Why is Populism So Popular?

Tom Palmer comes back to the show to address the rise of authoritarian populism and what it means for the state of politics in the U.S. 

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There is no doubt that we are in a global tend of authoritarian populism. Tom Palmer joins the show today to discuss how populism comes in many kinds of poison. He points to our disorderly immigration system as one of the reasons that populist rhetoric thrives in the United States. As there is more havoc at the border, it is perceived as an invasion rather than a flaw in our system. Do you think that the Republican Party is the new Populist Party? 

What is populism? Is there a clear distinction between democracy and populism? What is the idea of the ‘loyal opposition’?

Further Reading:

Animal Farm, written by George Orwell

The Terrifying Rise of Authoritarian Populism, written by Tom G. Palmer

The Virtue of Nationalism, written by Yoram Hazony

Related Content:

What’s Wrong with National Conservatism?, Free Thoughts Podcast

Vice in The Virtue of Nationalism, written by Akiva Malamet

Is Liberalism in Danger?, Free Thoughts Podcast


00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Tom Palmer. He’s a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and Executive Vice President for International Programs at the Atlas Network. Welcome back to the show, Tom.

00:19 Tom Palmer: Thanks so much.

00:20 Aaron Ross Powell: What is populism?

00:22 Tom Palmer: Well, it’s a political movement, a tendency that has been disrupting political systems all around the planet recently, and it has a number of interesting features, things that we can find that are common. And the first, there are four, but the first is the idea that there’s the true people who are somehow under attack by an elite, by the 1%, by some minority group or religious or ethnic group, or whoever it happens to be. That’s an empty signifier. You can put anything into that position. But, the Populist Party is the only true representative of the true people. But, within the population, it’s articulated as the people versus the enemies of the people. And that language is common, the enemies of the people. Second feature that’s commonly associated with it is that the people have one will because they are one people, the true people. And there’s one will of the people. And that will is concentrated in a leader, one person, who says, “I am your voice. I speak for you.” And in the case of Hugo Chaves, he even says, “Chaves is not me. Chaves is a people.” The third element then is a disdain for deliberative processes in political decision-making, the old idea of discussion and debate and put everything on the table and have a robust conversation.

01:47 Tom Palmer: No, what we need instead is action, action for the sake of action. And then finally, and this follows on these others. Focus on short-termism in policy. So, you tend to find very interventionist economic policies, wage controls, price controls, inflationism, all kinds of short-term policies that have detrimental long-term consequences. And on all of those areas, libertarian ideas are robustly at variance with populism. We see the world as variegated and complex with multiple interests and orientations and ways of living and so on that need to be able to co-exist. We don’t like leadership dictatorship principles. And we do believe in conversation and discussion before embarking on some kind of collective activity. And then finally, classical liberals or libertarians have always been known as the ones who think about the long-term consequences, namely what’s gonna happen when you do this, not just tomorrow or the next week, but over the long term? What incentives have you put in place? So, in all of those four characteristics, there’s a real clash between libertarianism and this global populist movement.

03:07 Trevor Burrus: And it seems I didn’t hear right wing or left wing in that. It can be either right-wing or left-wing?

03:11 Tom Palmer: Oh, it comes in any flavor. It’s like all kinds of poisons, in my opinion. You can flavor it chocolate or vanilla, still deadly to you. And so you do have right-wing populisms and left-wing populisms. And what’s interesting is that in many cases, they make common cause against the classical liberal consensus, if you will, that has been rising since the Second World War. So, in a number of countries, there have been a far-right and far-left unity governments. Think about Greece with the Independent Greeks, which is a neo-fascist populist party in Greece and the Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, which is a populist far-left party. And those two had formed the government up until the most recent elections when a more centrist, somewhat classical liberal-tinged, government replaced them. But, it is common to find these far-left and far-right views in alliance. One thing that they hate more than each other is the idea of a peaceful society that is pluralistic and tolerant. They simply can’t stand that. And so although at some point they will want to destroy each other, first they want to destroy the people who believe it’s possible to live together.

