Sebastian Awatramani

On the Referent of Populism

The 2016 United States presidential nominations process has seen the rise of two anti-establishment candidates with widely divergent views on government and society—both of whom have been described as populists. In both cases, this populist characterization is often offered not as a complement on their ability to inspire never-voters or shape the political conversation taking place during a potentially transformative period in American politics, but rather is often proffered as an invitation to dismiss their views as well as their potential to achieve the nomination. But when considering that their views and solutions to American problems generally don’t converge, what is it about these candidates that makes them populists, and what about populism is problematic? In this essay I will argue that populism can be understood in two distinct manners. The first is as a sociopolitical phenomenon which has received treatment in the academic literature, and the second a much broader phenomenon, the nature of which should be ascertained not by studying populism per se, but the referent of the term “populism” as expressed in the vernacular of modern political discourse.

This essay will begin with a brief history of populism which covers several major figures who have been described as populists over the preceding centuries. Next, we will analyze a definition of populism as proposed in the academic literature, arguing that while it is useful for theorizing about populism as a sociopolitical phenomenon, it doesn’t capture the referent of the term as commonly used. Following this, I will argue that populism in the common vernacular refers quite simply to democratic rule, and that this is what leads “populism” to carry a negative connotation. From this we will draw some implications about the current state of democracy, and then consider what a more ideal democracy might look like.


The history of the populism encompasses widely divergent political views, outcomes and processes of governing. Recently, the label has been ascribed to the policies of Senator Bernie Sanders, running for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, who represents at once what are democratic socialist policies which are considered mainstream in Western European countries such as France and England, while at the same time are characterized as populist in the United States. His platform contains provisions, for example, for a “Medicare for all” healthcare system, essentially a system of universal healthcare—a standard of most modern liberal democracies—with universal coverage a goal shared with his democratic rival, Hillary Clinton (albeit through different institutional implementation). In fact, when considering the totality of the issues, we find more agreement than disagreement between the two democratic candidates. And yet Clinton has been the presumptive nominee long before the election began, following in the tradition of the popular but perhaps not as transformative as expected President Barack Obama, while Sanders has long been dismissed as a serious contender, even after having performed solidly in several contests.

Such criticism in the popular zeitgeist follows two terms by a president who ran on remarkably similar goals, as well as a president who has recently himself been described as a populist by influential news outlet Politico[1] in spite of his reputation as a pragmatic and practical leader. Being that these figures have both been described as populist, it seems we have at once two connotations of the same word, the context of both encompassing many of the same ideas, while with regards to Sanders denigrating and with regards to Obama either neutrally characterizing or even praising.

Consider an article for Bloomberg published in January of 2015 which posits that populism has gone mainstream, based on a speech in which Obama delivered “robust endorsement of higher taxes for the wealthy, government intervention in the economy and an array of new benefits for lower- and middle-income Americans.” [2] Five months later in May, the same publication states that “Politicians to the far left and right are sounding populist themes not heard since the Great Depression,” referencing Sanders’ budding campaign, along with that of former candidate Rand Paul [3]—in many respects the polar opposite of Sanders with regard to their ideas of the proper form of government. The article shows some slight contrast with regard to Obama and Sanders, essentially painting Sanders as expressing more extreme versions of the themes represented in Obama’s speech, “breaking up concentrated power, whether in Washington or on Wall Street and looking out for ordinary Americans.” [4]

Contrast further these notions of populism to the context in which the term is used by Politico when describing Donald Trump. In Donald Trump, the Perfect Populist, Politico summarized Trump’s platform as “a defense of Social Security, a guarantee of universal health care, economic nationalist trade policies.” [5] On first glance, this would seem similar to the populist notions expressed by Obama [6] and Sanders, and yet it is unlikely that these positions are the source of Trump’s appeal, and nor are they the positions for which he is famous. Rather, for Trump supporters the appeal is more likely a combination of Trump’s extreme nationalism, as well as his strongman persona which he exercises in defense of his supporters, a generally uneducated, working class white demographic. [7]

