Last week, in the context of the rise in political support on the right for Donald Trump, I wrote about the distinction between populism and conservatism. There is room for populism within conservatism, I said, but it should not define it.
In expanding on this thought, it might be useful to invoke one of the most magnificent of the American founders. In his book Becoming Madison: The Extraordinary Origins of the Least Likely Founding Father, Michael Signer writes about the importance James Madison placed on governing the passions. “The greatest danger Madison saw for America lay within the body politic itself,” Signer writes:
The passions were native to human beings and thus to democracy. His project since youth had been to discipline, tame, and channel the passions. The checks and balances Madison ultimately proposed in his constitution would help contain the passions, preventing them from taking over entirely. But to channel and govern them would require leaders like Madison – individuals with the mission of steering the anger and love and hatred and enthusiasm of the country’s people toward governance of themselves.
One of the 20th centuries greatest public intellectuals, Irving Kristol, made a similar point in his July 25, 1985 Wall Street Journal column (Adam White of the Manhattan Institute was the person who alerted me to it). Mr. Kristol wrote the following:
My friend the late Martin Diamond, one of the most thoughtful of political scientists, used to say that the American democracy is based on one key assumption: that the people are usually sensible, but rarely wise. The function of our complex constitutional structure is to extract what wisdom is available in the people, at any moment in time, and give it a role in government Our system of representation (as distinct from direct, participatory democracy) is supposed to play this role, as do the bicameral Congress, the separation of powers, our federal arrangements, and the Constitution itself with its careful delineation of rights and prerogatives. Ultimately, of course, the popular will cannot be denied in a democracy. But only “ultimately.” Short of the ultimate, the Founders thought it appropriate that popular sentiments should be delayed in their course, refracted in their expression, revised in their enactment, so that a more deliberate public opinion could prevail over a transient popular opinion.
The threat to a more deliberate public opinion was what we now call populism (the term wasn’t known at the time of the founders). But there are better or worse manifestations of populism, and in his column Kristol argued that the common sense of the American people had been outraged over the course of two decades by “the persistent un-wisdom of their elected and appointed officials.” To the degree that we are witnessing a crisis in our democratic institutions, he wrote 30 years ago, it was a crisis of our disoriented elites, not of a blindly impassioned populace. Which is why Kristol was rather untroubled by, and even somewhat sympathetic to, what he called a “new populism,” whose purpose was to bring the governing elites to their senses.
Which brings us to the here and now. We’re at a moment in which there’s tremendous anger among many Americans, who are deeply unhappy with our governing elites. This anger and unhappiness is largely justified, though it also needs to be said that the American people are also complicit in the government they have and the people they elected. (The messiness we see in our politics is a result, at least in part, of the public’s conflicting desires.)
One of the great tasks of conservative statesmanship today is precisely the one Madison so brilliantly understood, which is not to dismiss the passions and legitimate anger of the people but to channel and shape them in constructive ways – to advocate solutions rather than to stoke resentments, to affirm the better rather than the darker instincts of our nature. This Madisonian ideal is still the standard by which voters – especially those who say they revere the Constitution and its architects — should judge those who seek to lead this good and generous and remarkable republic.