04:35 Aaron Ross Powell: I’m gonna need to speak a bit more about the distinction between democracy and populism because a lot of these characteristics that you laid out at the beginning in your definition of populism, so believing that there is a people who are opposed to some extent by a certain cadre of elites, so there’s other people kind of corrupting the direction we ought to be going, we see that in common democratic rhetoric all the time, like campaign finance law is all about a handful of oligarchs are getting in the way of the people’s voice. Every time there’s a presidential election in the United States it’s, “I speak for you and I will represent your voice in Washington,” which is not quite the same thing like, “I’m you or I’m the embodiment of you.” But, it’s similar. Is there a clear distinction between democracy and populism, or is it a fuzzier line between the two?

05:42 Tom Palmer: I think it’s kind of fuzzy. For one thing, democracy is one of those essentially contested terms. Very few people say they’re just against it. They all just have different conceptions of what it means. But, if you think about the democracy that was articulated in the American founding, it’s not just a pure majoritarian system. This is obvious to anyone who will just read through the text of the Constitution. It’s full of checks and balances. It’s full of the ideas of deliberation and discussion and, “Let’s wait. Let’s see how it’s going to work.” The Senate was set up very deliberately not to be swept one way or another because you have the six-year terms and then every two years, one-third of them are up. And that means that two-thirds of them are not. And they can defeat idiotic, crazy, popular ideas that are the transient enthusiasm to fads of the moment. What it has, though, is a democratic component. It’s not a hereditary system. It’s nothing you’re born into. There’s no aristocracy who are born to power.

06:44 Tom Palmer: It is a democratic input into a Constitutional Republic, which seeks to be governed by the law rather than by will. And what populism does is it wants to replace the idea of law with the idea of will, that these are things imposed and they’re imposed in the name of the people. The other element that’s important is that even in standard democratic rhetoric, you don’t articulate there is a group that are the unpeople, the enemies of the people. They may be political foes in election. You have very robustly different views on all kinds of issues. And you fight and so on. But, you don’t at the end of the day say, “Okay, now, we have to kill them. Now, it’s time to eliminate them. They are the enemies of the people.” But, populism tends very much in that direction, to articulate that there’s some group that is the unpeople.

07:34 Aaron Ross Powell: Is populism always or at least typically along racial lines? When we’re talking about the people, are we talking about a certain ethnicity?

07:41 Tom Palmer: It doesn’t have to be although that’s a common and obvious formulation. By the idea of the 1%, for example, this is not articulated in racial terms. I would say one group that usually takes it on the chin in populism is Jews. In populations or countries that have Jewish populations, they’re commonly identified as the enemy because the articulation, the common theme of anti-semitism, is they are among us, but not of us. That somehow they’re different and therefore the enemy. But, it doesn’t have to be anti-semitic. It doesn’t have to be racist. There can be some other enemy. So, De Lugenpresse or the lying media as we hear in the United States, that’s just a translation from a German term of abuse that led to the establishment of dictatorship. We’re not gonna allow people to counter the voice of the people. So, it doesn’t have to be racially oriented, but that’s a pretty easy way to articulate a populist vision. What’s most interesting is the new populism that’s emerged lately. And here, I think of Ernesto Laclau in his turgid and boring and virtually unreadable book “On Populist Reason.” His view is that it’s the leader who formulates the unity of the movement and can choose the enemy, the constitution of the enemy at will so as to constitute a winning group within a democratic context. And once you have that vote, you get the old principle of tyranny “One man, one vote, one time.”

09:20 Trevor Burrus: Now, you’ve used the word populist. I feel like, in my lifetime, it was most, until recently, it was most used to describe basically every South American government at one time or another. But, it hasn’t been used much in my lifetime to describe any American political movement that was actually existent, contemporary. You feel that’s accurate? I’m not saying it’s only exists in South America. It exists other places. But, have we not seen it before here?

09:48 Tom Palmer: This may reflects an age difference. But, for me growing up, the idea of populism was articulated with the American People’s Party, the Populist Party, which was a big deal in the 1890s when I was young.


10:02 Trevor Burrus: I know that there are parties who have… [chuckle] There are other third parties, who are called the populist parties.

