Politics

Populism with More than Pitchforks

Conservative outsiders must be smarter

First, persuade. Those whom you can’t persuade, co-opt. And only then, against those fools or brigands who remain unmoved by principles and reason, attack.

Conservative populists wielding pitchforks sometimes should practice patience.

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Elsewhere on this web page, my good friends Craig Shirley and Jeffrey Lord tout the virtues of principled populism. They lay out a stark choice between the grifter elites of the political-corporatist complex, on one hand, and the common sense and common decency, on the other hand, of the vast numbers of individual citizens Lord calls “Average Americans.”

My compatriots are correct on the dichotomy between Washington, D.C., and the rest of America, correct on the perfidy of the political-cultural “establishment,” and correct about the evils of collectivism. They play the right tune and sing the right lyrics, and at the right tempo.

Conservative populists wielding pitchforks sometimes should practice patience.

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But some who yell the same words, some of our erstwhile allies, are sometimes too eager to charge the collectivist castle without enough planning or applied force. It’s all so romantically medieval — and also, alas, so obsolete.

Why use a phalanx of pitchforks when bazooka battalions are securable by those with the wits and industry to amass them?

The poet Matthew Arnold wrote that “when the forts of folly fall, may they find thy body by the wall.” Well, if glorious self-sacrifice must be risked for the cause of tearing down those forts of folly, I’m willing. But t’would be far better not to die in the attempt, but to live; not to nobly fall, but to be triumphant and to be available, after the victory, to help replace the fort with a new citadel of reason.

Consider this, then, a plea for fellow conservatives to pay as much attention to strategy, tactics, and practicalities as they do to idealism, invective, and commotion. After all, one reason the “establishment” is established is because its denizens played smarter than we did and figured out how to win.

The reason we should persuade and co-opt is because we must gain more allies before slaying enemies. (Note: before, not instead of.) We need more allies because it’s easier to slay enemies if their numbers are fewer than they might have been while ours are greater than they once were.

The goal isn’t just to slay the old elites; the goal is to create a new establishment — an establishment not of concentrated power, but of conservative populism rightly understood, meaning liberty infused with (but never shackled by) the people’s reasoned law.

Conservatives must play to win and create this new establishment, which means we must play smart — which means we must engage in the broader culture, and go not just where our politics lead but where our lives lead us into communities we know and cherish. It is there that we must first engage, there that we must first persuade. The politics will follow – and folly’s forts will crumble.

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