Why Conservatism Can Never Be “Populist”

Conservative “populism” has never been about egalitarianism, but about mobilizing support for traditional hierarchies and giving those considered “worthy” a taste of status and power. A review of “I, The People The Rhetoric of Conservative Populism in the United States” by Paul Elliott Johnson.

“Indulge me in some observations concerning the present condition of what is called ‘democracy’ near the close of the 20th century. We are informed by certain voices that soon all the world will be democratic. But whether or not, the American mode of democratic government prevails, the abstract ideology called democratism [means] that any government which has obtained a majority of votes be received as ‘democratic.’ Enthusiasts for unrestricted democracy presumably forget that Adolf Hitler, too, was democratically elected and sustained by popular plebiscites. Alexis de Tocqueville warned his contemporaries against ‘democratic despotism,’ 20th century writers discuss ‘totalist democracy.’ I am suggesting, ladies and gentlemen, that democracy—literally, “the rule of the crowd”—is a term so broad and vague as to signify everything or nothing.”

Russell Kirk, “The Degradation of Democracy”

“There is no reason at all that a libertarian, such as myself, cannot favor martial law. I am free when my rights are defined and secured against all comers, regardless of official pretensions. Freedom implies law; law implies order; order implies peace; peace implies victory. As a libertarian, the greatest threat to my property is not Uncle Sam, but thieves and brigands. If Uncle Sam wakes up from his present sclerotic slumber and shows the brigands a strong hand, my liberty has been increased.”

Curtis Yarvin, An Open Letter to Open-Minded Progressives

“Many of the leading proponents of the graduated tax frankly admit that their purpose is to redistribute the nation’s wealth. Their aim is an egalitarian society—an objective that does violence both to the charter of the Republic and the laws of Nature. We are all equal in the eyes of God but we are equal in no other respect. Artificial devices for enforcing equality among unequal men must be rejected.”

Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative

In 1776, Abigail Adams wrote a concerned letter to her husband John Adams. Adams and his allies were vigorously driving the 13 colonies towards a revolution which would violently upend hundreds of thousands of lives, including Abigail’s. In the letter, she frets about the impending violence and gently asks John to write her longer responses. Abigail also notes that a “passion for Liberty cannot be Eaquelly Strong in the Breasts of those who have been accustomed to deprive their fellow Creatures of theirs” and points to the Christian principle that one should do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. Given this, she asks Adams to “think about the ladies” when designing a new country. Abigail very cleverly invokes a revolutionary observation to make the feminist claim that “all men would by Tyrants if they could” and points out that if women aren’t represented in the new country, they might be entitled to “rebellion” since they are not “bound by any laws in which we have no voice and no representation.” This was of course a core argument of the American revolutionaries, who tirelessly beat the Lockean drum that only tyrannical rulers deny the ruled representation and rights. 

In his reply, Adams guffaws at Abigail’s suggestion that the rights he and his fellows started a war to win for themselves should be extended to everyone:

“As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient—that schools and Colledges were grown turbulent—that Indians slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerfull than all the rest were grown discontented. This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I wont blot it out. Depend upon it, We know better than to repeal our Masculine systems. Altho they are in full Force, you know they are little more than Theory. We dare not exert our Power in its full Latitude. We are obliged to go fair, and softly, and in Practice you know We are the subjects. We have only the Name of Masters, and rather than give up this, which would compleatly subject Us to the Despotism of the Peticoat, I hope General Washington, and all our brave Heroes would fight.”

In a more serious mode a few months later, Adams writes an even more telling letter to James Sullivan discussing potential voter qualifications. He points out that the revolutionaries, including himself, have held that “it is certain in theory” that the “only moral foundation of government is consent of the people [governed].” But if that’s the case, then plenty of people Adams wants to govern without asking for their consent would have cause to complain. As he puts it, 

“Shall We Say, that every Individual of the Community, old and young, male and female, as well as rich and poor, must consent, expressly to every Act of Legislation? No, you will Say. This is impossible. How then does the Right arise in the Majority to govern the Minority, against their Will? Whence arises the Right of the Men to govern Women, without their Consent? Whence the Right of the old to bind the Young, without theirs.”

Adams goes on to list other possible controversies that could emerge and cautions that the “revolutionaries” should keep qualifications for voting and political participation strict. Ironically, their revolution should try to revolutionize as little as possible, since the end result might be a disadvantageous leveling of power across society. 