10:07 Tom Palmer: But that’s actually the way that the term entered into contemporary discourse. So, it was a very important formative movement against elites. But, I think it was not the same kind of populism, if you wanna put it that way, as what we have been experiencing today was not so obviously antipluralist. This is the key that Jan-Werner Mueller and other political scientists have focused on, that the populism we’re experiencing is explicitly and openly antipluralist. That is to say that one people have one will. They have one interest. They are not a multitude of different interests that might be competing within a democratic or constitutional legal system. And so I think that is what colors it. I think you’re thinking a little bit more, Trevor, about the kind of military governments that plagued much of Latin America, but I wouldn’t characterize those typically as populist. They were military governments with all the usual characteristics you find among them. There were certainly some like the PRI in Mexico, the Party of the Institutionalized Revolution, it’s such an interesting name, that articulated that, but over long period of time. They just became the establishment. They were the people who had the money and the power and the connection. That was the point of being the institutionalized revolution. It was the revolution in power.

11:37 Tom Palmer: Now, it’s, of course, always the case that these movements when they present themselves as insurgencies, they quickly move in to take over power. And once they’re in power, just as George Orwell explains so elegantly in “Animal Farm,” they become the new masters. And they just take the positions of the old ones, but with a difference. They have typically acted to destroy every institution of countervailing power and authority. Every check and balance has been eliminated. So, Venezuela is such a classic case here where they have destroyed the independence of the judiciary, the independence of the elected authorities, the independence of mayors. They’ve crushed the free media. They’ve just pulverized the society and in a fairly short period of time. We’ve seen just a complete social melt down. They have really sped up in the process of cronyisation, concentration of wealth in the hands of these boligarchs as they’re called, The Bolivarian Movement.

12:39 Tom Palmer: So the boligarchs have most of the wealth in the country now, and they’ve impoverished it. And this is the standard pattern. When movements of this sort do get into power, if they are not quickly checked, if they have enough time to eliminate all of the countervailing institutions, that is exactly what they do. And once you do, we find out there are just as venal, just as selfish and greedy as whatever elite that they claim to have a dispossessed.

13:06 Aaron Ross Powell: Why is the opposition to an other so central to this? So, in the article that we have on the libertarianism that you wrote about the rise of authoritarian populism, you talk about Carl Schmitt who define politics as kind of opposition to an enemy. But if we have a group identity, that group identity presumably can exist without opposition to other things. We have a positive identity that we can rally around versus a like, “Well, we’re not those guys.” So is that oppositional thing necessary to populism? And if it is why. Why don’t we see populism around positive identities?

13:48 Tom Palmer: Well, one of the reasons is, again, what Laclau, who is a tedious read because he was one of these academics who covered up his ideas with virtually impenetrable prose and a lot of nonsense from Jacques Lacan and Sisto, and so on, but he identifies the affective dimension. What he means by that is the emotional investment in politics. And the one that moves people much more strongly than anything else is hatred, rage, anger, resentment. So, if you want to mobilize a movement that’s gonna be focused on a leader, hatred, rage, anger, and resentment, they really fit the bill. But, “Let’s get along. Can’t we love each other? Look at the positive things about our country and our identity,” those are pretty weak tea in comparison. So this affective dimension or emotional investment that Laclau and his wife Chantal Mouffe was a big Schmitt scholar reviving the ideas of the important Nazi philosophers Carl Schmitt, which I should also add, permeates Laclau’s thinking as well. He just doesn’t quote him, requires a negativity, a hatred of the enemy. And that is what motivates people to then invest so much emotional energy in following the leader and crushing the enemy.

15:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Given the importance of the leader and the investment in the leader. Do populist governments have a problem with transitions? When the leader goes from the scene, do they tend to collapse, or can this investment be transferred on to the next person in line?

15:37 Tom Palmer: It’s a very deep question. And we have seen various kinds of populist movements that have swept over France, for example. And once the powerful leader expires, they dissipate pretty quickly. So, that’s the long-term problem of investing all of this emotional energy in a leader, that they’re not immortal. They do, of course, attempt to extend their term of office indefinitely, which is why you found like in the case of Ecuador with Corea get rid of the limits on the presidential term. Fortunately, he failed in that because enough of his own party led by Moreno turned against him and said, “We do not want to go down the Venezuelan Road.” And so, Ecuador, I think was saved from a disaster. But, they do want to get rid of all term limits so that the leader can continue in power, from their perspective, forever. We understand that means as long as he lives. But, these people typically don’t think very much after that, period. They’re gonna be dead. So what do they care? What happens to the rest of the society if it falls into civil war or forgoes into something else. Well, they’ll be dead. What do they care?

