Feature 11.19.2019 8 minutes

Can Our Populism Stay Constitutional?

We the People.

America’s future turns on an iron hinge.

Colin Dueck’s new book interjects a needed dose of sanity and clear thinking into current conversations on this fraught subject. Crucially, Age of Iron correctly underscores how commentators elide over national and electoral distinctions, frequently lumping together Venezuela, Russia, America, Turkey and Hungary, etc., as succumbing to populism’s spell and its dastardly consequences for democracy. This tendency is a refusal to take seriously the political matter at hand, affording cultural and political elites a convenient reason to dismiss their critics while not “actually listening to any specific or valid complaints of populist voters.” Nothing to see or hear, folks, just bigots and cranks.

America’s experience with populism is one that has had lasting democratic effects, as Dueck notes. Populism in America has been a part of our politics and has not resulted in authoritarian policies. He observes, “perhaps the single most striking feature of American populism historically is its sheer variety in terms of attitudes, platforms, and specific issues of concern.” From William Jennings Bryan’s late 19th-century agrarian movement, FDR’s New Deal, and the Nixon conservative populism that came to remake the GOP, populism has constantly been at work in our politics, with “these power struggles tak[ing] place—as America’s founders believed they would—within the framework of a federal constitutional republic.”

Dueck’s analysis of the changing populist composition of the Republican party and what will constitute conservatism in the future is mostly right. The Republicans are becoming a party of rural, lesser-educated Americans who favor increased economic interventions, shoring up the welfare state, a desire for stout border protections, and a hallowed defense of American patriotism. Significantly, this will prove crucial in respect to what arguments will work for conservatives in elections and on policy disputes. This party will also have to reconnect with the suburbanites it is losing under Trump and appeal to minority groups on a much broader scale, but that’s another discussion.

There is, though, a mostly undiscussed premise in Dueck’s reasoning worth drawing out: The relative benignity of American populism—that it is a part of our politics and it remakes our parties from time to time—turns on whether the framework of the Constitution remains in place. If we are going to consider American populism, then we must understand how our institutions are currently faring. Our constitutional order is built on popular sovereignty, but also the filtering mechanisms of representation in institutions designed to produce deliberated outcomes, more or less acceptable to a broad range of Americans. But this constitutional system no longer works as intended.

A danger is surely that our Constitution and its forms and procedures are now being dismantled and increasingly forgotten by acts of omission and commission in both parties. It took President Obama until the second term of his presidency to tout his “pen and phone” strategy of ignoring congressional constitutional power, but Democratic Presidential candidate Kamala Harris openly proclaims her willingness to prohibit certain firearms with an executive order, the Constitution be damned, because “we can’t wait.” While Dueck’s observations on the populisms of the past ring true, once these crucial pieces of our constitutional architecture are eliminated, can they be put back together?

In the new book The Lost Soul of the American Presidency, Stephen F. Knott refers to the “populist presidency,” a conception of the presidency that hinges on public opinion, base turnout, and politics as war by other means. It’s a legacy built on Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, although Knott also traces it back to Presidents Jackson and Jefferson. The populist presidency constantly stokes us to action, either in excited agreement or heated disagreement. “This refounding,” Knott notes, shifted the presidency from its intended role as a check on majority rule to a spokesman for and implementer of the majority’s wishes.” From it has come a new politics that departs from deliberation, compromise, and limits on government. If the president, as Wilson intoned, “is free to be as big a man as he can,” then we get aggressive, anointed executives and perpetual agitation.

Alternatively, Knott describes the “founders’ presidency” as one of “sober expectations,” and “one that did not pander to or manipulate the public, one that was averse to the notion that it was the president’s job to provide ‘visionary leadership,’ and one that was loath to implement the majority will at the expense of political, racial, and economic minorities.” It is a conception of presidential power fully in accord with Publius’ notion that “enlightened statesmen will not always be at the helm,” and thus the president is a crucial part of the “auxiliary precautions” that protects the Constitution from ill-tutored passions and enthusiasms of the people. But these constitutional bones are almost dry.

Crucially, President Trump represents a near majority of Americans who disagree with the post-Cold War political consensus, which has taken on fierce elements of political correctness in the past decade. They rightly believe that much of the consensus did not affirm their communities and beliefs, even perhaps looking away as they fell further behind socially and economically. There is also the matter that this same group wants Trump and the Republicans to uphold the Constitution—and to do so in the name of the country as a whole against abstract ideals for foreign policy, transnational interests, or notions of multiculturalism that obliterate the natural rights of the Declaration because said multiculturalism disputes the existence of a human nature.

The problem that remains is how to build constitutionally this conservative populist movement, even as it seems most loyal to President Trump, who is a creature of the populist presidency that itself represents a threat to the constitutional order. A new Republican party is being born, but the ultimate task is to make sure that its politics and strategy shores up our Constitution.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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