Home/Daniel Larison/Conservatives, Not Populists (II)

Conservatives, Not Populists (II)

Samuel Goldman at Postmodern Conservative responds to the previous post with a fair point:

Does that mean that they can’t also be populists? I’m not sure. On the one hand, populism can refer a particular tradition of redistributionist, anti-corporate, usually agrarian political ideas. Most Tea Partiers reject that tradition. On the other hand, populism can describe a conception of the appropriate relation between governors and governed in a representative democracy. On this view, policy should be much more closely tied to public opinion, or to direct popular decision, than to the judgment of legislative or bureaucratic elites.

Many of the Tea Partiers, it seems to me, are populists in the latter sense. If you prefer, call them plebiscitarians rather than populists.

Goldman could be right that plebiscitarian describes Tea Partiers better. Let’s think about this. 84% of the respondents said that they believe their views “reflect the views of most Americans,” so that as far as they are concerned they speak for the majority on policy. However, to the extent that Tea Partiers actually are strongly in favor of spending cuts and deficit reduction as top priorities, they do not reflect the views of most. On entitlement spending, for example, Tea Partiers’ views are more in line with the views of the general public, but this is because most Tea Partiers do not support reductions in entitlement spending. It seems likely that the Tea Partiers are speaking for an imaginary majority that would approve of shrinking government and cutting spending. My guess is that most Tea Partiers would be plebiscitarian only as long as they believed that they represent a majority.

The attention of Tea Party protests is pretty much entirely trained on the federal government and what it does. Congress remains an institution of representatives that is not constrained or guided by the sort of popular initiatives and referenda that progressive political reforms made possible in many states. The institution the protesters loathe and want to influence is one of the institutions least bound by “direct popular decision.” Originally, initiative and referendum mechanisms were designed to enable citizens to get around state legislatures dominated by wealthy and well-connected interests, but I don’t know of anyone on the right, Tea Partier or not, who would favor something like a national referendum to get around the “judgment of legislative or bureaucratic elites.” Failing something like a referendum, I’m not sure how federal policy would be “closely tied to public opinion” in this way, unless the idea is to craft legislation according to fluctuating poll numbers that are quite malleable and potentially misleading.

Conservatives actually know very well that they do not speak for a majority in this country, and they are also well aware that changes that would allow for more direct, plebiscitary democracy, whether in presidential elections or in passing legislation, would work to the detriment of their smaller states and their overall political interests. There is a Jeffersonian tradition available to conservatives that could make them more sympathetic to critiques of concentrated wealth and power and distributist and agrarian ideas for keeping such things in check, and this would not necessarily be at odds with the interests of smaller states and conservative interests, but as Goldman correctly observes most Tea Partiers and most conservatives generally reject that tradition. When they have married themselves to a centralist and corporatist party, how could they not?

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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