Dear friends of Istituto Acton,
The rise of populist nationalism, most prominently in Great Britain and the United States, was the big news story of 2016, with dire warnings of what this would mean for France, Germany and the future of the European Union, NATO and the entire liberal international order.
In 2017, however, we’ve seen a sort of revenge of the establishment, with elites reasserting their power and slowing down the momentum to “drain the swamp.” Action followed by reaction. It’s a struggle between the few and the many that has characterized politics from the beginning.
The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us, “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” From a religious perspective, this is undoubtedly true. It’s much easier to accept the ups and downs of politics if one’s goal is eternal life. Better to focus on the “permanent things” that really matter.
The problem is what Russell Kirk called the “enemies of the permanent things” who challenge the very idea of permanence in the name of History and Progress. What was once held to be the norm no longer is. Kirk referred to the norms of morality, literature and politics, and it is sobering to consider how much things have changed since he wrote in the late 1960s.
There was a brief political reaction in the 1980s with the elections of Thatcher and Reagan, which brought together social conservatives, economic liberals and foreign-policy hawks. Yet since the end of the Cold War, there has been further deterioration of the traditional norms (especially those based on Christian morality and ordered liberty) that Kirk defended. The 2003 Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage combined to kill what was left of the “fusionist” conservative movement for the millennial generation.
At first glance, the populist nationalism of Brexit and Trump seems to be yet another reaction to over-zealous progressivism and the recent failures of conservatism. By prioritizing the good of the nation, it defends constitutional liberalism against trans-national or global rule. It desires nations to govern themselves, assuming that most will uphold traditional or popular norms.
But constitutions are also formal arrangements that attempt to restrain (or “refine and enlarge” in the words of Federalist Paper n. 10) the will of the people because that will is inconstant and easily manipulated by demagogues claiming to act in its name. Rather than rule directly, the people elect representatives who are expected to exercise their own judgment once in office. Representative democracies are both popular (one man, one vote; majority rules; expanding the right to vote) and elitist (one candidate is chosen over the others and often deemed to have better character and judgment).
Populists have little patience for such formalities and independent judgment, especially by those seen to be unwilling to give the people what they want. In a commercial society like the United States, the people busy themselves with making money rather than engaging in politics. Left to their own talents and work ethic and sometimes just due to luck, some people will make a lot more money than others, which creates opportunities for those who must eradicate such injustices (real or imagined) in order to “level the playing field.” The government plays a larger role in the economy and doles out more benefits. Lobbying government for such advantages, also known as rent seeking, rather than creating wealth by increasing productivity and innovation, soon becomes the easiest way to make money. Voilà crony capitalism.
Cronyism is a cause and an effect of populism. Cronyism causes populism because the perceived injustice of elites using their power and influence to enrich themselves at the expense of the people breeds resentment. But the purported cure of populism leads to further cronyism by demanding political action on behalf of the “forgotten” people, which usually means on behalf of one group of people against others.
This is so because the people are rarely a unitary whole but made up of many, sometime temporary and shifting, factions. The groups may be based on interests (producers or savers versus consumers), race and ethnicity (natives versus immigrants), or political ideology (conservatives versus progressives). Realizing the common good of society becomes more difficult when there are so many competing, often antagonistic, visions of the good society.
Polarization is a natural consequence of an extensive liberal democracy, so there must be some attempt to forge national unity out of this diversity; national flags, anthems, and holidays are some ways of doing so. But keeping the country together will be very difficult if not impossible once populism and identity politics take over. Politics becomes merely a matter of “friends and enemies” or “who, whom?”, even or perhaps especially at the domestic level.
Populist nationalism cannot balance the claims of the few and the many or the different factions that are bound to arise in any republican form of government, especially one that encourages economic growth and its resulting inequality. Rather than populist or ethnic nationalism, let alone a multicultural techno-utopia, our times require a liberal nationalism that combines the particular aspects of the nation with the universal concepts of human nature and reason, without which communication between different peoples and identities becomes impossible.
Not too long ago, I had dinner with a retired professor of political philosophy whom I very much admire for his combination of scholarly erudition and common sense. I was complaining about the state of politics, the growing divide between conservatism and libertarianism and how the illiberal left will stand to gain from it. He advised me to give not just two, à la Irving Kristol, but three cheers for liberal democratic capitalism, and maybe borrow from Raymond Aron, “the last of the liberals,” and his defense of “decadent” Europe, precisely because no one else is doing so. It’s a lonely, thankless but necessary task for classical liberals and conservatives all over the world.