them intolerably oppressive because all of them limit or constrain the will and desires of the inviolable Individual.

The disruptive protests that have shaken governments around the world in recent years have usually been sparked by one substantive populist provocation or another. But they have often ended up being fueled, sometimes to the point of genuine revolution, by the amorphous outrage that typically marks the populism of style. Hopes for genuine reform have led some to cheer on the destabilizing trend — though we have reason to suspect that the free-floating populist indignation of the moment will go on to target whatever new configurations of power replace the old ones.

At home and around the world, the two forms of populism intertwine and reinforce each other, but ultimately they are deeply contradictory in aim and intent.

The populism of substance points toward the need for stronger, more activist government, both to regulate big business and to police the government's own penchant toward corporatist corruption.

The populism of style, by contrast, is libertarian to an almost anarchic extent. It bristles at all forms of rule, rejecting the very need for submission to economic, political, and cultural norms and institutions.

It is crucially important that we distinguish between these two populist impulses — selectively embracing and moderating the first while standing firmly against the antinomian tendencies of the second. Anger directed at specific elites and institutions is sometimes justified, but anger directed at elites and institutions in general never is — because it is ultimately a protest against the imperfections of politics itself.

Someone will always end up ruling. That is a fact of collective life that no form of populism can ever change. Though it's certainly possible to do a lot of damage in the futile act of trying to make it happen.

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