Demagoguery and Populism

Law and Liberty is one of my favorite sites, as you’ve probably noticed.  They, like me but far better, tend to the underlying principles rather than the day to day atrocities of politics these days. Like reading Locke and Burke to understand conservatism, it gives one a base to judge daily happenings. I think that valuable. I also think it is what leads so many leftists astray, not having any base. It’s one thing to argue, say the British welfare state based on the context of the old poor law, it’s quite another to simply talk yell about how unfair it is to some identity politics grouping.

And so once again we go to Law and Liberty, this time to Charles  Zug on the differences and similarities between Demagoguery and Populism. Again it’s a fairly long article so you’re going to need to read it there to make complete sense of what I say. It’s worth the time.

In recent years—particularly since Brexit, Trump’s 2016 election, and the rise of figures such as Marine Le Pen and Victor Orbán—the terms populism and demagoguery have come to be used with increased frequency in political discourse. And yet, the concepts which these terms refer to remain unclear—as testified by the emergence of books (scholarly and general-audience) purporting to clarify what it is, precisely, that makes a demagogue and a populist. Adding to, or perhaps resulting from, this general lack of clarity is the fact that demagoguery and populism tend to be used interchangeably, often to describe those now-familiar political figures whose characteristic attributes include raging against neo-liberalism and globalization in the name of ordinary people, condemning “elites” of all stripes, and advocating a return to traditional local or nationalistic values, particularly as these regard religion, gender, and race.

The temptation to group these two concepts together is understandable, and in some ways, useful. Demagogues are often populists and populists frequently use demagoguery. Yet beyond their obvious similarities, these terms stand for distinct political concepts.

Practical Difficulties

Before saying what makes them different, however, it is worth observing the way populism and demagoguery are used in the context of real life politics. Because politicians and pundits so often weaponize these terms, public figures labeled “populists” and “demagogues” have a personal stake in denying either the appropriateness of the designation as it regards them, or the tenability of the very concept itself.

And yet there is no real problem with either of them. Populism is not quite a synonym but its meaning is really pretty close to democracy, while to demagogue essentially means to present to the people with passion. And yet, they have developed a bad reputation because of some bad actors, like Hitler and Mussolini. But nobody is going to say than Andrew Jackson wasn’t a populist demagogue, and he was a pretty good president.

For understanding why demagoguery and populism so often accompany one another, the American experience is particularly informative—though by no means exhaustive. The founders of the American political system recognized that the structure of a large polity housing a multiplicity of interests would incentivize discrete interest groups to assemble coalitions. This in turn would induce interest groups to deliberate among each other in ways they would otherwise not, so as to find the broadest and most stable bases of mutual support and therewith assurance of effective and enduring governance.

The founders also chose to lodge the regime’s ultimate (thought not its only) political authority, not in State and local governments as the Anti-Federalists would have done, but rather in national constitutional offices far removed from local constituents. Consequently, national office-holders were insulated from the pressures to which the leaders of small democracies had been notoriously subject. More importantly, the goals and priorities of national officeholders were reoriented away from the narrow and parochial concerns of their own communities towards the broader and more enduring concerns of the Union. To this end, James Madison in Federalist 10 anticipated that the effect of these national offices on public policy would be “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

I agree with him, and yet,  as the federal government has taken over more and more things that used to be in the purview of state and local government, who actually probably understood their constituents better than the faceless bureaucrats in Washington, it has gotten out of hand. What was an excellent idea, like all excellent ideas,  has come to be abused, and wants correcting. It’s a problem when you delegate to people who often self-describe as an ‘elite’, start to believe they know what I want or need better than I do.

I think we are going to be looking at aspects of this in the coming days, so remember what is in this article. I’m neither Locke nor Burke,  but I do have some idea of what ails us.

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14 Responses to Demagoguery and Populism

  1. Scoop says:

    Demagoguery is quite right:

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nicholas says:

    I have spent some thought on these intractable problems and one of the chapters in my Brexit book touches on some of these themes.

    I don’t think there is an ideal government really. Some are better than others, but none is immune from corruption. You have to win the people’s hearts, ultimately. Your Revolution/War of Independence came at a time when your nation had people who largely feared God. There were some dubious characters, of course, and some roughness that subsequent years would smooth out. But essentially you had good people-stock to work with then.


    Liked by 2 people

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