Angry supporters shout down a protester as President Donald Trump speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Feb. 24, 2017, in Maryland.
To perceive is to distinguish between things. The disciplined mind can see the difference between a motion and a bill, or between denouncing speech and censoring it; between Islam and Islamism, between ordinary Muslims and extremists; and so on. To the undisciplined or fanatical mind, however, all these distinctions are elided. Motions blend with laws that censor speech in the service of unseen plots to impose Shariah, a prospect no sooner imagined than fixed into certainty.
Here is another essential distinction: between populism and conservatism. The great blurring in our time is the collapse of conservatism into populism, most notably in the Trump takeover of the Republican party, but also visible in the style and rhetoric of the Harper government. Last week’s Manning Centre Conference seemed to confer respectability on the merger, as did the conspicuous embrace of Trump, and Trumpism, at the same week’s Conservative Political Action Conference south of the border.
Well, what’s wrong with that? Isn’t populism about listening to the people? Looking out for the little guy? Isn’t it simply about abiding by the common sense of the common folk? Well, no, or not only that. Fine-sounding words, especially in politics, often mask sentiments of a less lofty kind, and the most idealized sense of a word is rarely its meaning in common usage.
If it were just a matter of listening to the people or looking out for the little guy, the idea would obviously be uncontroversial. As with its close cousin, nationalism, however, there are shades of meaning to populism; which meaning it takes in any given context is best discerned from observing how and to what it is applied.
With its contempt for experts and the whole notion of expertise, populism has degraded into something closer to nihilism.
So far as nationalism is about discovering shared interests and common values, it can be a positive, unifying force, encouraging members of the same nation to put aside their petty differences in the service of a larger ambition. But nationalism can as easily take the opposite form: not “we are us” but ”we are not you.” At which point all of its familiar pathologies arise.
So it is with populism. Though it often invokes the word “we,” populism is rarely just about Us. It is as much or more about Them: the people versus the vested interests; the little guy, not the fat cats; the common folk, rather than the elites. Not just different, these are presented as hostile, menacing forces.
Of late, the number of Thems has expanded. They threaten Us not only from the right but from the left: not only Big Business, but also Big Labour, or Big Government and its apparatus, bureaucrats, activist groups, lawyers, and so forth. When fused with nationalism, populism acquires a whole catalogue of additional Thems: refugees, Muslims, immigrants of all kinds.
Not only must there be a Them, then, but also, as often as not, an I: the leader, the strongman, who will defend Us from Them. The graver the alleged threat, the greater the powers the populist will insist he needs — if not emergency powers, then certainly a maximum of personal discretion (“I alone can fix it”), relying on his own superior judgment and vision over the pettifogging rules and procedures by which lesser rulers might be guided.
This is not just different from conservatism: it is in most respects its opposite. While on the surface they might seem to share a skepticism of government or other concentrations of power, populism and conservatism differ radically in their prescriptions for controlling them. Against the populist faith in unhindered strongmen, the conservative binds power within a web of institutional constraints: customs, rules, Parliament, markets. It is a system of “laws not men,” of institutions that are of man but not by him.
Conservatism does not rest in the conviction that popular opinion is always right at any moment in time, but neither places its faith in all-seeing experts or visionary leaders: rather, it trusts in the wisdom that is accumulated through generations of trial and error, and the institutions and customs that embody it. In this it is more respectful of the people than populist demagogues, who never challenge the public to be better but only flatter them at their worst, never present them with any choices or tradeoffs but always play to the ever-present desire to have things both ways, at no cost to anyone — or no one but Them.
In its present form, moreover, with its contempt not just for experts but for the whole notion of expertise, populism has degraded into something closer to nihilism. Skepticism of received opinion has curdled into automatic rejection of anything experts know or believe, or that the media reports: an ordinary alertness to the ways a reporter can get things wrong or the leanings of a particular outlet has been replaced by a childish belief that “the media,” all of it, is engaged in a one-sided conspiracy to deceive the public, of which any story the reader does not like is taken as evidence. In its most extreme form, this becomes indistinguishable from lefty post-modernists who reject the very idea of truth; the populist dismissal of any argument that originates with a member of the “elite” is akin to the left’s “white male” sneer as ways of denying standing to an opponent.
At bottom, modern conservatism is rooted in the idea of a society composed of individuals of equal worth and dignity, each the unique intersection of any number of different intermediary group affiliations, and as such transcending all of them: bound together, that is, by their common uniqueness. There is no Us and Them in such a vision of society, and conservatives should reject a politics based on such divisions, whether it comes from the right or the left.