16:51 Trevor Burrus: There’ve been a lot of, as he points out, we’re in a trend. We’re in a disturbing global trend of a rise of authoritarian populism, but there’s also been a lot of books written that I get as a book review editor for The Cato journal. What Happened to Liberalism? Liberalism: Autopsy of an Idea. Liberalism is Dead, that kind of thing. Is there a blowback element of this? Do you buy this idea that there’s maybe a sinusoidal thing. That we have Fukiyama say, “The role democracy is the end of history and nothing will ever change.” But, there’s something in the human heart, at least some humans who don’t like pluralism to the point that the more pluralism they get, the more people they see around them who are different, speaking different languages, the more they’ll re-trench and then call for someone to make the nation great again, especially in the term of the nation, the people?

17:44 Tom Palmer: A very small thing, because I was at a conference recently with Fukiyama and he would take exception to your characterization of his view. But, we’ll just set that aside. I don’t think it’s the case that liberalism inevitably generates some kind of a blowback. Some people have argued that. They argue about the hollowing out of Patrick Deneen’s book, which I found pretty insipid. I should mention one thing. Any time someone writes, “The Greeks believed,” I’m tempted to close the book because there were a lot of them. And it turns out what they mean by that is one or two Greeks believed that, Aristotle and or Plato. So, I don’t think there’s a collapse of liberalism. I do think that we’ve been seeing trends on the global stage, however, that have really set up this movement. The financial crisis, which was blamed on capitalism, led to a crisis of confidence. Now, what’s remarkable is you had a couple of years of negative economic performance in a number of economies, not all, but in a number which then recovered. So it’s a little tiny blip in a general upward trend. But, nonetheless, I think that that was seized on by many people as a sign that something had failed.

19:03 Tom Palmer: We can look at it and say, “Look. You had so many interventions in the financial markets, the Basel Accords that were intended to make a global financial market stable actually made them less stable, on and on and on.” But, that’s the psychological impact that it had was to shaken somehow confidence that there would be a better future coming along because of this short-term downward blip. The second, however, and I think this is very important, has been an acceleration of movement of peoples around the world. And so I think that the rise of nativism is an experience of people seeing so much variety around them that they were not accustomed to. This is something I think we need to focus on understanding better. So, the population of United States is foreign-born, has reached another peak. The previous one was in the 1920s. What happened in the 1920s? The rebirth of the KKK. And I don’t think that was accidental. The KKK was of course a movement against African-American people to keep them down, but it was also against foreigners, Catholics especially.

20:08 Trevor Burrus: Catholics.

20:09 Tom Palmer: Absolutely. So it was very much an anti-foreigner identitarian movement. It, of course, fortunately declined. But, now various versions of that, the updated form in which they don’t wear white robes but instead they’re on the internet, has arisen. And then similarly in Europe and I think one of the big triggering events of course was the somewhat un-German, unprepared blurting out by Mrs. Merkel, “Wir schaffen das.” “We can do it.” To let in refugees and to do so in a very haphazard and chaotic way. She didn’t even bother to consult with all the countries they had to walk across. So, you had these mass caravans of desperate people fleeing a terrible war. That generated the sense of being under siege and invaded. And I think this is a major trigger. So to understand that, I think that the work of Karen Stenner who is a political psychologist, extraordinarily lucid writer, very interesting, she identifies triggers for what she calls authoritarian groupiness. And I take groupiness to be, essentially, the psychological and affective or emotional characteristic of populism.

21:30 Tom Palmer: And those are normative threats, threats to the persistence of the order that you have come to see as being stable, as part of the normal world. Those things can change, and people can accommodate them. But, when they’re suddenly seen as very rapid and dramatic, many people have a sense of being displaced. And the response, of course, is to pull together and to say, “We’re us against them.” So, foreigners or immigrants are very common target as the enemy and, of course, all of the elites who bring them in. And we hear all the antisemitic horrors that the Jews have tried to bring in all these Muslims into Europe and Mexicans into America so they have a cheap labor for us to displace the white people. All this bilge that you see on the Internet, if you bother to dive into it, is connected to this experience of this invasion. And, it’s a perfect setting for the emergence of a anti-libertarian collectivist ideologies.

