Populism Rightly Understood

Populism needs to be reconnected to, and informed by, old wisdom if it is to give rise to true civic renewal.

Editor’s Note – This essay was originally published at American Mind on August 11th, 2023.

The conservative tradition has always been wary of populism in the form of an untutored mob, an undisciplined populus, or tyrannical majorities. It particularly fears the moral anarchy that accompanies the undermining of sound tradition and salutary self-restraint. That does not mean that it is against populism tout court, however. For its part, the Left has often claimed to be the party of the people, or at least the people properly understood. That does not mean that it truly stands for the real, concrete people.

A tradition from Lenin to the New Left to Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas has brazenly insisted that ordinary working people suffer from “false consciousness” and are really not capable of discerning their true interests or of governing themselves. Taken to its logical conclusion, this perversion of representation allows tyrannical leftist elites to govern in the name of the people while disdaining the choices and judgment of the vast majority of ordinary people. In another rendering, the French political philosopher Pierre Manent has called this “democracy without a demos”—where an abstract ideology of human rights and autonomy as defined by the elite replaces the “deliberative sense” of a real, concrete people.   

To be sure, classically-minded defenders of human liberty from Tocqueville to Ortega y Gasset to Hannah Arendt were not wrong to criticize “mass society” as a breeding ground for totalitarian tyranny and repression. And conservatism rightly understood, and those currents of classical liberalism closest to it, have always defended constitutional democracy (or better yet, constitutional republicanism) against totalitarian democracy. In the latter, the manufactured “will of the people,” and an indiscriminate appeal to radical equality, has justified the denial and destruction of fundamental human liberties. Again, this does not mean that all populism is without merit, but it does need to be properly related to its political other, the few.  

In an elegant and deeply thoughtful 1962 essay entitled “Liberal Education and Responsibility,” Leo Strauss reminded his readers that the perpetuation of civilized liberty depended on a deep sense of responsibility on the part of liberally educated “gentlemen,” or their modern equivalents; and the religious convictions of the people. There can be no meaningful self-government without an abiding sense of duty on the part of the few, the natural aristoi of which Jefferson spoke, and a sense of self-restraint on the part of ordinary people. This combination makes for civic and moral decency. Unfortunately, according to Strauss, this ennobling conception of modern republicanism had already been undermined by 1962 “by the decay of religious education of the people and by the decay of liberal education of the representatives of the people.” Our elites had forgotten about virtue, and what remains of “goodness became identified with compassion”—and ostentatious displays of we now call political correctness.

Strauss never expected that liberal education could become “universal education.” But he hoped that a hardy band of the liberally educated could come to understand once again the old insight that “wisdom cannot be separated from moderation and hence to understand that wisdom requires unhesitating loyalty to a decent constitution and even to the cause of constitutionalism.” Strauss hoped that such moderation (which has nothing to do with tepid and cowardly accommodation to the zeitgeist) could “protect us against us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations from politics and unmanly contempt for politics.” Writing 60 years ago, Strauss hoped that it “may again become true that all liberally educated men will be politically moderate men.” That hope has not come to pass.

In fact, it is the pseudo-educated who today mock old-fashioned moderation and constitutionalism. They detest ordinary morality, deny limits rooted in the order of things, and preach ingratitude and a cult of demeaning “victimization.” This pseudo-educated elite knows neither wisdom nor moderation, hates excellence in all its forms, and takes aim at all the resources of reason and revelation bequeathed by our Western and American forebears.

Already in the 1970s and ’80s, independent-minded thinkers such as Irving Kristol and Christopher Lasch saw that in the ’60s we had lived through a radical inversion of “democratic man” (and his relation to the few) described by Plato in Book 9 of the Republic. Ominously, Plato brilliantly described the dialectical connections between democratic and tyrannical souls. Democracy may at first appear as diversity itself, a rich and many-colored coat. But this alluring image disguises moral rot, contempt for legitimate authority, neglect for good habits, and a degrading egalitarianism. With “no order and restraint in his life,” democratic man prepares the way for tyranny. A serious engagement with Plato’s critique of democratic man needs to remain an essential part of an authentic liberal and civic education, to tutor our perceptions and let us know what needs to be resisted.   

In his day, however, Lasch did not think things were completely gone; he tended to set an out-of-touch-with-reality, symbol-manipulating elite against a working populace tutored by reality and educated in its limits. He was not wrong to see in the lower-middle class ethic a rugged common sense and real, if inarticulate, sense of limits. But since Lasch’s death in the early 1990s, this populist respect for limits and common sense has frayed, as elite relativism and the broader culture of repudiation have corrupted the good sense of those previously spared exposure to the quasi-nihilism that has come to dominate education, high and low.

Irving Kristol too thought democratic man, still indebted to older civic and religious traditions, was far less corrupt than elites who respected fewer and fewer moral limits and had turned ingratitude and self-loathing into a destructive secular religion. Therefore both Kristol and Lasch recommended populism within limits, or “up to a point” as George F. Will used to say, as a corrective to both democracy run riot and elite tyranny. The people, not the few, had no taste for the “modernity without restraint” that Anglo-American democracy once resisted with a modicum of wisdom and a modicum of moderation. But things have changed.

I am enough of a populist to think that by and large ordinary people, although increasingly bereft of religious, civic, or liberal education, are for the most part less corrupt than the few who have largely succumbed to an aggressive and debilitating nihilism. But without the renewal of liberal, civic, and religious education in our admittedly deeply troubled times, we will surely perish. Elite nihilism cannot be countered by undirected anger, the howling of the mob, or even “owning the libs.”

Pierre Manent once wrote that Rousseau tried to overcome the defects of modernity with generalized compassion and softness, while Nietzsche countered with the evocation of hardness and cruelty. In contrast to both, he taught that Tocqueville turned to political liberty, self-government in the city and the soul. Nothing in our circumstances suggests that the arts of self-government have become outdated or obsolete, or ever will. They remain the one thing most needful on the civic plane.

Let us therefore do our best to renew authentic liberal education, to reconnect “wisdom and moderation” as advocated by Leo Strauss, and join together “the spirit of liberty” and “the spirit of religion” as Alexis de Tocqueville said was once the genius of America democracy. Populism needs to be reconnected to, and informed by, old wisdom if it is to give rise to true civic renewal, and not self-defeating indignation.