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Michael S. Swisher

Michael S. Swisher is chairman of the board of Religion and Society, the foundation that publishes The St. Croix Review.

Bugaboos of the Chattering Class — Populism

     What is “populism”? According to many editorial-page writers, think-tank pundits, television commentators, and opinion journalists, it is one of the factors to credit — or more often, to blame — for the passage of the Brexit referendum and the election in 2016 of President Donald Trump.

     Merriam-Webster defines a populist as “a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.” Other descriptions characterize populism as “support for the concerns of ordinary people” or as “the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.”

     Such definitions make populism seem almost synonymous with democracy, which is a word derived from the Greek demokrateia, or government by the people. Yet, in its present usage, populism is almost always employed in a pejorative sense, as it was in a recent article headlined “Populism’s Challenge to Democracy.”[1] How can a polity based on belief in the wisdom, rights, or virtues of the common people “challenge” democracy?

     Before its recent revival, the word “populism” was a term most commonly associated in American politics with the career of William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan entered politics in 1890, having been elected to Congress from the First District of Nebraska. Depressed agricultural conditions prevailed there, and his victory, as a Democrat in a normally Republican district, was an upset. He was an accomplished debater, and soon drew national attention to himself by two noteworthy speeches — one in 1892, against protective tariffs, and another in 1893 against the repeal of the Sherman Silver Purchase Act. Bryan blamed the rigidity of the gold standard for the panic of 1893. He advocated a policy of “easy money,” which was to be achieved by monetizing silver at a fixed ratio of 16:1 with gold. This was a highly inflationary proposal in its effect, since at the time, the market price of silver per ounce was much less than 1/16 that of gold. Bryan rode his free-trade, easy-money platform to the Democrats’ presidential nomination in 1896, 1900, and 1908.  

     Slightly later, what has sometimes been called “prairie populism” swept across the upper Midwest drawing on widespread antipathy to eastern bankers, railroad men, mill owners, who where seen as benefiting at the expense of small farmers. It ran the gamut from the liberal Republicanism of Sen. Robert M. LaFollette, Sr. (1855-1925) in Wisconsin, to the shifting allegiance of Rep. Charles August Lindbergh (1859-1924), the father of the aviator, who had begun in political life as a Republican was by its end a candidate of the Farmer-Labor Party, to the Nonpartisan League in North Dakota, which began as a Republican faction, but ended up pursuing overtly socialist policies, establishing a state-owned bank, a state-owned elevator and flour mill company, and a state-owned railroad. Prairie populism even spread into the western provinces of Canada, with the foundation of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), which described itself as “Farmer-Labour-Socialist.”

It is clear that what is called populism today has very little to do with this historic populism. Bryan was opposed to tariffs and favored an inflationary policy; Trump is, if not a protectionist, using the threat of tariffs to extract more favorable trade agreements with foreign countries. The prairie populists were of a decidedly left-wing disposition; Trump has, according to the Heritage Foundation, implemented more conservative policy goals in his first year as president than any previous incumbent had since 1977, when Heritage began keeping track.

     In short, Brexit and the 2016 presidential election were unpleasant surprises for the intelligentsia — the “chattering class.” The people, the “basket of deplorables,” are at fault. Their political action is represented as “populism,” and “challenge to democracy,” because the intelligentsia has fetishized democracy for so long — World War I was fought to “make the world safe for democracy,” after all — that it cannot bring itself to attack democracy itself, even though that is what it wishes to do, and is in fact doing.

     The Founding Fathers mistrusted democracy. As educated eighteenth-century gentlemen, they were far better acquainted with the Greek and Latin classics than most people are today. They knew that Aristotle had considered democracy an unstable form of government, prone to fall into tyranny. They bore in mind the examples of the failure of the ancient Athenian democracy before the aggression of Alexander the Great and his successor, and of the descent of the Roman republic into civil war followed by the principate of Augustus Caesar. They knew how a prevailing majority could oppress and crush political minorities, and therefore incorporated anti-democratic features in the Constitution — the apportionment of two senators to each state, regardless of population; the indirect election of senators; the Electoral College; and the requirement of super-majorities to ratify treaties and amendments to the Constitution. Even more important than these were the checks and balances that separated and limited the power of each Constitutional branch, and the Bill of Rights, which absolutely forbade certain actions on the part of government.

     Yet the objections of the intelligentsia to democratic results with which they disagree are not satisfied by the Constitution’s restraints on democracy. Indeed, the intelligentsia finds the Constitution, with its limits on governmental power, to be itself a source of frustration. The roots of their antipathy to limited government go back at least a century, to about the same period when the original populism of Bryan and the prairie populists was flourishing. Indeed, if populism arose in response to plutocracy, then the intelligentsia’s embrace of technocratic government perhaps arose as a reaction to populism. The great theorist of technocracy was Walter Lippmann, the long-time doyen of America’s public intellectuals.

     In his 1922 book, Public Opinion, Lippmann argued that the masses are incapable, on their own, of enlightened self-government, while the commercial and social leaders are myopically self-interested. Therefore, he thought, policies should be formulated by an educated elite — a clerisy or mandarinate, capable of disinterested and wise judgment. The job of the press and politicians would then be to propagandize and promote those policies, and to “manufacture consent” for them through the electoral process. As he wrote:

It is no longer possible, for example, to believe in the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify. It has been demonstrated that we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach.”[2]

     By manufacturing consent for the preferred policies of the clerisy, the outward form of Constitutional government could be maintained, though empty of real substance. A classical parallel to this might be the way in which Rome under the principate kept up the pretense of maintaining its historic senate, consuls, and tribunes, though these were without real power, and the city was ruled by an emperor put in place by his Praetorian guard.

