Conservatives would be wise to resist populist temptations

Kelly Sloan
Kelly Sloan

It’s a not uncommon phenomena in American politics for left and right to circumnavigate the spectrum and forge periodic and unlikely alliances. This is particularly prone to occur when elements of the right succumb to the temptations of populist ideology.

Adopting something of a populist slant isn’t entirely without merit, especially considering our political institutions are democratic in nature and that a central tenet of American political structure is that government is conditional upon the consent of the governed. One of the most fundamental questions that has occupied western political thought for a few centuries now is the identification of the tipping point between legitimate popular consent and mob rule. Radicalism in its various forms has traditionally leaned towards the mob — French revolutionaries, Irish Fenians, Russian Bolsheviks and Third World liberation movements — while conservative polities has tended to favor existing orders.     

But as elements of the left have engrained themselves in American political and social institutions over the years, conservatives have found themselves more and more prone to adopting something of an anti-establishmentarian outlook. This is healthy in many respects. It can serve to provide a needed check on the constantly gestating encroachment of liberal policies in those institutions and fits tightly with traditional conservative suspicion of centralized power. But it becomes problematic when it begins to reflexively bend to what William F. Buckley called “political truths that were discovered yesterday at the voting booth.” In other words, conservatives in a democracy must  guard against harboring a predilection towards abandoning fealty to traditional institutional structures and inherited wisdom in favor of radical libertine tendencies.

This is perhaps most evident when it comes to issues of national security, where, for instance, some on the right joined the left in idolizing the likes of Edward Snowden, who laid bare many of his country’s most vital secrets. Not long ago, conservatives were the ones lamenting the dismantlement of American intelligence capabilities, most profoundly during the Carter-era Church hearings. That was, of course, at a time when communism posed an existential threat to western democracies. Certainly there are concerns — both legitimate and superstitious — over trusting to the felicitousness of Barack Obama, for whom suspicion of centralized power might as well have been invented.

But a healthy suspicion ought not to translate into an abrogation of just duties and responsibilities. Ask any thinking conservative about the proper role of government, and the answer will most likely be a variation of “providing for the common defense.” Is it particularly wise or prudent to subordinate that function to the whims of the ACLU?

A similar dynamic occurs in the debate over trade. Free trade is a central conservative economic principle insofar as modern conservatives are by and large disciples of Adam Smith. Conservatives have long subscribed to Ricardo’s theory of comparative advantage — because, well, it has worked time and again — and have fought tooth and nail for decades to grant fast-track authority to presidents to facilitate the negotiation of free trade deals. The reason is simple: No country will waste time negotiating a trade agreement subject to the conjuries of Congress after the fact.

Yet, a few Republicans — some for protectionist reasons, others for fear of the flotsam and jetsam of presidential add-ons — choose to align with Barry Sanders, Harry Reid and Elizabeth Warren on the trade issue. They disregarded the fact they will have the right and duty to vote down any trade deal that includes superfluous and potentially harmful provisions.

Drug policy is little bit trickier issue, but the same thing can be found. There are valid conservative arguments for legalization and against the current prosecution of the war on drugs. But until recently, they didn’t include a latitudinarian disregard for the social costs of drug use. Sadly, a growing number of libertarian-leaning conservatives are suddenly less concerned over examining legalization as a way to help solve the drug problem in favor of legalization as a product of denial that problem even exists, bending, once again, to the vagaries of a pop-culture driven mob.

With each of these issues, the stubborn insistence of certain elements of the right to acquiesce to populist superstition is ultimately harmful to conservatism’s vital role in maintaining the proper balance between democratic will and fidelity to inherited, permanent truths, and ought to be resisted.

One Response to "Conservatives would be wise to resist populist temptations"

  1. Anders Ingemarson   May 28, 2015 at 7:27 am

    Good article. I would add immigration (an extension of trade) and big business bashing to the list.