22:31 Aaron Ross Powell: What does that then mean for pushing back against it or addressing it? So, a lot of the times, a lot of populism gets blamed. A lot of people think it has to do with economic anxiety. And you tend to reject largely that thesis. But, if we look at it from the economic anxiety and say, “Well, yes, there’s these people. There’s categories of people. There’s demographics where the jobs that they had have dried up due to trade and innovation and so on. And, we can see that that actually has harmed them. They are legitimately hurting. And we should feel for them. Then we can make the argument to them that they’re maybe misdiagnosing the causes, that embracing these populus leaders isn’t actually going to bring those jobs back, isn’t actually going to help them. But, you can have them argue on a set of shared terms, which is that people ought to have… It’s good if people have meaningful work that they can support themselves on.

23:31 Aaron Ross Powell: But if the story that you’re telling is the case and that what they’re fundamentally objecting to and what’s causing them to rally behind populus leaders is, “I don’t like that other people have free movement. I don’t like that my group, which was, for historical reasons, privileged, is now less privileged not because I’ve been torn down but because we now have more respect for women than we did. We now have more respect for minorities. We have more respect for foreigners. We have more respect for other religious groups, for gays and so on.” That’s what’s really upset them. That seems like something that’s much harder to find common ground on, that they see that their fundamental objection seems to be that other people have more opportunities and are leading better lives. And that pisses me off. And so how do you then talk to them or debate them or begin a conversation with them if that’s the crux of it. If what they fundamentally want is the world to not be as good for these other people as it could be.

24:35 Tom Palmer: Well, those are hard questions. And as I indicated in the piece I did for Reason Magazine, you have to go and look at the data on this. There’s not a theoretical answer per se to these kinds of factual questions. I do think that the purely economic explanation is not very compelling. And a couple of reasons: One, is Poland is an example. They did not suffer the economic crisis. They’ve had pretty robust economic growth rates. And they’ve been taken over by very extreme populist movement, the Law and Justice Party, that’s led by Korchinsky. So, there are number of outliers like that. The other thing is, and here this is an issue that’s highly contested but I’ll be willing to argue the stance with people, I don’t think that there has been an actual decline in living standards. People say, “Wages have been flat or declining.” This is just not the case. And, many attempts to measure these things focus on what deflator is used on the price indices and so on. But when you actually look at consumption, the measurable consumption that people in the lower income groups below the median income, they’re all greater than they were in the past.

25:50 Tom Palmer: So, wealth and consumption are rising. What I think we should focus on is something that’s more difficult for classical liberals to focus on. We haven’t done it in the past and that is relative standing, falling relative position. So, it’s been common for free market-oriented people classic liberals say, “Look. A rising tide lifts all boats as John Kennedy said.” This is good. Everyone’s getting better off. Some get better off at faster rates. So, who complains? Even John Rawls said “Well, if it’s to the advantage of the least advantaged group, how could you complain about an inequality?” But, it turns out that we’re as social primates not only concerned about how well I do compared to how well I did in the past, but how well I’m doing compared to you. And if I see newcomers coming in and moving up rapidly, or groups that were unknown of in the past seeming to get various preferences, it can generate a very strong resentment.

26:48 Tom Palmer: One of the other things that is quite striking, that I think is correlative to this in the United States, is the decline in labor mobility. This is a kind of a puzzle. Why is it that since these stats have been held, labor mobility in the United States is at a low. In the past, people would move. If there wasn’t a job where you were and there was new industry or job opening up in California or New York or wherever it was, people moved there. And, now they don’t. That could be a combination of economic policy, licensing laws that make it very difficult. They’re at an all-time peak to take your qualifications across the borders. All kinds of other unemployment compensation. And that’s an empirical question, I think deserves a lot more research. But, it’s not the case that somehow people lack the opportunity. For some reason, they are not taking advantage of it, but they do resent this infusion in the US I call them the M&M’s, Mexicans and Muslims, that have been targeted by President Trump as the invaders into our society. And it’s very easy to load all of your problems onto them.

27:58 Tom Palmer: So, I’m not convinced that the economic distress, per se, is the problem. Some people on the left like John Judis have argued this. I didn’t find it very convincing, but I do think the loss of relative position seems to be a major driver. Let me just mention very quickly. If somebody rises in a relative ranking, someone has to fall. That’s not true in absolute well-being. And the groups that have fallen, think about white males who don’t have college schooling in the United States, tend to be the ones most drawn to populism. They’re the ones who saw their relative social status fall most dramatically, even though their absolute standard of well-being continued to improve.

