Populism, whether on the left or right, is premised on an attempt to exclude one’s political opponents from the “real” body politic. Liberal pluralism offers a better way forward.

Pick Your People: The Populist Poison

Andy Craig is a staff writer at the Cato Institute, where he is the associate editor of Cato Policy Report. Prior to joining Cato in 2018, he worked as a campaign consultant and writer for Gov. Gary Johnson, and studied political science at Hendrix College.

Authoritarian populism on the left and right is fueled by a deceptively effective trick of rhetoric and ideology. It’s an easy game to play, endemic to our political discourse, and being outnumbered is no obstacle. All it takes is being able to identify some group in society who mostly share one’s own policy preferences. Then proclaim that this group is the true people, the real embodiment of the vox populi.

Those outside of this true people are relegated to out‐​group status, denigrated as less legitimate, as less entitled to a say in governance, as people whose political, cultural, and economic influence is inherently suspect and malicious. It’s government of the people, by the people, for the people…but some people are more “the people” than others.

The Forever War

Populism is a slippery term to define. To some, it is defined by an anti‐​establishment or anti‐​elitism narrative, and this is a common feature. But the “establishment” and “elites” are infinitely malleable concepts that can be and are stretched to the point of absurdity. In countries like Hungary and Poland today, the populist ruling establishment and its elites thoroughly dominate the government and civil society, their opponents marginalized and excluded. The same can be said of communist regimes that ruled for decades, their bourgeois and capitalist class enemies long suppressed except as propaganda boogeymen. It’s not much use to define populism in a way that excludes populists in power, when they enjoy their own dominant ruling class.

Instead, populism can be defined by its claim to represent the people, a reified abstraction of certain groups in society who are claimed to represent the legitimate source of political power, against their enemies. It’s a kind of social contract theory with exclusivity, the idea that not everyone’s really in on the deal.

For the nationalist conservative, the people might be the traditional middle and working classes of the dominant ethnic and religious groups within a nation. For the socialist or progressive, the people might be the masses of urban population centers and unionized workers. Whoever the real people are, they invariably align with the political preferences of the speaker. Their preferences are entitled to special deference and elevated legitimacy, the preferences of others dismissed as lesser, the product of false consciousness or manipulation by the enemy.

It’s a “choose your own adventure” story for political righteousness. In this narrative, political opposition isn’t the healthy and necessary interplay of checks and balances in a pluralistic society. Instead, there is one self‐​justifying right vision for what society should look like. To oppose this vision isn’t defending the rights of others or resisting injustices, it’s unjustly disrespecting the special class and its elevated status.

Writing in American Greatness, Saurabh Sharma and Nick Solheim offer one typical formulation from the national conservative and social traditionalist point of view. Advocating for the political right to abandon its pretensions of limited government and classical liberalism, they instead offer a prescription that “Our only choice now is forthrightly and responsibly to defend the interests of the great middle of this country by responsibly wielding power in government when we do win it again to rebalance the scales.” (emphasis added).

Who constitutes this great middle? They don’t elaborate in much detail, but the context makes clear they mean American voters who share their own particular brand of right‐​wing politics and cultural preferences. Never mind that a solid majority of the electorate just rejected that vision, which now dominates one of the two major parties, at the most recent election. The coastal urbanites, the suburban professionals who’ve trended more socially liberal, the irreligious and the secular, the minority groups that form key parts of the Democratic coalition–these are not the true people even when they’re a majority. Only those included in a vaguely geographical allusion to their own partisan coalition properly count.

Sharma and Soldheim’s essay offers an example of this people‐​defining fluidity in action. For decades, business interests and major corporations have been seen to skew Republican with their support for low taxes and regulations. But recently, driven by a variety of factors including repulsion at the illiberal turn of the GOP under Trump, the business class has bolted from the conservative coalition. Thus, they are no longer part of the real people and instead enemies to be attacked and weakened by whatever means necessary. This is presented as an act of treachery that must be avenged, with no reflection on what might have driven them away or given them just cause for opposition.

The same process can be seen playing out in reverse on the left side of the aisle. Democrats who have spent decades railing against the nefarious influence of corporations suddenly find new friends in major corporations embracing anti‐​Trumpist politics. Corporate boycotts to pressure Republican‐​majority states to drop illiberal policies are cheered. Social media giants acting to remove far‐​right extremists, up to and including the former president, is cast as an act of civic‐​minded social responsibility. Notions of the proletariat versus capitalists fade away as soon as the latter joins in the anti‐​Republican coalition.

