Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Beware of Conservative Populism

Jonah Goldberg--noting that conservatism was born in Edmund Burke's reaction to the populism of the French Revolution--explains why the recent conservative populism that has been expressed in both the immigration debate and in opposition to th Dubai ports deal should be considered carefully.
I think [the immigration and ports controversies are] useful illustration[s] of the problem with populism. Being on the wrong side of “the people” is automatically seen as betrayal, rather than mere disagreement. I’d been bee-bopping and scatting against liberal populism and no one cared; when I was skeptical about an issue conservative populists treasure, I was inundated with pronouncements about the glories of people power.

Second, I’m not trying to say that conservatives who resort to populist arguments are crypto-left-wingers or anything like that. But I do believe that the logic of populism can be corrosive if not held in check. One need only look at Pat Buchanan to see how completely it can eat away classically liberal views.

That said, I think populist rhetoric and passion can be healthy in small doses. After all, sometimes elites and their institutions are arrayed against the people; 2+2=4 when people say it does and when people say it doesn’t, and it isn’t any less true when it’s being frantically chanted by a mass of people. I understand that political protagonists must sometimes show they have an authentic connection with the people they represent; I have an abiding faith in the goodness of the American people, and I think William F. Buckley’s populist flirtation, encapsulated in his observation that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the faculty of Harvard University, was absolutely right and proper. But you will note that he believed in the concept of governing per se; he implicitly (and explicitly elsewhere) accepted the Burkean view that our representatives owe us their judgment, even at the occasional expense of popular will and, often, in defiance of popular passion.
John Derbyshire complemented Goldberg and asked him to be "Fair and Balanced" and do an "equally scathing piece" on elitism. To which Goldberg responded that, sorry, he actually liked elitism, rightly understood.
Elitism... in the words of William Henry, means "some ideas are better than others, some values more enduring, some works of art more universal. Some cultures, though we dare not say it, are more accomplished than others and therefore more worthy of study."

We talk of elite athletes, elite scientists, elite craftsmen, or elite soldiers, and everyone understands that these people are simply better, more expert at what they do than the rest of us. It is only when we get closer to those realms where experts have decided to bend every fact and twist every standard — in an effort to mend the bruised egos of backward nations and boutique domestic victim groups — that "elite" becomes pejorative. This is a tragedy, because conservatism will become meaningless if, in an effort to displace the current elite from its perch, we embrace the notion that nobody has a right to that perch.

Right now, the word-elite of journalists and academics are the ones asking, "Who are we to judge?" This elite is the one incapable of discerning the difference between a bone through the nose and the moon launch. It is this elite which says that the canon isn't worth reading; that the Constitution is a fig leaf for white racism; that the Enlightenment wasn't worth the trouble; that freedom and democracy are just "abstractions"; that beauty is just so much lookism....The task, for conservatives especially, is to fire the teachers and journalists who believe that a bone through the nose is equivalent to a moon launch — not to eliminate altogether the positions they should rightly hold.

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