28:51 Aaron Ross Powell: But I guess, then, if that’s what’s motivating it, how do we, not necessarily us as libertarians, but even the standard liberal institutions that have governed this country for quite a long time, how do they respond. So, if it’s like you’ve lost your job because the factory went to Mexico, we have things like Trade Adjustment insurance, which we can argue about whether that works or not. The government can grant you something that can potentially get you to where you want to be, but if your concern is, “My status is not as relatively high compared to women as it used to be.” What do you offer someone like that? Because we can’t offer them like, “Well, we’ll decrease the status of women a little bit.”

29:40 Tom Palmer: No, of course not. First off, on the question of Trade Adjustment Assistance, I’m not a fan of those things. I don’t think that they work very well.

29:47 Aaron Ross Powell: Sure, but they’re conceptually the kind of thing that…

29:49 Tom Palmer: I understand. The better one is to let new industries and firms grow rather than regulating them to death. This is one of the areas where I think that the current administration in the United States has achieved some positive successes, which is putting the breaks on the growth of the regulatory state. They haven’t done much roll-back, but they have stopped the rapid acceleration. And I think that’s been a very, very good thing. I’d like to see more of that to create even more hope and opportunity for people to create something better for themselves. I’d like to see getting rid of licensing laws that create so many guilds that people are excluded from, and in particular, people who don’t have college degrees. We have created a system in the United States of privileging college and then cementing all these guilds that makes it very hard for someone to advance in that context. Finally, though, I do think that one element that our political systems have failed to address is one that I alluded to about Germany and Mrs. Merkel’s blurting out how we’ll deal with that issue.

30:54 Tom Palmer: When people perceive immigration as disorderly, they perceive it as an invasion. And I’d think, although I’m generally skeptical of conspiracy thinking, that there has been little effort to make US immigration procedures orderly. The more chaos at the border, the more the populists thrive because they use this as an issue. We could, in fact, make immigration procedures far more orderly, far more law-governed, and allow people to get visas at US consulates and embassies in other countries, to get work permits, to have a temporary work program or worker visa program, guest worker, whatever you want to call it where people would come, work do things where they create value for the society as well as for themselves and then go back home. And I think that would dissipate a great deal of this resentment. That’s a policy decision that’s pretty low-hanging fruit. But, I don’t think many people wanna go for it.

31:54 Trevor Burrus: You mentioned collectivism. We have this emerging or already here, it’s not even just Donald Trump but like say Tucker Carlson with his right wing collectivism that itself is kind of bizarre, and Josh Hawley. So we have people who are… Is it a form of populism, I guess, is my question when you have Tucker Carlson playing with the idea of banning smartphones to teenagers or Josh Hawley regulating smart phones? And this kind of idea that they’ve completely jettisoned anything that was ever libertarian about what they believe and said, “We need to make people better at actualizing themselves into moral and free individuals.”

32:36 Tom Palmer: I wouldn’t characterize those as particularly populist ideas. They’re elitist, if anything. But, I do think that the new nationalism that has been articulated, which runs parallel, you often find these different ideas entwined in various ways. That’s not very surprising. Nationalism and what they’re calling now national conservatism is very much allied to populism. Yoram Hazony, whose book on “The Virtues of Nationalism” was an interesting read. I think it was a tissue of historical fabrication and just really, really bad history, just a surge things, ex cathedra. This is the foundation of order of this, that, the other. So there’s virtually no history in the book, and what there is, is laughable. But, he comes from Israel to the US and says, “You all should be nationalists and national conservatism and your identity.”

33:31 Tom Palmer: There’s a sub-text, by the way, that’s a little bit ugly about that, which is that he is effectively arguing as America as a country that is not a home for Jews. And, I really found that irritating as someone who wants to live in a pluralistic society where people are not singled out, that there’s an ethnic or religious identity to the country. And, effectively, his message is this is not a country for Jews. You have your own Anglo-Saxon blah, blah, blah, heritage. So, he wants a global, international movement of nationalisms. And of course, nationalism and populism can go together very well because, as you mentioned earlier, the ethnic identity is a very powerful message of who we are. We are the Germans, the French, whatever it happens to be. That’s us. And, those others, they’re just not us. They speak a different language or have a different religion, whatever it happens to be.

