Beware the unseen perils of populism

Many UD students are aware of the dangers of communism or facism, but populism can be just as dangerous to our society. Photo by Anthony Garnier.

Populism is by far the most despicable of all the –isms.

Don’t get me wrong, communism and fascism are bad — but at least they are upfront about their wickedness.

“Make me dictator and I’ll fix your problems.”

Terrible, but straightforward.

For those of you who don’t know, populism is the political doctrine that supports the rights and powers of the common people in their struggle with a privileged elite. Of course, that has virtually never been how it actually pans out.

The earliest example is the populares party of ancient Rome, which was created to fight the ruling elite of the senate. About a century after their founding, they put Caesar on the throne as dictator. Right out of the gate, populism is 0-1.

There were other minor bouts of this plague throughout history such as the German Peasants’ War, the Munster Rebellion and the English Civil War that, surprise, ended terribly.

The next major populist uprising came during the French Revolution, which the heroic French fought against the ruling class and issued an age of French history lovingly dubbed “The Reign of Terror.” Then, a few years later, what do the uneducated peasants do with the country they are running? Hand it right over to the dictator Napoleon Bonaparte.

Fast forward to the early mid-20th century and you have a few little-known populist uprisings in Italy, Germany, China, Japan, Russia and Spain that hardly anyone remembers and that caused hundreds of millions of deaths.

For me to continue, I need to explain just what is wrong with populism. Thankfully, it is not a hard task. It may be hard to believe, but the rich, educated and elite tend to make and choose better leaders. Here is the essential timeline of any populist movement: they either take power and things immediately fall apart because, as history will show you, “the people” do not choose good leaders and are then either subject to letting things get so bad that a dictator takes power, or they are persuaded by a dictator from the get-go.

Now some of you may be wondering why all of this sounds very undemocratic of me.

“How can you call yourself an American while saying ‘the people’ are stupid,” you might say. “We’re the people! We the people! It’s in the Constitution!”

Well, friend, do you want to know what else is in the Constitution? The provisions for electing the president. Provisions that say the president is not chosen by “the people” but by electorates selected by state legislatures who consist of land-owning males or the elite.

See, the reason we are a representative republic with a president chosen by electoral votes is because the Founding Fathers knew from studying nations like Athens that populism is a garbage ideology.

As Alexander Hamilton wrote, dictators “mouth populist shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”

Our founders somehow realized that granting power based on the emotions of the people is not a good idea, and they put every safeguard in place to help us.

Yet, we have failed. Over the centuries we have allowed more populists to enter the political realm, and finally we have reached our ultimate failure: the 2016 election, a battle between the socialist-populists of the Bernie camp and the authoritarian-populists of the Trump camp.

Sorry, everybody: there’s no heroic twist to this story. We’ve failed.

Either Trump wins and brings in more authoritarian-populism or Clinton comes in and brings more socialist-populism.

This election is the literal definition of “pick your poison.”



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