No, Conservatism Should Not Embrace Populism

Source: National Review | November 26, 2016 | Andrew C. McCarthy

Many political observers are over-interpreting the message sent by Trump’s election.

Populism? No thanks.

I am not now, nor will I ever be, a populist. Evidently, that separates me from a growing number of commentators, including some conservatives, wistfully engaged in Washington’s latest fad: over-interpreting Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.

The normally sensible Mike Lee, Republican senator from Utah, took to our pages to plead the case of “principled populism” — which is akin to calling for a sober Bacchanalia. Not surprisingly, Senator Lee’s brief doesn’t get very far before strangling in its own illogic, as odes to populism inevitably do. The “characteristic weakness” of populism, he tells us, is the lack of “a coherent philosophy,” which inevitably makes its “proposals” (I’d have said “careenings”) “inconsistent” and “unserious.” Well, yes . . . that is because populism is inherently unprincipled, inconsistent, and unserious, such that arguing for “principled populism” is so much nonsense.

Lee, a very smart guy, is anything but nonsensical. He is clearly trying to exploit Trump’s supposed populist moment for conservative ends. In his telling, “principled populism” becomes a menu of conservative proposals “focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and global economy.” I’m all for the menu, but that’s not “principled populism”; it’s conservatism — or, as Lee unnecessarily modifies it, “authentic conservatism.”

To slip it into the trendy “populist” brand, Lee has to misdiagnose the “chief political weakness of conservatism,” which he takes to be the failure to perceive problems. To the contrary, conservatives are quite good at perceiving problems — especially problems demagogically manufactured into crises for the purpose of rationalizing populist solutions of the statist variety. In reality, the chief political weakness of conservatism is that modern Americans are conditioned to expect that government can — or must at least try to — solve all our problems. It is the lot of conservatives to resist ill-conceived solutions. Populism cannot change the fact that government is incapable of solving problems upstream of government — problems of culture and complexity that government amelioration efforts, however well-intentioned, often make worse.


But give Senator Lee his due: He is at least trying to wage conservatism in our purportedly populist environment. His “principled populism” turns out mainly to be principled conservatism under a different name. Stephen Moore, by contrast, is telling conservatives to abandon their principles entirely: Surrender to the zeitgeist, deep-six the GOP’s image as the (highly imperfect) vehicle of Reagan conservatism, and become “Trump’s populist working-class party.”

Like Lee, Moore thinks conservatives need to “open [their] eyes to the everyday anxieties and financial stress people are facing,” a capacity he acquired by turning “more into a populist” on the hustings with Trump. Let’s put aside that many (though by no means all) of these anxieties and financial stresses have been caused or worsened by statist government policies; and that conservatives have, in fact, been hard at work developing proposals to address them. What exactly does Moore’s metamorphosis portend in practice?


That’s populism: Doing what you know is wrong, heedless of harmful consequences — some unintended, others easily foreseeable — because the masses will perceive it as empathy.


Conceived by the Framers as a patriotically elitist body, it has been more than two centuries since the Electoral College performed the full extent of that role. Even vestigially, though, it is inherently anti-populist. That is something to celebrate. In the United States, it is the states, not the public at large, that elect the president. Absent that arrangement, the Constitution would not have been adopted, and the nation would not have been founded. Our republic has become more democratic, but honoring the original understanding ensures that elections remain national in the sense that candidates must court all the states and be responsive to their varying concerns.

Trump did not win because of populism. His final vote tally will be roughly equal to the 62 million George W. Bush garnered in 2004. Let’s bear in mind the Census Bureau’s estimate that our population has grown by 30 million since then. Even with Trump’s marginal improvement over the hauls of Romney in 2012 and McCain in 2008 (about 61 and 60 million, respectively), the GOP has flat-lined, at least in presidential elections, in which voter participation is at its heaviest.

No, Trump won because he ran against a Democratic nominee whose support was tepid at best within her own party, which itself is hemorrhaging supporters. Mrs. Clinton was simply a very unappealing candidate — just as she had proven herself to be in 2008. It is likely that other, more committedly conservative Republican candidates with higher personal-approval ratings would have beaten her more handily.


…. More of the statist solutions preferred by Democrats would help some groups, as they always do; but it would be at the expense of others, and of liberty, as it always is. There is no reason to believe Republicans will prosper by endorsing statism under the guise of populism.

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