Every government shares two aims: to be legitimate and to be good. The problem is that these goals are increasingly at odds.
In our present era, the only route to legitimacy is through democracy. Yet good government is impossible without limiting democracy in some way. Conservatives once stood staunchly in favor of these limits, but a small revolution has occurred. Conservatives who once regarded human nature as flawed and sought to restrain it have transformed into populists who fully embrace the anger and desire of the American id.
This outcome is natural under the logic of democratic legitimacy, which breeds greater and greater hostility towards institutional and cultural limits on the individual will. As that hostility builds, effective government is eventually sacrificed at its altar, rendering populist fury self-defeating. Conservative leaders must chart a different way forward, one that respects their voters’ anger while still retaining enough governing competence to solve the problems that caused it.
Democracy’s Downward Spiral
As Plato explained millennia ago, democratic government has a self-destructive tendency: “too much freedom seems to change into nothing but too much slavery.” Once the people are in charge, they seek to remove institutional checks on their will, which clears the way for populist strongmen who claim to govern directly on behalf of the people. Limits on the popular will are necessary for good government, but democracy contains within itself no limiting principle.
The Founding Fathers believed that the people were the only legitimate source of political authority, but they also shared Plato’s fear. Alexander Hamilton echoed Plato when he noted, “If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into dictatorship.” They balanced democratic legitimacy with the requirements of good government by erecting all kinds of institutional limits on the amount of power the sovereign people could directly wield. Senators would be indirectly elected by state legislatures, and each state would get two, regardless of population. The president would be chosen by an Electoral College whose members could exercise independent judgment. Federal judges would be appointed, not elected, to life terms, and could overrule democratic legislation as unconstitutional. A “contract clause” was added to the Constitution to prevent democratic majorities from voting to erase their debts. The franchise would be sharply restricted to wealthy, educated men.
But the Founders’ solution contained a dangerous flaw: once you’ve conceded the point that the people are the only legitimate source of authority, every check on that authority—both political and cultural—starts to look illegitimate. All that is not chosen becomes suspect, and duty gets progressively displaced by right.
Which is why the history of the Founders’ lovingly crafted checks on popular authority has been one of whittling them away, sometimes for the better, increasingly for the worse. The franchise has been enormously expanded. It may yet be further expanded to include children. Senators are directly elected, and the Electoral College’s days are numbered. The contract clause was neutered in the 1930s—enforcing it in the depths of the Depression was too unpopular. The odds that Supreme Court judgeships will forever remain lifetime presidential appointments are approximately 0 percent. The drum beats ominously to abolish the Senate itself.
This logic, of course, extends to other extra-constitutional limits on democracy. Political parties, whose expertise and long-term incentives once provided a check on voters, began to be brought to heel in the 1960s with primary elections. Party superdelegates were initially left in place to provide a modicum of institutionalized restraint, but now we’re running them out of town on a rail. In Congress, the Hastert Rule exiled deliberation and independent judgment and replaced them with rote majoritarianism. We’ve recently started questioning central bank independence. National security agencies are now the “deep state,” despised as an existential threat to democracy. Trump’s election was thus only one event in a trend against mediating institutions that has been building for generations, uncorked by the very logic of democratic legitimacy.
New incentives governing information production have supercharged this trend. Web-based business models place unprecedented pressure on journalists to please their audiences. Users, hearing what they want to hear, feel that they have a firm grip on the Truth without the need for mediating institutions, like a Reformation for information. The trouble is that they mostly want to hear lizard brain stories of treachery, conspiracy, and intergroup conflict. This results in a quick journey from Reformation to apocalypse: the public becomes more convinced than ever of its omniscience despite never being more compromised.
If we have reason to suspect that an ongoing intensification of this process will eventually run aground of good policy, it poses an enormous problem. And we do. The governance records of populist regimes are mostly dismal. Witness already the utter incompetence of the Brexiteers to formulate a cogent strategy. Witness the chaos that reigns across the American administrative state, unconstitutional or not. Witness the election of a know-nothing bereft of a single public accomplishment to the Brazilian presidency. Witness Marine Le Pen’s inability to govern a political party, let alone a country. Witness the disastrous governance of the Italian Five Star Movement whose cities choke on garbage.
