Derb- I think you nail it on the head. I agree with you entirely that populism invariably yields a kind of elitism. The left has tried for centuries to obscure this point. Because populists claim to be speaking for "the people" and because they pursue redistributionist economics, the left eagerly ignores the elitist nature of the regime. One need only look at Castro's Cuba and its fawning, sweaty-palmed sycophants in the west to see this phenomenon on full display. Castro is on the side of "the people" and therefore his police state is entirely justified. Meanwhile, someone like Pinochet — who was hardly without sin — allowed a civil society to develop while avoiding redistributionist policies and is therefor one of the all-time villains according to the left.D.B. Light has some thoughts about the long term ramifications, too.
Fascism addressed this contradiction honestly. It was objectively and proudly populist while at the same time fascists openly argued for an elite cadre of superior, if not super, men who would run the country. The Leninists had a similar argument with all that avant-garde of the proletariat and whatnot.
In America, I think a big, big, big part of the problem is the permanent civil service bureaucracy which is naturally sympathetic to big government and parties that champion big government. These governmental elites, in collusion with academia and the "helping professions," take it upon themselves to find new ways to "run" the society (These groups, as John O'Sullivan has ably demonstrated are rapidly migrating to the global stage — he calls them transnational elites — where they are trying to turn the UN and various NGOs into post-democratic institutions). Whenever a political movement arises — like American conservatism — which challenges the elite-bureaucracy's authority they are accused of working against "the people" and the "downtrodden." Just look at all of the silly things people say about John Bolton. Journalists are key to this process because they share the bureaucratic elite's vision of both government and the masses.
I think in this sense our biggest disagreement is semantic, if that. I think the best way to look at this elite is as a secular priesthood. But that's a conversation for later.
The rise of a technocratic/bureaucratic "New Class" is a well-documented phenomenon [for a Marxist take on the process see this; I favor Eric Blair's description of the new class in 1984 -- "The new aristocracy was made up for the most part of bureaucrats, scientists, technicians, trade-union organizers, publicity experts, sociologists, teachers, journalists, and professional politicians."]. In the context of American history the emergence of this class is associated with the "Progressive" political movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; in the cultural realm it is associated with the rise of "modernism." The political and cultural influence of this "New Class" grew through the first half of the Twentieth Century and it came to dominance in the middle decades of the century. By the 1980's it was in decline and in recent years that decline has been precipitous.I left a comment suggesting "Neocrats" as a term for the leaders of this undefined, nascent movement, though I'm not entirely happy with it. At least it's a start. I'll put some more thought into what such a political ideology could be called.
Through this period of decline the liberal wing of the Democratic party has served as the primary political expression of the new class. Its decline parallels the fortunes of that class. Today it is under assault from both the far left and the right.
Most of the new class's recent opponents have styled themselves "populists," "libertarians," or "small-d democrats". But, as Jonah notes, such movements have the potential, indeed the historical tendency, to establish new elites as problematic in their own way as the ones they seek to displace...
Both "populism" and modern "liberalism" are terms appropriate to the modern era which is rapidly disappearing. Neither is adequate to represent the current state of becoming in the political realm. What we need is not further critique of the past, but a new terminology and a new set of organizing principles adequate to the emerging political and cultural landscape. "Post modernism" will simply not do. I welcome any suggestions.