Populism Always Sounds Great in the Abstract

A New Jersey truck driver defeated the state Senate president, but politics needs people who know what they’re doing.

Montage of Edward Durr, a crowd, and the Garden State Parkway logo
Fox News / AP; Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of its newsletter Peacefield.

“I go on this great republican principle,” James Madison said in 1788, “that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.”

The notion that a virtuous people will select virtuous representatives to exercise their judgment is at the core of the American experiment. Populism—the notion that “the people” are always right by virtue of being numerous and ordinary—is utterly antithetical to our national idea. The Founders hoped that America would be led by people of moral and intellectual excellence; they built anti-majoritarian firebreaks into the Constitution precisely to avert sudden and intemperate movements.

Countries that fall to populism inevitably pay the price of misrule. Populism is an excellent vehicle for motivating an angry population, but it’s a lousy path to better government. Turkey is the most recent nation to learn this lesson the hard way. Since 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has purged tens of thousands of civil servants (including judges) from the government. The result, as the Turkish writer Semra Alkan recently noted, is that “the Turkish state has fired its way into disaster,” with Turkey in free fall in every aspect—including its economy and its foreign policy—because of a “government of incompetent lackeys.”

Which brings me to New Jersey.

I genuinely have no idea if now-defeated New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney should have lost his seat. He may well deserve to join the ranks of those such as Eric Cantor and Joe Crowley, members of Congress who thought they were invulnerable until a groundswell against them in their primaries proved otherwise.

But I am not moved by the narratives surrounding the candidate who bested him, a truck driver named Edward Durr. “I’m absolutely nobody. I’m just a simple guy. It was the people, it was a repudiation of the policies that have been forced down their throats,” he told reporters on Thursday. Durr says he ran because he was upset about being unable to obtain a concealed-carry permit for a weapon in New Jersey.

The plucky ordinary fellow taking down the mossy old Trenton pol has been catnip for many of my former comrades on the right, including many I greatly respect. But they seem to be acting on the belief that the local voter is always right and the long-serving politician is always wrong.

Or, at least, that the local voter is always right if the challenger is a Republican. This is not a narrative, I should add, that any conservatives seem willing (as far as I know) to apply to upstarts such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Few Republicans applauded the temerity and grit of a young state legislator named Barack Obama, whom they argued was just a pushy gate-jumper.

Inexperienced people who will carry forward your agenda are good; inexperienced people who will oppose you are merely inexperienced and arrogant.

I find this kind of populist celebration of inexperience particularly painful, because I know that local action can be powerful. Some 40 years ago, my working-class city in western Massachusetts was in the grip of its postindustrial slide. Our small neighborhood was tucked up against the polluted banks of the Connecticut River, shining with oil and dead fish, and our view of the water was marred by paper factories on the opposite shore dumping chemicals day and night. Property values, never particularly high, suffered; tidy three-deckers were abandoned and then repopulated by a rough crowd, including drug dealers.

My parents were trying to run a struggling restaurant during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the short walk from our house to the business took us right past a small drug market. Cars pulled up and sales were made in plain sight. My mother tried to get the city to do something, but there were only so many police, and the landlords of the building seemed immune to zoning or health infractions.

My mother ran for local alderman on the single-issue platform of getting drugs out of the neighborhood. She wasn’t trying to run the city, or become the governor, or solve the Soviet-American arms race. She just wanted the drugs gone.

She won. In a year, working with other city officials, she had helped bring a police substation to the area and demanded better enforcement of city ordinances against the landlords. The market was driven from the neighborhood.

But my mother also learned something about governing. In particular, she learned that she was not very good at it. City budgets were complicated; her knowledge of other neighborhoods in the city was limited; she didn’t have the experience to do the million small things that constituents demanded. She was trying to run a business with my father at the same time, and she could not juggle the many hours in the day that both jobs required.

After one term, she was defeated by the same machine politician she had unseated. In her honest moments later, she admitted she probably shouldn’t have run for reelection, but the race had a kind of grudge-match feel to it, and she let herself be talked into one more campaign, despite having already achieved the one thing she wanted to accomplish. I was no fan of the man who beat her, but he did know how to get potholes filled, and my mother did not.

I sincerely hope this truck driver turns out to be a good legislator. The early signs are not encouraging. His tweets and posts suggest that he might not be the virtuous and patriotic underdog his supporters believe him to be. In December 2019, for example, he tweeted, “Mohammad was a pedophile! Islam is a false religion! Only fools follow muslim teachings! It is a cult of hate!” His Twitter account is now deactivated. (In a statement issued to several media outlets yesterday, he wrote, “I’m a passionate guy and I sometimes say things in the heat of the moment. If I said things in the past that hurt anybody’s feelings, I sincerely apologize. I support everybody’s right to worship in any manner they choose and to worship the God of their choice.”)

People who air grievances tend to carry more than a few of them, and so it seems in this instance. I love the David and Goliath stories of politics, but only if David isn’t also a Philistine—in which case, the contest is a draw no matter who wins.

“To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without any virtue in the people,” Madison said in his 1788 address, “is a chimerical idea. If there be sufficient virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men.” Conservatives hammer the gong of “a republic, not a democracy” when it suits them. If America abandons Madison’s warning, we might still be a democracy, but we will no longer be a republic. We should think hard about that distinction before drinking too much of the populist moonshine.