Populism Endangers America’s Political Norms

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Wednesday, September 4, 2019


Populism is like a pineapple. Implementing it is thorny, yet sweet for a little while. However, as it ripens, it becomes increasingly acidic and sour, and eventually ends up rotting into a dark and fermented mess. We have already tasted its rapidly souring fruits in America, and, if we are wise, will immediately hurl it into a dumpster to avoid it smelling up our home.

Modern populism, as defined by Ben Shapiro, is “More a strategy than a philosophy—claiming to stand with ‘the people’ is a time-honored political tool, often utilized by demagogues of every side. But there are certain factors the new populist upswells of Left and Right share: in-group loyalty; skepticism about free markets; and deep distrust of institutions.”

These three factors can easily be identified on both sides. In-group loyalty often results in blatant hypocrisy as partisans laughably attempt to defend things they would normally abhor such as Donald Trump’s affair with a porn star, Elizabeth Warren’s fake Native American heritage, or Bernie Sanders’ status as a millionaire

Skepticism about free markets results in calls for Sanders’ Democratic Socialism or Andrew Yang’s human-centered capitalism on the left. On the right, calls for increased regulation of businesses that are not political allies are commonplace from people like Tucker Carlson and Senator Josh Hawley.

Finally, deep distrust of institutions results in the rejection of classical liberalism and Lockean individualism by both sides. Leftists seek to shift the legacy of America’s foundation from individual rights to racism, in addition to wanting to pack the Supreme Court and abolish the Electoral College. Likewise, right-wing nationalists believe the American founding should be regarded as a failed experiment, and (falsely) believe liberalism has led to detestable outgrowths of progressivism, such as the transgender rights revolution, where, as Cathy Young writes, “[T]he tendency to brand sexual traditionalists as bigots is bad for both practical and moral reasons.”

Admittedly, I am far more sympathetic to the right-wing version of populism than I am to Sanders’ and Warren’s socialist dystopia. I believe nationalists like Sohrab Ahmari and Yoram Hazony were unfortunate enough to plunge into Nietzsche’s abyss and become the monsters they were so passionately fighting. Nevertheless, their disregard for classical liberalism and our foundational norms can be nearly as dangerous to America as the ideas of their leftist counterparts. 

Abandoning the great American idea seems unwise in a time in which we are richer, more connected, and more technologically advanced than any generation ever, even if it seems like we are in the midst of constant political turmoil. Ahmari and Hazony’s propositions certainly appeal to many like myself who would love to see the restoration of a moral social fabric upheld by all Americans in the age of ‘woke capitalism’; nevertheless, we must recognize that our country was founded to protect the liberty and expression of all Americans—even the liberty and expression of those we disagree with.

Our Founding Fathers believed faction was a formidable enemy to liberty and went to great lengths in implementing Checks and Balances to ensure the security of our freedom. That being said, if we are truly committed to upholding our founding principles, we must never allow populism and tribalism to push our political norms past the point of no return.

The current plight of traditional conservatives and classical liberals in the battle against populism is reminiscent of Eve’s explanation to the Serpent preceding the Fall of Man in Genesis 3:3: “But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.” 

Just as Eve and Adam were easily convinced to partake of the forbidden fruit, Americans committed to upholding our founding principles are hard-pressed to avoid jumping into the tribalistic fray populism has helped create. If those who remain committed to preserving our traditional ways bite into the forbidden fruit of populism, any chances of remaining within the walls of our forefathers’ doctrinal Garden of Eden vanish.

Populism is not the answer. Classical liberal principles of due process and individual rights—not populism—saved Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination and Colorado baker Jack Phillips’ bakery from insurrections of the populist left. Granted, the existence of such attacks in the first place might lead some to believe the fabric of American culture is in a dark place; nevertheless, as Percy Bysshe Shelley reflects in Ode to the West Wind, “O, wind, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?”

Jonathan Voos is a baseball player and Political Science/Economics double major at Austin College, a private liberal arts institution in Sherman, Texas. He currently serves as Treasurer of the Austin College Pre-Law Society and is an active member of his church and his community.

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.


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About Jonathan Voos

Jonathan Voos is a baseball player and Political Science/Economics double major at Austin College, a private liberal arts institution in Sherman, Texas. He currently serves as Treasurer of the Austin College Pre-Law Society and is an active member of his church and his community.

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