Trump and Sanders have their own counterparts in the European Union, but whereas Sander’s counterparts are merely the mainstream of democratic socialists, Trump’s counterparts across the Atlantic are widely described as populists on both continents. One prominent example is the United Kingdom Independent Party, led by former Conservative party member Nigel Farage, who defected after the passing of Maastricht Treaty, which created the modern European Union and established the Euro as a common currency. While Euroskepticism drove the founding of UKIP [8] and continues to be a principle issue for the party, since its founding in 1992 an anti-immigration sentiment has become fundamental to UKIP’s identity, along with protest against “the performance of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government.” [9] UKIP has not been without its supporters, having won more seats in the European Parliament than the mainstream Labour party in the 2009 elections, and continuing that trend in 2015. That their progress in shaping policy is undeniable as well, as the United Kingdom will vote on the “Brexit” referendum in June of 2016, deciding whether England is to remain part of the European Union. Finally, the rise of UKIP has affected the mainstream political parties by creating rifts on the subject of immigration within the Labour party. While traditionally pro-immigration, the local conversation partly shaped by UKIP has led to defections, with “seven Labour MPs [writing] an open letter to the party urging it to campaign on a platform of curtailing free movement from poorer EU countries.” [10]

Attacks on mainstream UK parties in the populist vein are not limited to those coming from UKIP, as Britain has seen the rise too of the British National Party (BNP), which promised in its 2010 Manifesto to “introduce a system of voluntary resettlement whereby immigrants and their descendants are afforded the opportunity to return to their lands of ethnic origin, assisted by generous financial incentives both for individuals and for the countries in question.” [11] Though the BNP has “rapid[ly] collapsed,” [12] this may be partly due to its competition for voters with UKIP, who The Guardian speculates actively courts BNP voters. In another Guardian article, David Aaronovitch argues that “what the BNP and UKIP have in common is the psychological suggestion that ‘ordinary’ people are being betrayed by the political class. They are paying too much fuel tax, too much council tax, they are being pushed around by foreigners and outsiders, they are having stuff done to them and have become victims in their own countries. They are aggrieved, and their grievance, their unhappiness, has external causes - scapegoats - that can be identified and expelled or left.” [13]

This “populist” Euroskepticism and nationalism encompassing an anti-immigration fury crosses onto the Continent proper as well in both the old Communist States as well as the long established progressive states of Western Europe. As Nikolas K Gvosdev characterizes the current European political climate, “Extreme right-wing parties are crossing the threshold of electoral acceptability and becoming mainstream political figures.”[14] Several examples abound, all characterized by similar traits as the UKIP and the BNP. The National Front in France led by Marine Le Pen, the Jobbik in Hungary, the Golden Dawn in Greece, among others, are fueling a challenge in the European Union to the existence of the Union itself, and in all cases are predicated upon similar themes and ideas, differing perhaps only in the extent of their fundamentalism.

With all of this considered, it might be tempting to associate with populism the particulars of the European cases we have examined, along with that of Trump in the United States. Recall, however, the cases of President Obama and Senator Sanders, who differ fundamentally from the aforementioned cases in the message they espouse, and indeed from each other vis-à-vis the demographic to which they cater. While President Obama built a broad coalition and had mass appeal in both his election and reelection campaign, Sanders’ demographic is more particular, appealing to a coalition of younger voters and disaffected whites.

There is a fundamental difference between them too with regard to the content of their messages. Obama’s speech mentioned above focused, as Sanders often does, on benefits for the poor and middle classes, progressive taxation, and a greater extent of government intervention in the economy. Markedly present in Sanders’ platform, and missing from Obama’s rhetoric, however, are the Manichean [15] glasses which magnify class conflict and singe as corrupt the political representatives of the economic elite in general and Wall Street in particular. In the American history of populism, this has been a common theme, as can be seen in the cases of Huey Long and President Andrew Jackson.

Huey Long, a Louisiana governor, embodied an early manifestation of populism in the 1930s, where the distribution of political and economic power illuminates his rise. Louisiana had “emerged from Reconstruction in the control of a tight, jealous oligarchy of planters, merchants, and professionals, and it had remained under their myopic rule ever since … It was, in a popular phrase, a ‘government by gentlemen’ … And if, as the new century progressed, this circle of gentlemen began to include new elements—industrialist, railroad and utility magnates, and representatives of the fast-growing oil industry—the changes only strengthened the oligarchy in its smug and comfortable ways.” [16]

Long’s ascendency to governor of Louisiana was distinct from its usual politics, not because he ran on a progressive platform, but because upon election he refused to capitulate to the ‘gentlemen.’ Instead, Long, unlike a line of predecessors, consolidated power in his office and instituted a number of progressive reforms, such as an increase on severance taxes, free textbooks for Louisiana students, and the transfer of cheap natural gas into New Orleans “despite the adamant opposition of the city’s electric company and the public officials who supervised rates.” [17]