34:28 Tom Palmer: So, I do think the national conservatism is very much allied with populism, although you can find some elements of it that are different. Mention one other thing. It’s very different from traditional conservativism, especially of the sort that traces its lineage to Edmund Burke because they flatten out social heterogeneity. Everyone is immersed into the mass of the nation. And, this is a common feature of nationalism as well. Nationalism smashes and destroys older social orders and institutions, some of which we might consider odious in any case, some not. But, all of them are to be smashed to create a homogenized nation, which all of us see eye to eye equally as members of the nation, and of course, led by some great ruler or leader. So, national conservatism and populism seem to have something in common.

35:27 Tom Palmer: The last element is there are all in opposition to each other because French nationalists and German nationalists don’t like each. Hungarian nationalists and Slovak nationalists hate each other. So, the idea of an internationale of nationalist or populist movements means they’re all united to destroy liberal society, a society of co-existence and toleration and pluralism and peace. And once they do that, they will turn on each other.

36:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Historically, populist revolutions have not turned out all that well. We look, to look at Venezuela right now. Things aren’t going all that well. And if the motivation behind the populist revolution in the beginning is a group of people who call themselves The People have a set of grievances and think that investing a great deal of power in this guy and identity in this guy will address those grievances. Has that ever worked? Are there instances of populist revolutions that turned out okay for the people who called for them in the first place, or where their grievances actually got addressed not that we necessarily want them to be, but where it’s actually happen, or have they always turned out as catastrophes for not just the people who the anger is directed at but for the people directing the anger to begin with?

36:56 Tom Palmer: That’s kind of hard to range over all of human history in one question. I do think in general that those movements that denigrade democratic or republican deliberation, which is a common feature of populism. “Enough talk. The hour of action has arrived,” as Steve Bannon wrote for Donald Trump in his inaugural address. “The hour of action has arrived. Enough empty talk.” Those don’t end well because once you have eliminated the procedures of deliberation and consultation and put everything into action that you have to do something decisively, you end up with a system that is no longer connected to the information feedback that can correct errors. And so I think that there’s a general tendency for that not to end well.

37:51 Trevor Burrus: Is there a relationship on some of these with the perpetual crisis mode or there’s a looming crisis, as you said, “We have to act now?” That is often true of other political times. I mean, we have Bob Higgs and “Crisis and Leviathan.” And, we know that that’s when things often happen, but I see coming from some people in the Trump world. We had flight 93 election. We had this is the last best hope we can actually save, I don’t know, I wouldn’t call it liberalism. But, it was Western democracy or something like this. And then we have a crisis coming from the left, a few of them, but one of them is the Green New Deal. For example, the crisis of climate change. Maybe these are not commensurate type of things, but do those help fuel populist movements, too?

38:37 Tom Palmer: I don’t think that those are a necessary ingredient. They’re always popping up in various democratic issues. There are crisis moments or important issues that galvanize the country or may polarize it in various ways. What’s striking in this case is not that we have an issue that we have to address, think about a war where you’re threatened with invasion. Of course, that generates pulling together, and so on. But the idea that the people on the other side are the enemy, not the common people that we want to help by solving the problem, whether it’s global warming or whatever it happens to be, but somehow we have to be at war with the enemy, and the enemy is internal to our society. As La Cloud mentions, again, we have to articulate an internal frontier within the population between the people and the enemy of the people, and that does not end well for liberal pluralistic societies.

39:34 Tom Palmer: Someone is targeted for annihilation in the extreme case, or constant persecution in less extreme cases. And so, I don’t think that it’s just crises which pop up various times. Crisis is an opportunity for politicians to seize power, and we’ve seen that over and over again. That’s a common feature of even normal democratic societies. But when you say we’re fighting against the enemy, and that’s the characteristic, that means that you’re going to effectively eliminate the voice of the enemy from political discourse, and that means you’ve short-circuited the entire information system that can correct theirs.