“Depend upon it, sir, it is dangerous to open So fruitfull a Source of Controversy and Altercation, as would be opened by attempting to alter the Qualifications of Voters. There will be no End of it. New Claims will arise. Women will demand a Vote. Lads from 12 to 21 will think their Rights not enough attended to, and every Man, who has not a Farthing, will demand an equal Voice with any other in all Acts of State. It tends to confound and destroy all Distinctions, and prostrate all Ranks, to one common Levell.”

John Adams saw nothing particularly contradictory in using mass revolutionary violence to secure rights to freedom, equality, and political power for himself and those like him while being both amused and alarmed that women, children, the unpropertied,1 apprentices, Natives, and Black people would feel entitled to the same rights, or even to revolt for rights. To justify the contradictions, Adams denies both the Christianized “Golden Rule” that one should do unto others as one would have done unto oneself, and the revolutionaries’ own arguments that the consent of all the governed is the “only moral foundation” for government. Not to mention the appeals of his own wife.

These exchanges between Adams and his interlocutors contain the germ of many of the themes that would come to define conservative populism in the United States. Conservative populism is defined by a willingness—sometimes sincerely, sometimes strategically—to ape the demotic rhetoric of modernity by demanding power to some of the “people” while seething against tyrants, liberal elites, socialist authoritarians, woke scolds, critical race theorists and, of course, this very magazine. In this respect, conservative populism accommodated itself to the democratic impetus of the last 200 years in a way that many of its more stridently reactionary counterparts haven’t. But in principle and in practice, conservative populism has never been concerned with extensively democratizing power in society. In fact, modern conservative populists like Trump or Orbán spend a great deal of their time undermining democratic institutions wherever they can. Trump even bluntly said, about voting reforms, “The things they had in there were crazy. They had things, levels of voting that if you’d ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.” Conservative populism is about mobilizing mass support for legitimizing hierarchical domination by giving “the people” deemed worthy a taste of status and power. Meanwhile, those considered unworthy don’t get to be a part of the conservative populist’s “people.” At best, they should know their place and be grateful for their betters. And at worst, they may even be conceived of as a threat to the power and status of the “people” and their leaders.

Conservative Populism and Race in the U.S.

The rhetorical stylings of conservative populism is the topic of I the People, an excellent new book by Paul Elliott Johnson which argues that “conservative populism works … as ideology, style and logic” to impose

“limitations on the liberal democratic order’s progressive potential. As an ideology it presumes a ‘people’ and an elite. It opposes the ‘people’ to a system defined in multicultural, bureaucratic and institutionalist terms. In terms of its style it often, but not always, follow[s] the shared rhetorical and political templates of populist rhetoric. Perhaps the most powerful function of conservative populism is its operation at the level of political logic. Conservative populism antagonizes shared political and social institutions by curating the notion that the population is defined by its philosophical differences from sources of authority external to ‘the people’ and also that both ‘the people’ and the self are entities with fixed identities and bodily parameters.”

In other words, the conservative “people” are placed in opposition to a system which is rigged against their values and interests. This might seem to have an emancipatory quality, and, of course, there are progressive kinds of populism. But for the conservative populist, the “people” are only ever those deemed worthy of membership, and the system is to be reformed in their interests—not necessarily in the interest of anyone else.

Johnson, a Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Pittsburgh, was prompted to write I the People for reasons many of us who write about the Right can empathize with. While the book covers a lot of American history from the mid-20th century onwards, the Introduction opens with the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and the fits that erupted thereafter. Many of us regard Obamacare as (at best) a partial fix that doesn’t even put American healthcare on par with the public systems of other developed states. But for many conservatives, Obamacare constituted a fundamental threat to the American way of life. Fox News ordered a continuous stream of enraged talking heads on television to denounce it. References to F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom were more ubiquitous than Beyoncé. And above all, the “Tea Party” began as a populist uprising against the administration and fears that progressive policies constituted a threat to flag and freedom. These forces eventually coagulated into the coalition that brought Trump into office and ultimately led to the Jan. 6 riots that hobbled American democracy. This led to many shocked commentaries about how conservatism had gone off the rails, not a few written by conservatives who felt they no longer recognized their movements.

