Populist resentment against “elites” is a recurring feature of modern democracy, owing to the fact that popular sovereignty is at odds with the careful management of increasingly complex economies. But what causes public discontent to explode at some times rather than others?
CHICAGO – If anyone still doubted that we live in a populist era, the surfeit of recent books which aim to make sense of the current moment should settle the matter. If these efforts are not always successful, that is partly because populism itself can be so conceptually slippery. Commentators use it to describe the revolt of ordinary people against experts and elites, but few ever carefully define who belongs to which group and why.
Who is an “ordinary” person? Is it just someone without a university degree or a lot of money? Is it someone who lives in a rural area, and is perhaps religious and conservative? And who, for that matter, are the “experts,” and what sets them apart from the “elites”? The only thing that is clear is that calling someone a member of the “elite” now packs a formidable rhetorical punch. Presumably, that is why Nobel laureates, university professors, newspaper columnists, TV talking heads, politicians, and other elites so often accuse each other of being elitist.
Given the depth of today’s moral panic over populism, one might conclude that rubes and hayseeds have the world’s developed democracies by the throat. And yet, in the case of the United States, populism is as old as the country. In the founding era, opponents of the new constitution accused merchant and planter elites of seeking to install an American aristocracy in place of the British aristocracy that had just been defeated. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson appealed to populist sentiment in order to unseat the Federalist administration of John Adams; Andrew Jackson rode a populist backlash against Washington, DC, elites all the way to the White House in 1828.
Similarly, the Populists of the late nineteenth century built a political movement by attacking party, urban, cosmopolitan, and intellectual elites. Then, with the rise of technocratic government at the beginning of the twentieth century, the populist impulse widened its scope, setting its sights on expertise, in addition to elitism. And in the 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt managed both to beat back populist demagogues and brilliantly channel populist sentiment in the service of his own agenda.
POPULISM, OR AMNESIA?
The hatred of experts and elites never went away. It sustained US Senator Joe McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade and the Red Scare of the 1950s. Alabama Governor George Wallace wielded it in his fight against school desegregation in the 1960s. Presidents Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and Ronald Reagan all drew on populist themes, as did the recurrent presidential candidates H. Ross Perot and Patrick Buchanan, whose xenophobia anticipated Donald Trump’s. From the left, presidential contenders like John Edwards and Bernie Sanders have long drummed up support by attacking the moneyed elite.
Although the populist impulse waxes and wanes, it is deeply entrenched. In fact, it may be integral to the way modern democracy works. In the US, it emerges from a paradox with which America’s founders themselves struggled. While deeply committed to the principle of popular sovereignty, the founders were realists who well knew that most Americans were more or less illiterate, ignorant of history, unsophisticated about political economy, and poorly informed about current events.
The founders thus designed a system that placed most political power in the hands of the elites. The Senate would be chosen by experienced politicians in the state capitals; the president would be selected by the leading citizens of local areas (that is, the members of the Electoral College), who in turn would be chosen by the people; only the House of Representatives would be directly elected, and then only by white males who were wealthy enough to satisfy the franchise restrictions that prevailed in most states. The courts and the civil service were staffed with educated gentleman. When the modern party system emerged several decades later, the elites who controlled the parties – experienced political leaders, lawyers, rich people, journalists, and the like – served as gatekeepers, limiting the electorate’s choices to carefully vetted, trusted, and proven candidates.
Over the next two centuries, this system was democratized by the introduction of direct elections to the Senate and (effectively) the presidency, the expansion of the franchise, and actions by the federal government requiring the states to eliminate their various oligarchies. But popular resentment over elite control endured. As people came to demand more from government, and as governance became more complex, specialized bureaucracies gained control over ever-larger domains of economic and public life.
An economy based largely on farming was replaced with the highly differentiated and capital-intensive economy we know today. That system is dominated not just by managerial elites – successful and wealthy businesspeople who rotate through the top ranks of corporate bureaucracies – but also by highly trained specialists, including lawyers, financial experts, engineers, human-resources professionals, scientists, economists, and policy analysts. As the twentieth century advanced, these elite groups sought to enhance both their political standing and the quality of their members, by forming professional associations and requiring credentials that were increasingly supplied by the growing university system.
Rule by experts has made the populist impulse more explosive than it was in the late eighteenth century. Because modern society so clearly requires expert leadership, resentment toward experts can start to look like a threat to civilization itself. In the handful of countries where populists have been able to take anti-expert sentiment to its logical conclusion, intellectuals have been sent to prison camps to be indoctrinated by peasants. Little wonder, then, that many are so disquieted by rising public contempt for expertise in the US.
THE EXPULSION OF EXPERTISE
That includes Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the US Naval War College. In The Death of Expertise, Nichols scolds the public for failing to defer to experts, deriding Americans for being ignorant, intellectually lazy, and too resentful to listen to their betters. Nichols makes some good and valid points. If people rely on meteorologists for weather forecasts, and pilots to fly planes, why do they ignore doctors who recommend vaccines or climate scientists who warn of climate change? But in his righteous anger against the lazy and the ignorant, Nichols misses the opportunity to answer these questions.
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