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The New Populism

William A. Galston

Because populism embraces the republican principle of popular sovereignty, it faces the question inherent in this principle: Who are the people? Historically, right-leaning populists have emphasized shared ethnicity and common descent, while left-leaning populists have often defined the people in class terms, excluding those with wealth and power. Recently, a third definition has entered public debate—the people versus cultural elites. “Real people” eat hamburgers, listen to country and western music, and watch Duck Dynasty; globalist snobs do whatever PBS, NPR, and the New York Times deem refined.

Speaking at a campaign rally in May 2016, candidate Donald Trump offered an off-the-cuff example of this thesis. “The only important thing is the unification of the people,” he declared, because “the other people don’t mean anything.” There we have it: the people (that is, the real people) against the other people who are somehow outside and alien.

This approach raises some obvious difficulties. First, it is divisive by definition. Within the context of popular sovereignty, dividing a country’s population into the people and the others suggests that some parts of the population are not really part of the people and do not deserve to share in self-government. Individuals outside the charmed circle of the people may therefore be excluded from equal citizenship, violating the principle of inclusion that is part of Dahl’s definition of democracy.

Here is a second difficulty: the populist definition of the people is inherently counterfactual. Says Müller, populists “speak and act as if the people could develop a singular judgment, a singular will, and hence a singular, unambiguous mandate.” But of course they cannot. In circumstances of even partial liberty, different social groups will have different interests, values, and origins. Plurality, not homogeneity, characterizes most peoples most of the time. Imposing the assumption of uniformity on the reality of diversity not only distorts the facts but also elevates the characteristics of some social groups over others. To the extent that this occurs, populism becomes a threat to democracy, because “democracy requires pluralism and the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens.” Whatever may have been possible in classical republics, no form of identity politics can serve as the basis for a modern democratic society.

Equally counterfactual is the proposition that the people are uniformly virtuous. We are not, individually or collectively. Political movements based on this premise inevitably come to grief, but not before disappointment gives way to a violent search for hidden enemies. (Recall Robespierre’s “Republic of Virtue.”)

When paired with the assumed corruption of elites, the presumption of the people’s virtue undermines democratic practice. Decision-making in circumstances of diversity typically requires compromise, but compromise is hard to accept if one group or party believes that the other embodies evil. How can it be good to compromise with them? Better no action than dishonorable concessions to the forces of darkness. (In circumstances of deep partisan polarization, of course, harshly negative judgments of the opposing party and its supporters are not confined to a single party or political tendency.)

From Anti-Pluralism by William A. Galston. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.

William A. Galston is a former policy advisor to President Bill Clinton and currently holds the Ezra K. Zilkha Chair in the Governance Studies Program at the Brookings Institution, where he serves as a senior fellow.

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