Why we love populists, and how to spot a faker

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So it’s time to set a few things straight. It’s time to identify the real thing — which is a good thing — and send the fakers packing. 

Here’s hint No. 1: If you’re gaming the system for lucre or insider deals, you’re a fraud. (Sorry, Bill and Hillary: You’re as populist as the average corporate raider, but with less than half the class.) 

Here’s hint No. 2: If you’re for bigness — big systems, big power, big government, big labor, or most big business — you’re probably not a populist. Populists distrust organized bigness the way swimmers distrust bull sharks: Even if the big fish may not want you for today’s lunch, you know they’ll be hungry tomorrow.

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The reason true and honest populism is making a comeback is because Americans are once again considering the question of where real power should reside — with the few and privileged elites, or with the American citizenry? They are asking themselves practical questions such as: In this, the third most populous country on Earth, isn’t it simply impractical to attempt to run things from one corrupt city by the Potomac River?

Wouldn’t it be better to break up old bureaucracies, furlough the bureaucrats, and send the power and authority back to the states, the localities and the individuals, where problems can be solved more quickly, more efficiently, where the Founding Fathers and framers intended it to be?

These questions have been posed starkly before, in the elections of 1800, 1832, 1860, 1904, 1932 and 1980. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, the time is now to ask them once again.

Before deciding, maybe it is best to ask what you are, and what it is you believe. Ask yourself three simple questions:

• Do you like government but loathe big business?

  Then you are a collectivist, a liberal.

• Do you like big government and big business?

  Then you are a corporatist, an Establishmentarian. 

• Do you oppose big government and big business?

  Then you are a populist.

To get down to specifics, I would add: If you favor the Patriot Act as is, then you are an insider, an elitist. If you oppose it (at least in its present form) then you are an outsider, a populist —and, I would add, really smart.  

If you favor the trade bill granting Obama all sorts of new powers, then you are an insider, a corporatist, a Bushie. If you oppose giving more power to the executive branch at the expense of the House and the citizenry, then you are a populist, a constitutionalist, a Reaganite. 

Both the political Right and Left feature false populists aplenty.

If you think Edward Snowden has raised important questions, then again you are an intellectual, a populist, a Reaganite. If you think he is dangerous and needs to be put away, then you are a Police State Republican, an anti-constitutionalist.

We need clarity in deciding who and what is populism. Both the political Right and Left feature false populists aplenty. For now, let’s consider the Left. Start with two U.S. senators, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

LZ-info-thumb_Populism Checklist (2213)As Sherlock Holmes knew, if we eliminate the impossible, then the possible remains. It is impossible to make any sense of the supposed distinction that Elizabeth Warren is a populist but Bernie Sanders is a socialist. It’s inane. They’re both socialists, even if only Sanders has the guts to admit it.

Both Warren and Sanders are calling for the breakup of Wall Street not because they are populists, but because the are, in fact, both liberal collectivists, suspicious at best and contemptuous at worst of a too-little regulated free market.

They don’t oppose Wall Street because they fear any concentrations of power. Indeed, they celebrate it. They oppose Wall Street because they fear a big private sector, which is one of the only “big” things that are good, because it’s actually not a single bit entity at all, but a freedom-enhancing, un-centrally planned collections of millions upon millions of autonomous individuals.

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For the record, American liberalism, such as Warren’s, has changed, morphed into American socialism. Because much of the public intuits this and resents it, the very label of “liberal” has been besmirched, which is why many have now taken to calling themselves progressives. In any event, they are all more or less collectivists. 

Warren never attacks the excesses of government (except the Pentagon, but that’s another story). She never attacks the criminal behavior of the Internal Revenue Service. She was mute on the NSA’s spying on private American citizens. She did not criticize the grotesque waste, fraud and abuse of power by centralized authority. It should be noted that Warren supports the continuation of the corrupt Ex-Im Bank, further proof that she is no populist. 

You get the picture. But this is not just about Warren. She’s just one example of all the out-of-touch elitists of both parties who run Washington these days.

Populist is not anti-intellectualism but it is anti-elitism. Which is why the elites tend to attack it or deride it for the simple reason it is a threat to the status quo.

The GOP is going through its own identity crisis. Big Government Republicans and so-called “Reformi-cons” look down their noses at populists. Establishment Republicans have always bristled at the populist views on trade, immigration, and foreign policy.

Indeed, populism is making a comeback, though it is very much misunderstood. Populist is not anti-intellectualism but it is anti-elitism. Which is why the elites tend to attack it or deride it for the simple reason it is a threat to the status quo. Its roots are found in the writings of John Locke, considered the intellectual founder of American conservatism, which is to say American populism. Locke’s radical writings inspired Thomas Paine, George Mason, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Voltaire called Locke “the man of the greatest wisdom” and indeed he was.

It’s time to listen more to the American people. Like Donald Trump is doing. Which might explain his dramatic rise in the polls.

What does it say about the sorry state of the two party system when the leading voices for American populism are a Harvard professor and a New York City billionaire real estate developer? This is the end result of the rise of the consultants. They have never won anything, yet have made millions telling presidential candidates that issues mean nothing, conservatism is de classe, and the way to win is to run personality campaigns.

Right. Don’t we all recall the fine administrations of president Mitt Romney, president John McCain, president Bob Dole and president Lamar Alexander?

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Maybe it’s time to listen less to hack consultants and more to the American people. Like Donald Trump is doing. Which might explain his dramatic rise in the polls.

I’m no architect, but it strikes me that even in the new Visitor Center to the U.S. Capitol, the bipartisan planners got the symbolism exactly upside down. The Visitors Center is underground, below the elected officials. Yet it was the government that the Framers wished to be under the citizenry. They believed that power flowed from the citizenry to the government, and not vice versa, as modern liberals such as Warren believe. 

Mark my words: In time, the American citizenry will be completely barred from entering the U.S. Capitol. In fact, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid once referred to visitors as “smelly.”

Something stinks for sure, but it is not the American people.

Craig Shirley is the author of several Reagan biographies. His new book, “Last Act: The Final Years and Enduring Legacy of Ronald Reagan,” is due out in October.  

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Craig Shirley
meet the author

Craig Shirley is a presidential historian and Reagan biographer. He's written four books on Ronald Reagan, is working on several more, and is the author of the New York Times best-seller, "December 1941." His newest book is "Mary Ball Washington: The Untold Story of George Washington’s Mother," just published in December 2019. He is the Visiting Reagan Scholar at Eureka College in Illinois and has taught courses on Reagan at the University of Virginia.

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