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:


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