Continueing in this anti-elitist vein, Andrew Jackson is perhaps the paramount of the populism in the history of the United States Presidency, having been described as a tribune [18] of the people, referring to the ancient roman officials elected by the people to protect their interests. Indeed, Jackson began his inaugural address to Congress by calling for the popular election of the President, writing,

“To the people belongs the right of electing their Chief Magistrate: it was never designed that their choice should, in any case, be defeated, either by the intervention of electoral colleges or by the agency confided, under certain contingencies, to the House of Representatives. Experience proves, that, in proportion as agents to execute the will of the People are multiplied, there is danger of their wishes being frustrated. Some may be unfaithful; all are liable to err. So far, therefore, as the People can, with convenience, speak, it is safer for them to express their own will” [19]

At the time of his inauguration in 1829, the United States had expanded to twenty-four states, and while most had abolished property qualifications for voting, in very few states were presidential Electors chosen by the people; rather, it was state legislators who had control over electors, and thus in large part the office of the presidency. For Jackson, this was a problematic state of affairs, as exemplified in his notion that “the first principle of our system [is that] … the majority is to govern.”[20] For Jackson, his opposition to a Presidency controlled by state or national legislators was not simply a theoretical notion, but rather one based on experience.

Before winning the 1828 election as the first representative of the newly formed Democratic Party against Whig John Quincy Adams, Jackson had run and won a plurality in 1824 against the same candidate. However, after failing to win the constitutionally required majority in the Electoral College, the House of Representatives chose the less popular Adams. His reelection campaign four years later saw the rejection of Adams and an electoral win of 178-83.

But Jackson’s acts of tribune were not relegated to rhetorical flourishing, and it was not merely entrenched government interests he opposed. In addition, Jackson was deeply suspicious of the National Bank, which political scientist Michael Nelson reports Jackson as regarding as “the leading institutional bastion of everything he opposed: favoritism for the eastern commercial and financial elite, excessive power for the federal government, and support for the opposition National Republican, or Whig, Party, turning vote-rich commercial states like New York and Pennsylvania against the Democrats.” [21] In an act that set a precedent for future presidents to veto legislation on policy grounds (and not merely on Constitutional ones), Jackson vetoed the recommissioning of the Bank’s charter, and in doing so he nodded no less to the People than he had in his inaugural address. Arguing that the banking monopoly would be granted “at the expense of the public, which ought to receive a fair equivalent,” Jackson rejected the notion that Supreme Court precedent, which ruled the Bank constitutional, should guide his decision, writing “to this conclusion I cannot assent. Mere precedent is a dangerous source of authority and should not be regarded as deciding questions of constitutional power except where the acquiescence of the people and the states can be considered as well settled.” [22]

As we can see from the above cases, the policies and styles of politicians who have been described as populists diverge widely in their particulars. In the case of Obama, we find that a message reflective of progressive ideas centering on the taxation of wealthy and the rising of the middle and lower classes. We find that a similar characterization befalls Sander’s campaign against economic inequality, the concentration of power in the financial sector, and a government which fails to serve the needs of the majority of the population, and in addition a Manichean perspective on economic classes in the United States. Sanders’ perspective is similar to that of Long’s in the early 19th century, which focused on economic inequality and the oligarchic rule of Louisiana by the local industrial elites of the time. Meanwhile, Andrew Jackson’s reputation for populism was driven by a similar distrust of financial institutions, as well as having introduced the idea that the President was the people’s supreme representative in government.

Let us consider, broadly, the above to be a leftist perspective of populism, which contrasts to the populism of the right as espoused by Trump and the right-wing parties of Europe. In those cases we find a populism which reflects nationalistic, anti-immigrant tendencies, and in the case of the European populists, Euroskepticism.


In The Popular Zeitgeist, a contemporary article on populism in Government and Opposition, Cas Mudde defines populism as “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonist groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people”[23]. With regard to antagonistic groups, this is certainly true for the likes of Senator Sanders, but fails to account for the case of President Obama, in that Obama stays clear of insinuations that the economic or politically powerful elite are corrupt. Instead, Obama merely advocates for increased benefits for the poor and middle classes, reflecting a common progressive or liberal tradition, but avoiding the revolutionary rhetoric espoused by Senator Sanders.