Political realignments ebb and flow and with them partisan notions of the true people. Rural, white, agricultural workers were once the hotbed of support for American socialism, with Socialist candidates routinely performing best in the Midwest and across the Plains states. Manufacturing workers without college degrees were likewise the powerhouse of labor unions and thereby a key Democratic constituency. Today, they are the core of the enemy’s coalition. Misguided by elites and retrograde bigotries, they are not the true people to be championed but the opposing force to be defeated so “the people” can flourish.

Libertarians have not always been immune to the allure of populism. In 1992, Murray Rothbard’s essay “Right‐​Wing Populism: A Strategy for the Paleo Movement” advocated embracing social conservatives to form a political coalition typified by supporters of far‐​right bombthrowers such as David Duke and Pat Buchanan. Libertarians, Rothbard wrote, should drop those positions at odds with this coalition. In a telling framing, he bemoans Duke’s loss in that year’s Louisiana gubernatorial election in spite of winning “55% of the white vote,” due to “massive outpouring of black voters” against the notorious Klansman. It doesn’t get much more pointed than that in dividing the true people from the excluded and discounted. Nor was this notion of herrenvolk democracy a new idea in Southern politics, with all the bloody history behind it.

Race aside, Rothbard theorized that by adopting tough‐​on‐​crime politics and eschewing opposition to laws against alleged degeneracies like pornography, homosexuality, and abortion (and in later iterations embracing hostility to immigration as well), libertarians could perhaps marshal right‐​populist resentment against the welfare state and overseas wars. Those whose vision of the good life fell outside these boundaries should be discounted and not given any such special deference. Statist policies were to be accepted if they’re supported by the right people, as defined by an amorphous class‐​based mood affiliation and a particular set of policy priorities.

Give Peace a Chance

All of these flavors of populism stand in contrast to the libertarian alternative: individualism, pluralism, and tolerance. Instead of personifying collectivist class abstractions, the libertarian starts from an individualist perspective. All persons as individual human beings have the same set of rights. These rights can be deduced as the consequences of individual autonomy, the basic universal fact of human nature. The role of government should be simply to protect those rights, letting voluntary choices flourish and produce a diversity of cultural and economic options. Such a system reduces social conflict instead of fueling it.

In the libertarian vision, there’s no need to pick and choose who counts as the real people, the proper class that should wield governing power. The cosmopolitan urbanite and the rural traditionalist are equally free to write their own fates. Just as importantly, not everyone has to be shoehorned into one camp or the other. An irreligious couple with little interest in having children may well prefer small town life, low taxes, and their personal gun collection. Devout conservative Christians can prefer the city life and its amenities if they want. Maybe these won’t be the majority preferences among those groups, but that’s fine, too.

These natural human differences need not metastasize into tribal trench warfare, but only if they are placed beyond the reach of government altogether. And for this, the most important limit on government is equal protection, the principle that the state should draw no distinctions of class among its citizens. Race, religion, gender, nationality, wealth, as well as cultural views, are irrelevant in the eyes of the law, which sees only persons and their equal claims to equal rights. That, and not any basket of subjective personal preferences or identities, is a narrow definition of the common good that can truly be common to all. Instead of winning the war for one camp or the other, we can all go our own ways without the threat of arbitrary power being wielded against any of us.

The divisiveness of populist politics can feel like it’s tearing a society apart, and that’s no accident. Divisiveness is inherent to this conflict‐​centered framework for governing. It’s politics as perpetual warfare. And that same rule‐​or‐​be‐​ruled zero‐​sum game is the fuel of illiberal, authoritarian, statist policies. There’s ultimately no victor, no triumphal vindication of the true people over their millions of enemies. The promise of populism is a potent rallying cry but it never ultimately delivers on its promise. There’s always the enemy class to be beaten back, and if there aren’t sufficient enemies, it’s time to invent new ones. The boundaries of the real people can be redrawn at will, and there’s never a shortage of will.

The countervailing tendency towards libertarian pluralism, the liberal sensibility, might seem staid and boring in comparison. It can come across as tepid and moderate in temperament even while offering radical policy changes ranging from slashing taxes to liberalizing immigration. It offers no great men to rally around, no moral crusades to remake society, no narrative of eternal victory just within grasp, no bellicose rhetoric about who will conquer whom. What it offers instead is peace, a ceasefire and depoliticization of vast swathes of life. The antidote to divisive populism is that there’s no need to fight about who’s included in the people and who are the enemies of the people. We’re all just people.