The Riddle of Populism: It’s About Worthiness

Illustration via Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

July 25, 2023

This article appears in Vol III Issue II: Populism

Though there is some debate about it, populism is generally defined by reference to two opposing groups—the people and the elites. In this arrangement, elites are corrupt and self-interested, and the people are an exploited class, which must be liberated from the rule of elites. But what if this goal were fundamentally flawed? For all of the faults of elites, there are serious reasons to doubt that rule by the masses would be a significant improvement and equally serious reasons to suspect that it might be significantly worse. What is needed is not the abolition of a ruling elite class, but rather, a new elite. 

While populism may seem like a relatively novel framework for understanding politics in 21st century America—primarily because our current crop of corrupt elites benefits from the illusion that we live in a classless society—it would be very familiar to previous ages. What would not have seemed so obvious into previous ages is the belief that the people could or even should be liberated. 

Jose Ortega y Gasset’s Revolt of the Masses described a change in the relations between the elites of his time and the masses which echoes many contemporary concerns (which is probably why his title gets cribbed so often). His characterization of the “masses” and the “mass man” was brutally negative. Spiritless, incurious and irrational, the masses were, above all, ungrateful—puffed up with an unjustified sense of entitlement to a future of greater and greater material benefits. Decades later, when Christopher Lasch wrote his famous response to Ortega, The Revolt of the Elites, he sought to demonstrate that America’s contemporary elites were in many respects no better and in some, worse. 

I’ll admit that I find Lasch’s argument compelling and that it is my impulse to side with this group so inadequately described as “the people.” But beyond that, I have to further admit that whenever I am around large numbers of people who could be said to represent this group, I find myself uncomfortable, out of place, and irritated. So much so that if someone were to ask me if I would want to live in a country in which these people decided everything, I would have to admit that I do not. 

It’s not just that they do things like watch The Voice (or whatever programming is currently aimed at piquing the interest of middle-American wives with husbands too exhausted or emasculated to object). I don’t think it’s an issue of class either. My own background is nothing special. I’ve spent a number of years filling orders in warehouses or landscaping or whatever other menial labor you can imagine. In terms of material wealth, I am in no way superior to them, and frequently inferior. No, it’s something deeper than that. 

In fact, what I find difficult to accept about the masses is precisely what many (including personal heroes like G. K. Chesterton) have accounted as their greatest virtue: they are staunchly anti-ideological. Though they may claim many different banners—American patriotism, Christianity, etc.—when it comes down to it, these end up seeming more like a kind of linguistic cement used to establish communities rather than declarations of genuine belief. One senses that their true motivating instinct is a kind of generalized gregariousness—a simple desire to be friendly with other people, to belong, and to have access to sources of comfort and simple pleasures. 

Curtis Yarvin ruffled a not insignificant number of feathers when he described populists, through the lens of Tolkienian taxonomies, as hobbits. According to Yarvin, hobbits just want to grill and raise their kids and are therefore distinctly different from the elves (elites) who are concerned with living beautiful lives, who are able to devote themselves to ideals. If this seems elitist, that’s because it is. This may be a tough pill to swallow, but elitism is good, necessary even. In our age of “body-acceptance” and “fat phobia” it ought to be abundantly clear that a consistent rejection of elitism results in the abolition of virtue itself, and this is grotesque. 

Of the many other insights, Alexis de Tocqueville noted that democracy has the potential for becoming a cult of mediocrity. A truly democratic spirit reduces all things to a matter of public opinion. As a matter of fact, a great number of our prized cultural myths are examples of the enlightened individual standing against the muddle-headed masses, a very undemocratic notion. To return to the metaphor, the elves are the heirs of Socrates who claimed that the unexamined life is not worth living, and the hobbits are the small-minded Athenians that put him to death. In this light, it seems impossible to assert that hobbits should have the right to rule over elves. 

None of this is to defend our current elites, who appear in turn to be entirely chest-less (to adapt a term from C. S. Lewis), clueless (despite their elevated IQs and educational achievements), and embarrassingly egotistical. Their only apparent idealism is for “social justice” and “anti-racism” as well as a vague desire to abolish suffering from the human experience. The latter usually works out into a belief that all problems are merely technical issues relating to production. They are basically sincere believers in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; they just need to eradicate all the bigots in order to get there. 

What then is to be done if neither the masses nor our elites are fit to rule?   

The populist dilemma is one which must be resolved, not by abolishing social elites (an option which amounts to unmaking civilization), but in recognizing the complimentary virtues of elites and populace, and choosing a new elite which is capable of embodying the sincerely held values of the populace. Once again, the limiting factor will be the populace themselves. Legitimate populism requires a radical responsibility on the part of the people. They must accept that they have the leaders that they deserve, that if these leaders are unacceptable, then they themselves will have to change. There is no shortcut; the way forward is simply difficult.

One foreseeable issue is that America is a modern economy and as such has constructed itself in such a way that management is of foremost importance in keeping the gravy-train running. These managers have a certain kind of intellect and a certain kind of ethos, and the combination of these two things is essentially why we have the kind of country that we have, warts and all. For those who desire a different kind of country, which defends different things and appreciates different virtues, it will be necessary to realize that this may very likely coincide with a decrease in standards of living. Therein lies the rub.

Though Americans may occasionally enjoy adopting the aesthetics of their forebears (less now after years of demoralizing propaganda), if we are to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we are now a country of consumers, not believers; and how does one sell austerity to a country of consumers?

In case it needs reminding, this country was founded by extremely ideological people, people for whom the bastardization of Christianity perpetrated by King Henry VIII constituted enough reason to uproot their families, take a perilous journey to the other side of the Earth, and start anew so that they could worship as they wished. I’m sure that at the time, this was an extraordinarily profound commitment; today it might well be regarded as a monstrous one. Who can even imagine such a thing in our world of on-demand-everything? 

In seeking to install a new elite, we must become men with chests, capable of recognizing virtue in others, cultivating it in ourselves, and most of all, being loyal to those whom we recognize as having this virtue. This is the problem that the populist right has currently. Various social media personalities (modern-day warlords) compete for clout and influence, and in doing so, play into the same cycle of audience building and schism that forms the basis of successful engagement-farming. But clout is not the same thing as political power. It may be the case that the methods that are effective for building clout are actually directly or indirectly at odds with the goal of building political solidarity. 

This is not an issue exclusive to the right; it is just more visible there because this kind of behavior is ludicrous when you are out of power. But really, this is the problem of our time. This cycle has to be broken, and the only way that it can be broken is for the masses to become something other than masses. It is not enough to be the emotion-cows that populate the left (and right), fed on propaganda and milked by outrage. We have to become believers: serious people capable of understanding the Good, working towards it, and realizing that the lower must be sacrificed to the higher.


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