And while Trump has expressed the opinion that politicians are corrupt (making the claim during a Republican debate that he has personally purchased them), it is not inconceivable that Trump or someone like Trump could be plausibly be called a populist if they focused only on issues of immigration and nationalism without making strong claims about a ‘corrupt elite.’ Rather, for one strain of right wing populism, the necessary ingredients seem to be more an antagonistic relationship between “insiders” and “outsiders,” where rather than being a corrupt elite, the outsiders are categorized as such due to race, nationality, or immigration status—an antagonistic relationship across horizontal, and not necessarily vertical lines. This is not to say that these populist movements are unopposed to government. As mentioned above, UKIP is highly critical of the mainstream British political parties, and the European Union, but one can criticize both for nationalistic reasons without ascribing corruption.

This also should not be interpreted as stating that right wing populist movement cannot conform to the definition above, merely that they don’t necessarily. The contemporary American movement described as the Tea Party, for example, constructs an antagonistic relationship not only across horizontal lines, but along vertical as a fundamental claim of the movement is that Washington politicians have betrayed the “pure” conservative base.

With regard to left and right wing populism, we can draw a further distinction between who should be considered to be the “pure people” for each respective set of movements. As insinuated above, the “pure people” for the right wing populists are generally defined along nationalistic and especially racial lines, whereas for left wing populism the “pure people” are defined much more broadly by class. This becomes apparent when considering the gamut of left wing populists, from Sanders to Long to Jackson. However, we still find an inconsistency with regard to president Obama.

On the one hand, President Obama has advocated before and during his presidency for expanded benefits for the lower and middle classes, as mentioned above. But on the other hand, President Obama has governed progressively, but within the bounds of mainstream political discourse. To equate Obama to a populist would be to strip from populism its differentia and equate, in essence, leftist populism to progressive liberalism.

Perhaps, though, this is acceptable. It doesn’t wholly annihilate the utility of the word, as we find that at its end, the policies advocated by Sanders, Obama, Long, and Jackson are similar in their purpose—that is, for political ends to be directed to the People at large. But more importantly, in attempting to narrow down a concise definition for use in the academic literature, we are losing sight of one of the contexts of populism. On the one hand, populism is something akin to that described above, whether we take Mudde’s definition at face value or mutatis mutandis based on the criticisms here. However, when Bloomberg, Politico, et al. use the term to describe politicians, platforms, and positions, they often do so without reference to the academic literature, and in a way that is not consistent with it.

Said another way, populism is the sociopolitical phenomenon concisely described by Mudde, but in the mainstream usage populism has a much broader referent. To ascertain the nature of this broader referent, the question should be posed as: what do they mean when they (the media, politicians, etc.) say populism? What is it that ties together all the often dissimilar lines of thought detailed above, from Donald Trump to Andrew Jackson? I posit that populism in the mainstream is very simply and broadly either an idea or set of ideas, the primary beneficiary (whether the benefits are real or imaged) and subject of which is the people as distinct from a ruling elite—nothing more and nothing less. A simple, if not broad, statement, but consider some of the implications.

If it is the case that the United States and the Western European countries are democracies, it is implied that at to a significant extent, they are ruled by the demos. Why is it then that the word to describe the ever so often appearance of politicians, movements, or positions that focus on the very people who suppose to rule is differential? That is, if it was the case that rule took place by and for the people, then “populist” should be supplanted by “elitist” or something similar, indicating the ever so often appearance of elite parties that attempt to supplant the will of the people. In actu, the implication is that elitism is the norm and the term “populism” serves to differentiate the occasional expression and organization of the masses of the body politic.

Considering populism in this way lends understanding to why the word carries an often negative connotation: criticisms of populism are in effect criticisms of democratic rule, a set of criticisms which have an ancient history.

One of the earlier and more comprehensive criticisms can be found in Plato’s Republic, wherein Plato constructs a state which he supposes adheres to principles of justice, but which Karl Popper has described as totalitarian[24]. Indeed, for Plato, wherein justice is composed of “keeping what is properly one’s own and doing one’s own job” [25] there is nothing in the way of a democratic steam pipe through which the desires and wants of the people can be expressed. Rather, in his hierarchical conjuration, society is organized into three primary classes. First there are the guardians, a class from which the ruler (the philosopher king) is chosen. Second are the auxiliaries, a warrior class. And finally are the masses who staff the city like cogs in a machine, but who have no political contribution to offer.

