There is truth in populism. You can’t fool all the people all the time. The long-term interests of the great majority are a good index of the common good. We like to think we’re a “democracy” or, more precisely, a “democratic republic,” and “demos” and “populus” are two ancient ways of saying essentially the same thing. If we’re not committed to “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” then just who do we think we are?
There is truth in elitism. We want more than to be “represented” by people just like us. We want representatives to be better than average, to say the least; we want them capable not merely of transmitting our fickle and partial views but of refining and enlarging them (Federalist Papers). Even if it would be unwise to trust wholly in their virtue, it is obvious that we need representatives of unusual energy and ambition to govern as well as to represent us.
The populist truth is timely for us; the wave of populism we see and feel is not accidental or arbitrary, which is not to say that it won’t crash down indiscriminately. This populist wave has risen in response to arrogant and misguided elites who claim, not to refine and enlarge popular views, but to replace them with truly enlightened (“politically correct”) views based on a theory and a faith the people as a whole do not share. The people do not share the faith of the enlightened ones because they are more acquainted than current elites with some practical realities of life and aren't paid, like the chattering classes, to think these realities away. Progressive elites and the expert bureaucrats and judges they empower implicitly claim the right to rule the “deplorable” people because the elites are somehow in advance of democracy, more democratic than the demos, so to speak. And the people aren’t buying it any more.
One practical reality that people know better than prophets of progress, just for example, is that men and women are different in consequential ways. Another is the importance of the causal connection between the sweat of one’s brow and one’s daily bread. But the primary practical reality that has lifted the populist wave seems to be a re-assertion of the fact that our responsibility for the safety and well-being of our own comes before our solidarity with the whole human race. The brotherhood of mankind is a sublime biblical idea, but it does not erase the practical fact that we are divided into families, communities and, decisively, nation-states — some of which, like ours, claim to be self-governing.
As President Trump asserts (however clumsily) the right of Americans to put themselves first, any defects of his approach are dwarfed by the unreality of the elitist response, which more or less explicitly reflects the progressive faith in a world without borders. This faith does not pass the people’s straight-face test, and every sacrifice paid by elites to the cosmopolitan gods adds to Trump’s populist legitimacy. If the debate comes down to America-first immigration restrictions vs. sanctuary cities, Trumpist populism will win every time.
Reclaiming the nation from borderless elites could be a first step in recovering constitutionalism from progressive leaders and experts. “We the people” presupposes the existence of a people who know who they are and are confident of their legitimate authority — and who may choose to welcome others to join them on this basis of that confidence and that legitimacy. But of course not every people is a constitutional people. The truth of elitism is another great, practical truth, and so the great populist wave would need to be followed by some renewed appreciation or even reconstruction of constitutional dams, reservoirs, and channels, which would re-enable the genuine refinement and enlargement of public opinion. Over the last century, the people’s constitution has been claimed more and more by expert lawyers and judges, to the point that, when the Supreme Court says the Constitution means nothing but what the court says it means, most people don’t know how to disagree. For populism to generate constitutionalism, the people will have to learn to claim their own Constitution.
Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.