To hear some people talk about it, the rambunctious state of politics in the English-speaking world is merely about the various presenting issues—as in, whatever the next vote is going to be about.
And of course, in some sense we have to grant that the issue, whatever it is, is the issue. But the issue is never the only issue—there are at least two layers underneath whatever the issue might be. The presenting issue could be impeachment, or Brexit, or an oil pipeline, or trade negotiations with China, and so on, and there we all are, each with our hot take on it. All kinds of people who are all over the map can have their sundry and various takes.
But underneath those issues are the political worldviews, of which the two basic alternatives currently are conservatism and progressivism. These frameworks mean that there will usually be a certain consistency across the various responses to the various issues, with one faction tending to trust the state with adoring eyes and the other not so much, looking sideways at the state with squinty eyes. This is the layer that those with a consistent political viewpoint are often most concerned about. It is worth remembering that those who have a consistent political framework of interpretation are relatively few in number.
But there remains a third layer. We have now gotten to the point where numerous events are manifestly being driven by the next layer down, much to the consternation of those who limit themselves to the specific pros and cons of [insert issue here], and much to the even greater consternation of those who have an integrated political framework (that makes sense to them), but that seems to have lost a great deal of its influence and predictive power.
This is not all that strange for the progressives because their worldview never did have all that much predictive power, the world of their actual outcomes being crammed full of surprises, but it is truly strange for the conservatives, whose worldview happens to be largely true. This is why they used to be able to tell you exactly what would happen if you passed and then implemented House Bill #171 Much Stupid Policy Reform Bill (MSPRB). Conservatives would predict the inevitable consequences, and lo, the consequences arrived.
So what is this next layer down? What is causing all the current commotion? How could there be another layer down? How is the next layer down any different?
The next layer down can be identified as the general public coming to perceive the wholesale corruption of the ruling class, with that corruption pervading both political parties.
Elites and Normals
Because of this corruption, the central issue of our time is the unfolding populist revolt against our ruling elites generally, who do not know how to rule, and who are no longer elite. Other than that, they are doing great. This failure to live up to either part of their name is presenting a significant problem for them. We are seeing what happens to the smart set when the smart set isn’t very smart anymore.
For illustrative purposes, let us consider what is going on with the initial Brexit vote, the election of Donald J. Trump, the Boris landslide last week, and the upcoming actual Brexit. These are all of them populist phenomena, and more than that, they are mega-big, seismic shift populist phenomena.
They are so huge, and so obvious, that the only way you could miss them is by living deep within a heavily insulated dark blue bubble—say, teaching deconstructed literature for some land grant cow college, or broadcasting pure thoughts from the studios of MSNBC, or alternating between yelling at us about the weather and yelling at the weather about us. In short, the kind of people who cannot see what is happening all around them (reporters, for example) are the same kind of people who would actually pick Greta the Wokescold as Time’s Person of the Year, which really has to be considered as the ne plus ultra of cluelessness.
So Then, Why Is Populism Good?
And the short answer to our header question is that it isn’t. Populism is neither good nor bad. It is far more complicated than that.
Asking whether populism is good is like asking whether elections are good. That depends on what is done by means of the election. That depends on who or what wins the election. Some elections are just stupendous, and others are high octane disasters. The people of England just voted themselves free of the Brussels bureaucracy, which is in the stupendous category. A few years ago, the people of Venezuela voted themselves straight into a socialist garbage dump of a country, which was a disaster. So elections say different things. Elections do different things. And so do populist uprisings.
So we have to take into account the madness of crowds and/or the wisdom of crowds. Crowds can be characterized by either folly or wisdom. It depends on who’s in the crowd. It depends on who is leading the crowd. Everything hinges on what the crowd wants. Crowds can be stupid and crowds can be wise. Crowds could be made up of middle class women with minor grievances in pussy hats, or they could be courageous protesters in Hong Kong. Crowds can fight for freedom and crowds can also be demanding slavery. Crowds can throng Tiananmen Square, and Frenchmen can man the barricades to demand both the repeal of mathematical realities coupled with longer vacation times.