To discern the nature of the just city, Plato draws throughout The Republic an analogy between the human body and the body politic, arguing that both are comprised of similar forces: those of reason, those of spirit, and those of appetite, and justice is found when these forces are in harmony. Each of these forces then at once correlates with the desires of the basic classes—reason guiding the guardians, spirit or courage the auxiliaries, and baser appetites the masses. The different sorts of political systems—the imperfect societies—arise when these forces are imbalanced, and as they define the function of the individual, so too do they define the function of the society in which any particular force was predominant.

For Plato, the transition of a society to democracy was preceded first from the transition to oligarchy from aristocracy when pecuniary interests trumped all other concerns, leading to a society in which the Few ruled with a “lack of restraint in the pursuit of its objective of getting as rich as possible.” [26] In so desiring, they abandon all pretense of just ruling, instead allowing the masses to be reduced to poverty, all the while pretending not to notice, for they themselves depend on these conditions for their own enrichment. This early notion of class warfare posited that a democracy would form from oligarchy as the poor, after the softening of the rich from living so lavishly and without hard work, would conclude that the rulers “are rich because their subjects are cowards.” [27]

Following the institution of democracy and the execution or exile of the former leaders, the democratic subject would long foremost for liberty and equality in virtually all capacities and in the same manner that the oligarchs longed for money. [28] As this desire for liberty rose, society would “fall under the influence of bad leaders, who intoxicate it with excessive quantities of the neat spirit; and then, unless the authorities are very mild and give it a lot of liberty, it will curse them for oligarchs and punish them” [29]. The tyrant then would rise as a people’s champion against the forces that presumably stand in the way of their liberty: the government. The tyrant would not disintegrate the government however, but rather would redistribute property, consolidate power in his office, and of course rule tyrannically.

There is no shortage, if one is searching, for historical examples of democracy or people’s movements in general gone awry in a way that would seem to lend credence to Plato’s distrust. Adolph Hitler, for example, was elected, albeit with a plurality and not a majority, but without the support of a certain sect of the people, his rise would have been much more complicated, if not impossible. But for all the examples we can conjure of democracy gone awry, it would be a mistake to then advocate, as Plato did, the establishment of a rigid pyramidal power structure in which the people are deprived of political expression, and nor should such an establishment be reasonably believed to be a solution to the problems inherent in majority rule.

Plato, in some sense, acknowledges this shortcoming by suggesting rather plainly that the perfect and just society which Socrates conjures could notin actu exist on earth. [30] And when we consider on earth democracy’s opposites, for example Maoist China, or the capitalist dictatorship of Pinochet in Chile, we find that such rigid pyramidal structures tend themselves to tyranny without necessitating the input of the people, even if they are supposedly justified on populist grounds.

What we can reap from Plato’s work however is the elegance of the notion of balance, albeit mutatis mutandis to account for the shortcomings of democracy while taking care not to advocate dictatorship as its solution. Indeed, this in essence is what James Madison attempted to prescribe for the modern republic in Federalist #10.

Not dissimilar from the suspicion of democracy discussed by Plato, Madison condemned the factions which arise in nations under popular governments. Factions, which he described as “a number of citizens, whether amounting to a majority or minority of the whole, who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community,”[31] are not synonymous with popular movements as they could refer just as easily to corporate interest as they could a movement of the people. But though Madison’s notion of factions is more encompassing than modern notions of populism, his criticism is similar in that he believed popular based movements would tend to the destruction of liberty— singling out the inequality of property as the greatest cause of faction, indicating even then that the People were the faction which he believed would pose the greatest threat.

Madison’s solution to this conundrum then was a republican form of government consisting various filters on popular expression, such as representatives who deliberate upon the interests of their constituency and express a more charitable version of their preferences(preventing corrupting effects of direct democracy); integrating checks and balances on and between the various branches of government, preventing a movement from consolidating power even if they should take over an entire branch; or having a sufficiently large territory and diversity of views such that any majoritarian inclination must compete with many others.

Problematically, while such a system of checks and balances tends to suppress the ability of tyrants to seize the reigns of government, it leads in and of itself to unintended consequences.

The logic underpinning the checks and balances of the Constitution is tight but not unambiguous. As such, factional exploitation of the logic is difficult, but not impossible. It requires organization and capital to defeat, which leaves the people precariously subject to the problems of collective action, while affording corporate interests an advantage as they possess both.

