RealClearPolicy Newsletters: Original Articles

Our Populist Moment

Our Populist Moment
AP Photo/John Minchillo

Dear Reader — 

Americans have always felt uneasy about the concept of social class. The Constitution, of course, proscribes titles of nobility, and American culture is essentially middle class. Even the “silk-stockinged” elite who governed the country at its founding and, later, the old Northeastern establishment prized — or, at any rate, paid lip service to — bourgeois virtues such as self-reliance, self-control, and industriousness.

At its best, this middle-class ethos is the natural expression of a meritocratic system in which social distinction is the fruit of individual achievement, rather than accident of birth. Of course, this ethos can sometimes paper over genuine inequality or the contingent factors that minimize the equality of opportunity upon which a genuine meritocracy depends. At its worst, it can delude members of the elite into believing they are just like everyone else, exculpating them from any moral obligations to the less fortunate. 

To be sure, the concept of class has sometimes played key roles in our political history — think of the Jacksonian moment or the New Deal. But the rhetoric of “class” is not characteristic of American political discourse in general. Until recently, the word was almost taboo in political speech, and it was considered unseemly to stoke “class resentment.” 

This was especially true in recent years. In the Democratic Party, social progressivism was married to technocratic “neo-liberalism,” while the Republicans preached a hybrid of classical liberalism, social conservatism, and economic libertarianism. Class distinctions, in this context, are either the unfortunate result of barriers to opportunity or inevitable hierarchies that spur the industrious to climb the ladders of opportunity. (It’s true that Barack Obama appealed at times to populist concerns, for which he was pilloried as inciting “class warfare.”) It was therefore surprising — though not, perhaps, in retrospect — that the 2016 election was all about class. Even more surprising, perhaps — though, once again, not in retrospect — was that populist resentment found expression in the party of free markets, rather than the erstwhile party of labor. 

Today, the primary task for Republicans is to figure out how, not whether, to accommodate populism. Democrats, for their part, are still debating whether and how to win back the working class. Conservatives will say that a left-wing populism can produce only woolly-headed economics that stifles innovation and curbs economic liberty. And progressives (and some conservatives) continue to fear the rise of right-wing nationalism.

But perhaps there is a silver lining to our populist moment. At its best, populism can temper the technocratic impulse of the Democratic Party as well as humanize the economic rationalism of the GOP. Our constitutional system, meanwhile, can discipline populism, allowing it expression within boundaries, while curbing its excesses. On the Right, at least, the result could be what the late political philosopher Peter Augustine Lawler called “libertarian means in the service of non-libertarian ends.” 

These are some of the many issues taken up at RealClearPolicy over the past week. Below you will find just a few highlights.

— M. Anthony Mills, editor | RealClearPolicy

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The Democrats’ “Working-Class Problem.” In The American Prospect, Stanley Greenberg argues that Democrats have a problem not only with the white working class, but their party’s base as well. 

Liberalism Now More Than Ever. In Democracy, Kevin Mattson urges fellow progressives not to abandon classical liberalism.

Trump’s Budget Is What Class Warfare Looks Like. Talk Poverty’s Greg Kaufmann contends that the president’s budget proposal undercuts his populist rhetoric. 

What If We Replaced All Social Programs with Basic Income? Vox’s Dylan Matthews considers the potential consequences of a popular economic proposal.

Inside Trump’s War on Regulations. For Politico Nancy Cook and Andrew Restuccia document the Trump administration’s successful rolling back of Obama-era rules 

Populism’s False Start. For National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru and Rich Lowry make the case that, on policy, Trump’s has been a “fairly conventional Republican administration.” 

What Conservatives Can Learn from Theresa May. In our own pages, Sean Speer argues the British prime minister's policy agenda is a good starting point for conservatives across the Atlantic.

Jeff Sessions Just Wants to Enforce the Law. Also in our pages, Thomas Ascik applauds the attorney general's efforts to roll back the Obama administration's crime policies. 

A More Moderate Diversity. In National Affairs, Elizabeth Corey critiques the progressive concept of diversity and proposes an alternative.

Gottlieb’s FDA Should Focus on Food Safety. Also in RealClearPolicy, Richard Williams offers advice to the new head of the Food and Drug Administration.

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