Now a doctrinaire populist is someone who is on the side of the crowd, period. A demagogue is attracted to crowds for this reason—he sees them as a straightforward opportunity to ride to power, and he doesn’t care that much about the direction. As William Jennings Bryan once supposedly put it, “The people of Nebraska are for free silver, so I am for free silver. I will look up the arguments later.”
In contrast, a principled conservative can support a populist uprising provided the crowd is, in the main, on the issue in question, right. Remember back when the Tea Party movement was a thing, calling for probity in the doing of budgetary math, and how the received wisdom among our elites was that this was somehow “racist.” The Tea Party was populist and instinctively conservative, but it was not full-orbed political party. It was not a thought-through conservatism, but a full-orbed conservative could certainly have supported it.
The Occupy movement also managed to get a bunch of people into the streets, but this did not make it worthy of support. They were hard leftists, and a populist hard leftism is not any kind of improvement on the other kinds of hard leftism. Why on earth would a conservative have anything to do with that?
So my radical proposal here is that we look at what their signs say, and ask ourselves if we agree with them, so far as it goes. The question is not whether the leader is bumptious, like Trump, or acts bumptious for effect, like Boris. The question should not be where is the crowd? Rather the question ought to be where is the crowd actually going, and are we going to be better off for it if they succeed?
So crowds can be wise or foolish, being made up of people as they are. And by the same line of reasoning, as the elites are also made up of people, they might really be elite, or they might simply be credentialed ignoramuses. When the populists rise up against the elites, if that is all that we know about it, we do not have enough to understand where our sympathies should lie. The elites might be genuine aristocrats, endued with real nobility and true education, and the peasants with pitchforks might be all worked up over one of their number having been turned into a newt.
Or, contrariwise . . .
Common Sense in the Commonwealth
The world really is hierarchical. Everything else being equal, intelligence is better than stupidity. To be healthy is better than to be sick. To be informed about how the world works is better than to be ignorant about how the world works. To have money is better than to be broke—everything else being equal.
All of this is true. And so when the populace starts throwing rocks at the gargoyles on the cathedral, the gargoyles like to simply assume that all the truths stated in the previous paragraph are the necessary reason for this untoward behavior from the restive and rock-throwing peons, the great unwashed, who know not the law. The gargoyles like to assume that their hierarchical and superior status is their automatic birthright. Meanwhile, the peons are discovering the truth of the old adage that the ruling gargoyles really are like gargoyles—high up, ugly, and difficult to knock off.
Ruling elites are usually (almost by definition) insulated from the tumble, turmoil, and tumult of street-level politics, and they naturally have this status as good aristocrats. But life in a bubble creates problems with your feedback loop, and aristocracy almost necessitates life in a bubble. And what we are seeing now is a phenomenon that has occurred many times in history to an isolated, etiolated, enervated and supremely stupid ruling class.
The word aristocracy literally means rule by the best. Now of course, given the realities of this sad world, there have been times (like ours) when it was necessary to start putting some scare quotes around that aristos. We need to define aristocracy in all such situations as rule by the “best.”
So which way is it going in our current populist uprising? In these controversies, does good sense reside with the people or with the ruling class? Where does common sense reside? Among the common people or among the rulers of the commonwealth? Currently—I am here to tell you—it is the former. Is the European Union a good thing for England to get the heck out of? Of course it is.
In the contemporary clashes between the globalists and statists, on the one hand, the over-regulated and over-taxed on the other, I can tell you where almost all my sympathies are.
Reflect on this. Our ruling elites think that socialism works. Our ruling elites think that the North Pole is melting. Our ruling elites think that Darwinism presents a compelling case—when it is actually an amalgam of about 17,000 just-so stories falling up the stairs, assembling themselves into stark improbabilities as they go. Our ruling elites believe that a subjective decision in the mind of a six-year-old has greater authority over their sexual identity than their XX or XY chromosomes do. Our ruling elites think that plastic straws constitute a major crisis. Our ruling elites believe that the freest and wealthiest civilization that has ever existed is a hotbed of oppression. Our ruling elites think that they should govern the country because everyone they know thinks they should govern the country. All their fellow Yale classmates think this is both true and self-evident. Virtually unanimous.
Boris and Brexit
So what is happening is representative of all this, and last week’s election in the UK is simply the most recent manifestation of it.