In simple terms, nature abhors a vacuum, and while the Constitution seeks to limit the power of the government by limiting the power of the people, the vacuum is filled by those factions who can best organize time and capital to exploit the logical structure of Constitutional checks and balances. It is not a directly violent tyrant then which threatens the system of democracy in the United States, but a subtle tyranny of interests, as popular interest and preferences are frustrated by the better organized holders of capitalism, who affect government not only by coopting seats in government, but by shaping the discourse of the political conversation.

Consider that it is not just “populism” which carries in itself a negative connotation. Unions, for example, once a form of organization that elicited a sense of pride, are in the neoliberal era condemned, shamed, and supplanted by “right to work” laws which cater to the intuitive soul of the American conservative but which serve in reality to disempower the very blue collar workers who rally behind their “right” to work without the power of collective bargaining. The term “people’s republic” elicits laughter, as the notion that a People could determine the course of their own republic is farcical in the contemporary American mindset. There too is the more prevalent example of “socialism,” which whether conflated with communism or not is popularly condemned as utopic and ultimately dangerous—if not evil—counter examples in contemporary Europe notwithstanding.

Karl Marx once famously remarked that “the ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas,” [32] and we can see this confirmed in America, where the People themselves believe that the People are unfit to rule, at least insofar as the People in question makeup a demographic cleaved along the wrong lines (e.g. religious, racial).

But this is not to say that arguments against populist expression are wholly without merit. The rise of nationalist movements in Europe, for example, as well as the multitude of popularly elected dictators should lend caution to automatic inclinations toward majoritarian rule. Even if it is the case that the framers created too undemocratic of a constitution, [33] it does not follow that embracing populism, in its right or left wing forms, should be automatically accepted as a prudent course of action. In the same way and for the same reasons that the Constitution integrated checks and balances in the government, there are societal checks that can mitigate the more harmful potentialities of populist movements.

Madison argued that the problem of factions could be solved either by dealing with its causes or dealing with its effects, the latter of which could be mitigated with republic government, but the former of which was liberty, which was necessary for political life. In choosing to construct a government focusing on the control of faction exclusively by dealing with effects, Madison lost an opportunity that he likely did not recognize when he published Federalist #10. Madison’s reasoning is faulty precisely because he treated liberty as a sufficient condition for dangerous factions.

But if Madison was wrong and liberty in and of itself is not sufficient for the rise of factions dangerous to liberty, then what is? It is not merely liberty itself, but rather liberty among those who lack a democratic character, which necessitates both a sense of civic culture, and fundamentally, education. This, vaguely, is not a novel claim. Adam Smith had identified the problems with an uneducated populous in the Wealth of Nations where he writes,

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise …

Smith goes on then to advocate state sponsored education, and though the level of education advocated is likely less than is necessary to cultivate a democratic character, the principle in itself is sound, and Madison’s view leaves something to be desired in contrast. For if the people are educated and possess a democratic character, there is much less to fear from popular movements and much to gain when the body politic as a whole, and not merely the financial elite and politicians, are able to deliberate upon important questions of governance. However, with the Constitution as written, even the most organized and enlightened non-moneyed movements have their say only in the rarest of circumstances, and only when their views are articulated by politicians friendly to the cause but willing to work within a restricted established framework of policymaking that prohibits in great effect the translation of the People’s desires into policy. One example of this is the Affordable Care Act, a healthcare reform that many hoped would manifest as an overhaul of profit driven healthcare into a single payer system, but which instead solidified, perhaps permanently, the status of insurance companies as the primary provider of healthcare funding.

One might respond to this line of reasoning by arguing that education is not sufficient to create the necessary democratic character that would mitigate the rise of dangerous faction. Some portion of the population—often substantial—would remain uneducated even if education were compulsory and well-funded, whether due to personal choice (e.g. anti-intellectualism), personal ability, or personal circumstance (e.g. opportunity costs). There is some merit to this argument, in that it is likely correct in its speculation. There are two responses worth considering.

First, we need not cultivate graduate school level education in the entirety of the population in order to construct more prudent policy. It is enough merely that the people in general possess a level of education such that they are able to engage in reasonable conversation on political questions. Consider on this the Condorcet Jury Theorem elucidated by the Marquis de Condorcet in 1785, which argues that majorities are more likely to derive the correct answer to an either/or question than any one single individual.

