A Further Note on Populism

While on the subject, I should mention that like Reihan, I consider “populism” a less-than-ideal term to describe the constellation of policy ideas that he and I support (I don’t think we use the term very often in our forthcoming book). On the other hand, I think it’s pointless to deny that our program, such as it is, would require some harnessing of popular sentiment in order to shift the governing consensus on various issues. This strikes me as a fairly banal observation, though, since any program of reform necessarily requires either popular pressure or a shift in the elite zeitgeist (or both) to come to fruition. And I’m afraid that I don’t quite get where Will Wilkinson is coming from when he writes:

My guess is that some intellectuals get excited about populism because they thrill to the fantasy of riding popular passions to power and harnessing them to set in place their ardently desired policies. It is a thrilling, if repulsive, dream.

This is an exceedingly odd position for a libertarian to take, I would submit, given that the story of America’s recent rightward shift on various liberty issues – particularly taxes, but extending to issues as diverse as economic deregulation and gun control – has been in large part a story of smart libertarians “riding popular passions to power and harnessing them to set in place their ardently desired policies.” (Indeed, it’s not a coincidence that a major left-wing talking point of late – from Thomas Frank and others – has been the notion that Republicans have harnessed popular passions to trick the public into supporting free-market policies that they would otherwise reject.) This is how policy change in a democracy works – except, of course, when it’s just imposed by intellectuals without the public having much of a voice in the matter, as has been known to happen from time to time.

Obviously, there are aspects of Reaganism and the Contract With America that a consistent libertarian like Will would reject, but both the Gipper and Gingrich – and the policy minds around them – played a substantial role in making America more libertarian than it was circa 1975, and they used “popular passions” to achieve their desired results. Was this really so “repulsive”? Or are intellectuals and politicians who harness popular discontent “repulsive” only when their “ardently desired policies” don’t conform to Will’s own worldview?

Nor – though maybe I’m being too prickly here – do I quite get where Will is coming from when he writes:

I read Ross Douthat’s new Atlantic article on the electoral opportunity open to the Democrats as a chance to characterize the Democratic “threat” in a way that makes Douthat’s conservative “populist” alternative look like an attractive counter-strategy for ‘08 Republicans in the market for advisers.

I mean, yeah, it's true that my analysis of the Democrats' current strength is (unsurprisingly) congruent with my suggestions for where the GOP should go from here. But I’m not sure why the consistency of my current perspective on domestic politics and policy is grounds for weird insinuations of careerism or bad faith. My analysis could be dead wrong, or half wrong: the notion that one's own ideas are both good politics and good policy is one of the most common pundit's errors (it's a variant on the Howell Raines Fallacy, described by Mickey Kaus as "the assumption that the great and good American people, in their wisdom, will inevitably come to agree with you"), and I'm as likely to fall victim to it as anyone. (Though I labor under no delusions that my position on, say, embryo-destructive research is shared by the great and good American people.) But it should be possible to make the case against the “Douthat alternative,” such as it is, on the merits without suggesting that my commentary for the Atlantic is carefully tailored to impressionable GOP candidates looking for advisers in 2008.

Similarly, I wouldn’t dream of describing Will’s commentary as “a chance to characterize the current economic scene in such a way as to make his stripe of libertarianism seem like a good fit for politicians in the market for advisers.” I would describe it as a good-faith attempt to grapple with the realities of American life - albeit one influenced, of course, by Will’s own ideological preconceptions. I hope I'm not wrong to do so, and I'd appreciate being extended the same courtesy - right up until the moment I accept a job as chief political adviser to David Petraeus's 2012 Presidential campaign, that is.