This populist uprising amounts to an intervention. Imagine a moderate left-of-center sister and a right-wing brother getting together to tell their elderly mother that they are taking her car keys away. Despite their disagreements, they can agree on that. Their reasons for thinking this may vary. They can get to that position by means of various routes. But they do agree that she can’t be driving anymore.
Across northern England, numerous seats that Labour had held for decades flipped to the Tories. This was not a function of them suddenly coming around to see the world in exactly the same way that an eclectic and erratic “conservative” like Boris Johnson does. All these Labour voters did not have Margaret Thatcher come to them in a dream and tell them to move to the right. It is not like there was a surge in the sales of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom there. I dare say that it was not at all like that. It was rather a function of a bunch of regular people deciding that it was time to take Jeremy Corbyn’s car keys away. That’s not a full-orbed conservative worldview, and I grant it. But it was the most pressing and obvious thing that had to be done. It was the most urgent task in front of the English voter, and the English voter went and did it. I was in a glow for two days afterward.
And it was not the most pressing and obvious thing to do if you were a member of the chattering classes. This is why, these days, the chattering classes are so frequently surprised. If they don’t adjust pretty soon, their eyebrows are going to stick that way.
Evangelicals Have Discredited Themselves?
Back here in the States, throw our evangelical thought leaders into the mix. Our approved leaders are either in the aforementioned bubble, or they are desperately trying to figure out how to be admitted into it. They are not in the bubble yet, but they are pleading to be let in. They are deferentially tapping on the door of the bubble, shuffling their feet quietly.
These soi disant thought leaders among the evangelicals have hectored us repeatedly in a way that demonstrates this. They say that evangelicals have discredited themselves, and disgraced the gospel, either because they voted for that miscreant Trump or have in varying degrees been supportive of him since the election. They say this because of—to take one of numerous available examples—Trump’s various adulteries. By lending any measure of our support to the president, in light of his immoralities, evangelicals have made it impossible for us ever again to speak to the “character matters” issue.
Now the “character matters” issue is flexible and stretchy, like the Constitution, but also like the Constitution, it only stretches to the left.
So let us run a thought experiment, you and I. Let us suppose that Mayor Pete gets the nomination on the Democratic side. He is in an open sodomite “marriage” with his partner, Chasten Buttigieg. Will that particular immorality be treated the same way that Trump’s immoralities have been? Will there be an eruption of “Never Buttigieg” sentiment on the soft evangelical left, on the grounds of high moral indignation? Are you kidding me? The mere suggestion is enough to make a cat laugh. Dollars to doughnuts we will then be told that this is different because Mayor Pete is married. Marriage is sacred, people.
And no, he isn’t married.
Great Balls of Fire
Some people think this is about particular policies, the kind that operate on our earlier level two. Shall we have budgets and bombs, like the Republicans want, or shall we have free stuff and fascism, like the Democrats want? But in this peculiar moment, the people are replying that what they actually want is a fiery storm of great balls of fire, each one three or four feet in diameter, falling down upon Washington D.C. and its environs.
In the meme I posted with this, the dated joke is apparently being made by the opponents of Brexit, who were clamoring for a second Brexit vote. They thought that if given a second referendum, the people would return to their senses, acknowledge the wisdom of their betters, and calm the heck down. But the ruling classes do not yet understand the depth of the animosity they have created for themselves.
In the English-speaking world, our current populism has had it with the arrogance. And by arrogance, I mean the disdain, the swank, the pretentiousness, the priggishness, the insolence, the crust, the vanity, and the hauteur—and all the other words. That kind of supercilious attitude would be hard enough to endure from the ruling class, even if they were talented and intelligent. But when they couple their high conceits with thundering asininity, it gets to the point where Burt, down at the welding shop, decides that he needs to make a point of going to vote for a wall on the Mexican border. Or a departure from the EU. Or a rollback of thousands of federal regulations. You get the point, I trust. The message is plain, or should be. Enough with the stupid.
All of this goes back to the point made by the genuinely aristocratic William F. Buckley, no populist he, when he said that rather than be governed by the faculty at Harvard, he would prefer to be governed by the first two hundred names in the Boston telephone book. And given the dubious trajectory of Massachusetts generally, while I would now want to change the name of the city, I do take his point.