The second response is a corollary of the first and returns us in a roundabout way to the necessity of civic spirit among the population, which should be a primary concern of education, and not simply a focus on vocation. In order for people to engage in the political process, they generally must be educated, but they must be morally and civically educated as well. The abjectly selfish being who views his brethren as nothing more than competition in an artificial state of nature, wherein the government has removed the threat of physical violence but allowed the threat of competitive violence to reduce ones neighbor to nothingness, is not in a position to contribute to the democratic conversation. Civic mindedness requires an inclination to cooperation, to seeing one’s fellow citizens as part of one’s circle of sentiments and not merely competition. When standard education is supplemented with moral and civic education, the dangers of popular movements are mitigated and the nation as a whole is better off for it.

But even then, the devil’s advocate is not convinced. It will be said even with education mitigating the danger of popular movements, that there are in the best circumstances transient moments where popular engagement will lead to chaos. For example, after having suffered a devastating attack, such as that which took place on September 11th, the United States went into a mass hysteria and was easily manipulated by the Bush administration into a war with Iraq on false evidence. Moreover, much of the Cold War revolved around unproven and often unreasonable in hindsight presuppositions on the consequences of communist expansion, and the people tolerated it largely because they accepted the exaggerations.

This fear is not unfounded, but it must be kept in mind that the above argument should serve to supplement Madison’s control of the effects by mitigating in the first place the causes. In doing so, in being able to trust the People to a greater extent, we need not focus so strongly on controlling the effects. A looser, more powerful government, more subject to democratic rule, is possible and effective when its citizens are able to reasonably shape the political process.

This does not imply that there should be no checks and balances on popular movements. Rather, it merely suggests greater majoritarian control. It also does not suggest direct democratic passing of specific legislation. Madison’s system, in which enlightened statesmen are to translate the preferences of the people into policy is brilliant in its simplicity. In no society are all people policy experts, but in any just system should the interests of the majority be the primary focus of policy. In the contemporary United States, however, this is far from the case. Not only are the people often frustrated, but any movement with roots in the people is immediately subject to suspicion and doubt as to whether it is a reasonable starting point, much less a reasonable prescription for policy. Moreover, the prospects of those politicians who do or claim to represent the popular interest are met with immediate incredulity—further indication of anti-democratic attitudes and implicit acknowledgment of elitist rule.

Americans today echo the culture of the founding of the Republic. They are fervent in their demands for individual rights, property rights, and in their defense of the Constitution (even when it is understood in only the most shallow of manners). Imagine such energy devoted to defense of an educated, democratic republic, the citizens of which praise their civic culture, duties, and responsibilities to their brothers and sisters and to the government which they control. Imagine the state of contemporary America had greater emphasis been put on positive controls on popular expression, rather than the negative controls eventually accepted in the constitution, in which the population is a soup of competing interest held in check only by the force of the Leviathan.

In such a nation, I imagine, populism would be far from a dirty word. Popular government would be the norm, and only occasionally would elitist interests trump the will of a people able to defend itself from intellectual corruption. There would be no Andrew Jacksons, Huey Longs, Bernie Sanders, or Barack Obamas, because the voice of the people would be in constant expression, and not merely occasionally gasping for air time.




[4] Ibid


[6] With the notable exception of trade policies, as Obama has been a champion of free trade, having negotiated the terms of the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement criticized by both Sanders and Trump.

[7] Mewes, Horst, in lecture.



[10] Kaufmann, Erik). “The Politics of Immigration: UKIP and Beyond”. The Political Quarterly. Vol. 85. No. 3. September 2014





[15] Mudde, Cas. (2004) “The Popular Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. p. 543

[16] Brinkley, Alan. (1982). Voices of Protest. Toronto: Random House. p15.

[17] Brinkley (1982); p24


[19] Nelson, M. (2012). The evolving presidency: Landmark documents, 1787-2010. Washington, D.C.: CQ Press. p 86-7

[20] Ibid

[21] Ibid p89

[22] Ibid p91-2

[23] Mudde (2004)

[24] Popper, K. R. (1966). The open society and its enemies. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[25] The Republic , 434a.

[26] Ibid 555b

[27] Ibid 556e

[28] Ibid 558c-562c

[29] Ibid 562d

[30] Ibid 592a

[31] Madison, James. Federalist #10

[32] Marx, Karl. On the German Ideology

[33] See Dahl, Robert. How Democratic is the US Constitution?