Poland and Hungary stand out for their healthy economic growth, which has been enabled by massive European Union subsidies and incentives that encourage businesses in the UK and other wealthier European economies to offshore to poorer ones. The sums dwarf the Marshall Plan. In 2016, Victor Orbán’s government received 374 euros from the EU for every Hungarian. Since 2004, Poland has received almost $150 billion in EU aid. Their success is enabled by the very institution that their voters reward them for promising to dismantle.
Plato was right: the unconstrained will of the people eventually produces bad outcomes. Voters only become more convinced of their omniscience over time, and less accepting of moderating institutions and norms that attempt to limit their power for the sake of good government. Democracy therefore cannot supply its own limits. If we want government that is both legitimate and good, we must peek over democracy’s ramparts and seek a limiting factor.
Conservatism as a Check
Those limiting factors were once provided by conservatism. Historical conservatives were, to put it mildly, skeptical of the untrammeled will of the people. They backed forces that limited it: religion, hierarchy, and respect for tradition. These forces often had more to do with culture than government design. The moral foundations particular to conservatism—deference to authority, loyalty to the group, purification of man’s fallen nature—are tailor-made rebuttals to the idea that our appetites should be satisfied immediately.
But once popular sovereignty is conceded and man is his own master, none of these limiting factors pass the legitimacy test, because in the age of popular legitimacy, nothing is legitimate that limits the individual will.
The cultural apotheosis of this process may be the decline in organized religion, the collapse of marriage rates, and the explosion of out-of-wedlock births—criticism of which is heretical because individual choice is sacred. But these things were not chosen. The social rot afflicting the heartland is the result of economic policies that cast off the American working class as an inefficient impediment to growth. Alienation from work has produced alienation from the communitarian systems that moderate behavior: regions that saw increased competition from Chinese imports subsequently saw lower marriage rates and higher out-of-wedlock birthrates. Structure and restraint, absent from social life, are thereafter banished from politics. And it’s only going to get worse: the percentage of prime-age men out of the labor force has grown from 13 percent in 1990 to 20 percent today. The Left’s solution is to cut them a check, memorializing their powerlessness.
That helps explain why our era’s populism is conservative and not something else. Voters have issued a clear indictment of the cosmopolitan consensus that robbed them of agency and identity. They rejected a globalist settlement that put them out of dignified work and told them they were compensated because consumer goods were cheaper. They chose as their champions not socialists promising redistribution but conservatives promising identity. This has split conservatives into two opposing camps: populist levelers who want elite heads on pikes and Never Trumpers who howl for the adults in the room to restore the Reagan-era order. They’re both wrong. The conservative project should be to respect voters without abandoning conservative skepticism of pure majoritarianism. Call it post-globalism.
A post-globalist policy agenda would embrace important elements of Trumpian nationalism by limiting low-skill immigration, subsidizing workers’ wages, imposing tariffs on Chinese imports, and boosting antitrust enforcement. But this agenda would shear off those parts of the Trump platform that thrill the base at the expense of our long-term civic health—the gratuitous family separation policy, the ham-fisted travel ban, the profligate use of executive orders to upend precedent, the open hostility to expertise, the patronage of conspiracy theories. A post-globalist, “smart Trumpist” agenda would sacrifice the fervor of the far right for the chance to prove itself to other voters through good government. Crucially, such competence would likewise put an end to the chaos that zombie Reaganites exploit on behalf of corporate interests—most egregiously in a tax bill that rewarded offshoring and stock buybacks.
That is what is required for conservatism to be both responsive to voters and loyal to its own legacy of checking them when they err. It’s the only way to return to the Founders’ vision of a democracy that is both legitimate and good.
Donald Trump inaugurated a new paradigm. Conservatives wistful for the old order are up against a cultural tsunami they cannot stop and a voter base that never really cared about free markets. They should instead apply themselves to the only task that matters: preventing populist anger from devouring the chance to actually solve the problems it identifies. Success would produce an effective, popular governing agenda—and a chance to save democracy from its own contradictions.
Nicholas Phillips is a law student and writer whose work has been featured in National Review, The Weekly Standard, Quillette, and others. Follow him on Twitter @nicholas_c_p.