Politicians are elected based on popularity, so shouldn’t all politicians be populists? The label only gets applied to a particular kind of politician, and that kind is not especially popular. A look at populist ideas and strategy highlights why that is, but it also shows why people ought to be more skeptical about populists.
The 19th century politician William Jennings Bryan put the essence of populism clearly in a possibly apocryphal comment.
“I don’t know anything about free silver. The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later,” he said.
People are in charge, in this view, and the politicians tell them what they want to hear. The business of holding consistent views, having a deep understanding of an issue and wanting to persuade is not the job of a candidate running for office.
The point of a politician, instead, is to say popular things and enact popular policies. It doesn’t matter why the things are popular, the important part is that the people like them. It’s a matter of appealing to existing beliefs, not deeply rooted principles.
Thus it’s a little weird that populists try to justify and defend their positions when their views have no deeper justification or insight. “The people of Nebraska are for it, and therefore I am in favor of it. If you’ve got a problem with that, take it up with them.”
The populist trick is to appeal to people who feel otherwise neglected. The populist doesn’t need to be popular with everyone, only the most popular with a chosen segment of the population. William Jennings Bryan chose pro-silver farmers as his people because they were politically potent in Nebraska, where he was running for Congress.
There’s a logic to this. Everyone’s vote counts, so if there’s a segment of the population that feels no one represents them, that’s an opportunity to come out ahead. Populists, shorn of principle, have an opportunity to jump ahead of a parade that no one else was leading.
Which makes populist strategy a useful corrective if politicians fail to represent a large number of people’s views. The strategy only pays off if there’s a gap between what candidates are running on and what people believe.
This appeal is also why the popularity of populists usually ends up being more limited than it seems at first. Because populist politicians are about representing the views of a particular group, they are not interested in persuasion. Populist tactics tend to treat other people as barriers to be overcome rather than potential allies to be convinced.
The intensity of belief matters a lot to political calculus, too. The people who feel they’re not being heard are more likely to knock on doors for the politician who panders to them. Or to do whatever else a politician might want from them — to donate, to call, put up a yard sign, or harass the politician’s opposition.
It’s easy to see why populists are not especially popular. They appeal to particular segments of the population, and stick with them for crass reasons. An appeal to a passionate minority makes them unpopular with a majority. Plus, I suspect that the bulk of the American people want to elect politicians who believe what they say.
Americans also ought to want their elected officials to believe in the ideas the country is based on. This is the country where people are free to craft their own lives. This is the country where we respect human dignity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
People need to believe in American ideals and elect politicians who believe in them, too.
Good ideas are good regardless of how many people believe in them. Bad ideas are bad even if they appeal to groups who passionately believe they are not. And we should want to convince each other that good ideas are good and bad ideas are bad.
Populists have an opportunity when people feel they’re not being heard. We should want our fellow citizens to be represented in government. But we should also want Americans to hold onto American ideals, and elect people who believe in American ideals.
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