40:20 Trevor Burrus: That does seem more like the “Flight 93” type of crisis, I’m putting that in air quotes, ‘cause I did identify the enemy as being the modern Democrat, they’re the ones who destroy life as opposed to something like global warming, which is a function of nature, not a function of cultural change or something like this, but you do see a desire to shut down, say, people who’s denial-warming in various ways and to desire to shut down both sides of speech…

[overlapping conversation]

40:47 Tom Palmer: Yes, that’s right. We’ve seen all of these deep platforming movements of various kinds and people demanding others not be allowed to speak, not be allowed to disagree, they’re demonized. I’m very concerned about the polarization in European and American societies in which the people who disagree with me are my enemies and I shouldn’t allow them to speak because all they’re doing is spilling lies, they’re just lying to you. So shut them up, de-platform them, ban them and so on. That is not a healthy development. And I think that the idea, which is really at the root of the best formulation of democracy that was articulated by Cleisthenes in Athens that we can have deliberation and if you lose the vote, you don’t get punished for having lost.

41:38 Tom Palmer: That’s really central. The idea of the loyal opposition, that is to say that once you have been in power and you lost power, you don’t start blowing up train stations and murdering people. You say, “Now we’re the opposition because we’re loyal to the Constitution and we will oppose you or challenge you and ask hard questions and investigate you. And then if you lose power, we won’t kill you. We’re gonna go into power and you’ll be the loyal opposition.”

42:05 Tom Palmer: That’s a really important institution, and it’s actually underappreciated as a historical achievement, the idea of the loyal opposition. And I think that the very idea is under attack when the President refers to the other party as guilty of treason. Treason, because they didn’t applaud loudly enough. That really shocked me to have the other side accused of treason and constantly being called traitors because they’re not applauding the President when he gives some speech. This is incompatible with the persistence of a constitutional order.

42:45 Aaron Ross Powell: Does that mean, looking at our current environment, that has the Republican Party become a populist party?

42:52 Trevor Burrus: More so or at least maybe more so, or both sides, or…

42:55 Tom Palmer: I would have to say both parties have been moving in that direction very robustly, and one feeds the other. That’s one of the points about these things. When one side says you’re the enemy, then the other side is gonna say, “No, you’re the enemy. We’re both the true people.” And so, I do think that’s a very disturbing trend. And the Republican Party that I was accustomed to seeing as part of the political landscape, I think is, it’s dying or at least very sick because of this notion that it’s all focused in one man in this recent decision to eliminate the party primaries was an example of that. It’s just going to be a re-coronation of the, THE leader of the party. And then same thing on the democratic side, the attacks on Republicans as just bad people.

43:50 Tom Palmer: And finally, I mentioned one of these disturbing things that goes along with it, and I think it’s in the Pew survey, the peaking of the numbers of people who would object if their children were to marry people from the other party. That’s just so bizarre and so strange, that now we have this taboo that I wouldn’t want the other party to contaminate or pollute my family. This is very, very disturbing. It’s kind of funny because for most of my life, I thought myself kind of a radical ‘cause I was in favor of cutting way back on the government and getting military commitments and ending the war on drugs and allowing gay people to marry and all these wild ideas. And now that I’m older, I feel I’m a centrist, that the things that I have wanted all my life under attack from the far right and the far left populists. And what I want is a society in which people can have their differences, but they can ultimately live together in peace.

44:57 Aaron Ross Powell: Then looking forward, one of the… There’s a theory out there that people have is that what we’re seeing is a realignment right now away from the traditional left and right, as we understood it, and towards populism on the one hand and cosmopolitanism of some sort on the other. But it sounds like if you think both parties are moving in a populist direction, that you don’t think that’s the realignment that we’re gonna get.

45:24 Tom Palmer: I’m not sure that’s what’s gonna happen in the United States. That may be the case in some European countries where I think that’s a possible outcome. In the US, I think that, sad to say that the Republican Party has been moving more populist, but also it looks like that the wind is in the sails of that in the Democratic Party, we’ll see. Maybe they’ll put up Joe Biden and he’s kind of a known quantity and disagree with him on lots of things but he’s not likely to burn the house down. So, that might be stopped, we will see, but I think that there’s so much anger in United States. Anger, resentment, rage, and hatred. And these are like the fuel of populist movements and I think, really, it’s incumbent on libertarians to try to be the dampers to say, “Let’s try to have a politics where we don’t hate other people, where you and I might disagree about something, but I don’t have to lust for your death.” And that is, unfortunately, the kind of rhetoric that we’re seeing from the left and the right in United States today is, I want the other side to die. And ultimately, it’s shocking to me, it’s reinforced my radical libertarian centricism.


47:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, write and review us on Apple Podcast, or in your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Ayres. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.