The Good Populism

I’ve been kicking around a course idea for a couple of years now:  History of Conservative Thought.  I’ll be offering the course this summer for high school students; if it “makes” (gets enough enrollment to run), I’ll have to put together a quality syllabus.  The scope of the course will essentially begin with the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions, and extend to the present populist-nationalist movements in Europe and the United States.

I have a few ideas for course readings already, including Richard Weaver‘s Ideas Have Consequences and excerpts from Milton and Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose.  I also need to include some shorter readings, and I’ll probably include a couple of podcast episodes.  Of course, with only eight weeks, it’ll be a fairly focused course (if you have any recommendations for readings or possible topics, leave a comment below, or e-mail me).

We’ll see if it makes.  Regardless, one reading I will definitely include is a popular essay from New Criterion; indeed, it was their most popular essay in 2018.  The piece, “The Good Populism” by ancient historian Victor Davis Hanson, is a consideration of healthy, middle-class populist movements in the United States.

Populism—like its cousin, nationalism—suffers from a public relations problem.  Hanson argues effectively that there are different kinds of populism, and it shouldn’t, by default, be considered a bad word.  Conservatives tend to get hung up on populism as an essentially Leftist phenomenon—think corrupt Louisiana Governor Huey Long in the 1930s, or Senator Bernie Sanders or Congressbabe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez today—while progressives link it to nationalism, which they perceive as inherently fascistic.

In fact, as Hanson argues, the “good” populism is the populism of the middle-class, those who love their country, want to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and generally want their values and property to be protected.  To quote Hanson:

The antithesis to such radical populism was likely thought by ancient conservative historians to be the “good” populism of the past—and what the contemporary media might call the “bad” populism of the present: the push-back of small property owners and the middle classes against the power of oppressive government, steep taxation, and internationalism, coupled with unhappiness over imperialism and foreign wars and a preference for liberty rather than mandated equality. Think of the second century B.C. Gracchi brothers rather than Juvenal’s “bread-and-circuses” imperial Roman underclass, the American rather than the French Revolution, or the Tea Party versus Occupy Wall Street.

Since Trump’s triumphant rise in 2015-2016, we’ve seen the reinvigoration of this kind of “good populism,” which was dormant for many years, but smoldering below the surface.

Grab a cup of coffee and give yourself fifteen minutes to read Hanson’s essay.  It’s a great discussion of a much-maligned, oft-misunderstood term: https://www.newcriterion.com/issues/2018/6/the-good-populism-9842

3 thoughts on “The Good Populism

  1. […] “The Good Populism” – The counter to the aforementioned tyrannical transnational organizations is good, healthy populism, the kind of middle-class, conservative revolutions that brought us the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and Donald Trump (among others).  Super historian and classicist Victor Davis Hanson makes the case for the “good populism,” as opposed to Bernie Bro socialistic populism, in this piece, one of the most popular TNC published in 2018. […]

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  2. […] “The Good Populism” – This post was one in which I mused about running the first iteration of History of Conservative Thought.  The essay explores a post from classicist Victor Davis Hanson entitled “The Good Populism.”  I enthused at the time about how I would “definitely include” this essay in the course.  Oops!  The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray, eh?  But it is a great essay, as VDH delivers keen analysis once again.  In an age in which populism has newfound purchase on the American political imagination, it’s worth understanding that not all populism is the wicked machinations of demagogues swaying the rubes. […]

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