     The application of Lippmann’s theory in domestic political practice was accompanied by Congress’s cession of its legislative authority to “alphabet agencies” that made a travesty of the separation of powers — combining in each one the power to promulgate regulations having the force of law through publication in the Federal Register; the power to enforce it through field agents (many of them armed and authorized to use deadly force); and the power to adjudicate alleged violations before internal tribunals. This is the so-called administrative state that has predominated since the New Deal, and is decried by the Heritage Foundation and Steve Bannon alike.

     Anyone who might doubt that manufacturing consent is a burgeoning operation of government should be invited to contemplate two of its prominent exponents. Remember Jonathan Gruber, the “key architect” of Obamacare?

In November 2014, a series of videos emerged of Gruber speaking about the ACA at different events, from 2010 to 2013, in ways that proved to be controversial; the controversy became known in the press as Grubergate.’ In the first, most widely publicized video, taken at a panel discussion about the ACA at the University of Pennsylvania in October 2013, Gruber said the bill was deliberately written ‘in a tortured way’ to disguise the fact that it creates a system by which ‘healthy people pay in and sick people get money.’ He said this obfuscation was needed due to ‘the stupidity of the American voter’ in ensuring the bill's passage. Gruber said the bill’s inherent ‘lack of transparency is a huge political advantage’ in selling it. The comments caused significant controversy.


“In two subsequent videos, Gruber was shown talking about the decision (which he attributed to John Kerry) to have the bill tax insurance companies instead of patients (the so-called ‘Cadillac tax’), which he called fundamentally the same thing economically but more palatable politically. In one video, he stated that ‘the American people are too stupid to understand the difference’ between the two approaches, while in the other he said that the switch worked due to ‘the lack of economic understanding of the American voter.’. . .”[3]

     Perhaps the most prominent of today’s exponents of Lippmannism is Cass Sunstein, a former Obama advisor and currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard Law School. His thinking is described in a lengthy and laudatory article in Harvard Magazine of which the following extract is a representative sample:

“In the conception of republicanism designed by James Madison and reflected in the Constitution, he wrote, ‘the system of checks and balances provided a serious obstacle to national regulation.’ As a result, ‘the vast majority of regulatory functions were undertaken by the common law courts’ in the states, in lawsuits about contract, property, and tort (wrongful acts) disputes, public as well as private.

“New Deal regulation rested on the conviction that the common-law system ‘reflected anachronistic, inefficient, and unjust principles of laissez-faire’ and was inadequate ‘because it was economically disastrous, insulated established property rights from democratic control, failed to protect the disadvantaged, and disabled the states and the national government from revitalizing or stabilizing the economy.’”[4]

     Sunstein, as the above makes clear, is not only a leading defender of the administrative state — he is also perhaps the leading advocate of state manipulation of public opinion. Where Gruber is contemptuous and gloating, Sunstein is condescending and paternalistic, betraying just as low an esteem for the intelligence of his fellow citizens. Government, he contends, ought not be confined to its customary role of enacting laws to prohibit crime — it should also encourage desirable behavior by “nudging” people in a preferred direction.[5] In a more sinister vein, he has proposed that government should employ “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups” whereby “Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”[6]

That Sunstein trusts in the benignity of government, present or future, in the implementation of such “nudging” or “cognitive infiltration” activities, evinces either a remarkable ignorance of history on his part, or an overweening confidence that he and people of like mind will always be in charge — or perhaps both. The fears that Madison and his contemporaries felt are nowhere to be discerned in Sunstein’s writing — they were, after all, at fault for the “serious obstacles to national regulation” posed by the Constitution.

     From the time of Walter Lippmann to that of Cass Sunstein, there has been a concerted effort to supplant the substance of Constitutional government with technocracy. Elective politics has increasingly become a charade in which the technocrasy’s managerial class allows the public a strictly limited range of choices. The result is that when an election is held, whatever may be the result will serve the ends favored by the “well-informed.” This is then held out as exemplary of democratic self-government.

     So, to return to the question at the beginning of this essay — what is “populism”? It is what happens when an electoral process has escaped the control of the technocrats — as it did in the cases of the Brexit vote and the 2016 presidential election. It is nothing more or less than actual democracy, as opposed to the sham of manufactured consent. Populism does not challenge democracy, nor is it a threat to liberty, so long as we observe and enforce the constraints of genuine Constitutional government.     *


[1] William A. Galston, “Populism’s Challenge to Democracy,” Wall Street Journal, March 17-18, p. A11.

[2] Lippmann, Public Opinion (1922), chapter XV.


[4] “The Legal Olympian,” by Lincoln Caplan. Harvard Magazine, January-February 2015.

[5] “Nudging: A Very Short Guide,” 37 J. Consumer Policy 583 (2014)

[6] “Conspiracy Theories,” Cass R. Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule, Harvard University Public Law and Legal Theory Research Series, Paper No. 199, and University of Chicago Law School Law and Economics Research Paper Series, Paper No. 387. Electronic copy available at:

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