One of Johnson’s main points in I the People is that none of these 21st century developments were in fact particularly new. As Johnson says, it’s “important to stop waxing nostalgic about conservatism’s reasonable past.” American populism has long split down several axes. While progressive populism of the sort associated with FDR and the New Deal “imperfectly marshaled the idea of inequality to legitimate state expansion and a particularly egalitarian redistribution of resources, postwar conservatism invoke[d] ‘the people’ to frame progressive politics as a threat to freedom.” Up until the mid-1970s, this would often take on an overtly racist tone. In 1957, William F. Buckley penned an infamous op-ed “Why the South Must Prevail,” in which he argued that the “White Community” in the South was “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally” even where whites didn’t constitute a majority. This is because “for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the median cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists.” While Buckley later walked back these views, his rhetorical invocation of a nebulous “white community” which upheld the values of “civilization” against “demagogy” applied the same rhetorical tropes as a foaming at the mouth racist George Wallace when he claimed, “our system is under attack.” The only difference is that Buckley delivered pellets of racism in his signature precious prose while Wallace didn’t have time for that.

Johnson points out that these rhetorical appeals to “whiteness” and “white community” have never gone away, even though conservative populists increasingly had to code them in more politically correct forms of symbolism. Reagan’s presidential campaigns included hokey campaign ads like “America’s Back” depicting all but exclusively white families enjoying life in an insular suburb—which, as Johnson points out, was realistic

“because the only people who could afford to move into bigger, nicer homes in the 1980s in the United States were well-off white people. A 1994 Department of Commerce Report on home ownership in the 1980s notes that home purchasing declined for all racial demographics except whites during Reagan’s presidency.”

This union between rhetoric and practice made it very clear whose interests Reagan was serving. Even where the Gipper did preach racial unity as a means of bringing the country together, it was always accompanied by denunciations of Democrats and radicals whose constant blathering about racial justice and oppression was tearing America apart. Nevertheless, this fixation on colorblind unity didn’t keep Reagan from rather unsubtly painting Black women as immoral welfare queens living the good life on the back of hard-working WASP men’s tax dollars.

Taken together Johnson does a great job of undermining the arguments of Never Trumpers like Matthew Continetti, who says that the more ugly and overt Trumpist nationalism of the past decade is somehow an anomaly directly contrary to the shining past of the Reagan-Bush years. Of course, Trump’s populist tone was decidedly more apocalyptic and less sunny than Reagan’s “Morning in America” homilies. Trump’s own fragile masculinity bled into his racist politics via constant references to economically and sexually threatening minorities à la the “rapists” streaming from Mexico to steal jobs from “real” Americans. But the brutality of Trump’s policies had deep roots in Reaganism; we should never forget that under the Reagan-Bush administrations, there were more people jailed in the United States than in apartheid South Africa or the Soviet “evil empire.” An overwhelming number of those incarcerated were people of color. Seen from that standpoint, Trump’s mass jailing of refugees seems less like a novelty and more like a sad continuation of the same.

Conservative Resentiment and Victimhood

One of the more puzzling features of conservative populism that Johnson addresses is how some of the most gilded people in human history are still able to present themselves as victims of mass oppression. Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that as much as the right loves to rail against leftist narratives of victimization—characterizing them as everything from ungrateful whiners to the products of Nietzschean resentiment—conservatives aren’t afraid of repeatedly playing the victim card. Candace Owens may have gone a little farther than usual when she claimed that “straight white males” are being treated like Blacks during the segregation era just a few years after describing victimhood as a plague on Black America. But Owens is just upping the ante on what is by now a tediously familiar rhetorical trope that runs from Ayn Rand describing rich businessmen as an oppressed minority to the billionaire former leader of the free world claiming no American has ever been as persecuted as he has.

As Johnson puts it, “Both critics and conservatives have identified a rhetoric of victimhood as present, if not central, to conservatism.” In the United States, much of this flows from conservatism’s status as a “minoritarian doctrine” for much of the early to mid-20th century, when figures like Buckley and Kirk regarded themselves as history’s losers vainly fighting a rearguard battle against the forces of progressivism unleashed by socialism and the New Deal. This persecution complex even carried over into the years of conservatism’s triumph between 1980 and 2008, when it obtained widespread ideological hegemony over the United States and much of the world. It persisted into the 2010s when, despite almost every major country—the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Italy, India, Brazil, and more—being governed by right-wing leaders, conservative media presented themselves as constantly under siege by the globalist “elite” media and their allies amongst academia, the bureaucracy, and minority populations.

This rhetoric of victimization and threat is a potent one for populists looking to rally their base against the opposition. As such, analyzing the basis of conservative victimization and resentiment has become an important new task on the left. In her fantastic book In the Ruins of Neoliberalism, the political theorist Wendy Brown analyzed conservatives’ sense of victimhood in great depth. In neoliberal societies with advanced meritocratic ideologies, very well adorned people are often told to regard themselves as solely responsible for their privileges. They were able to out produce and outcompete everyone else in a fair competition. Conservatives like Jordan Peterson may even sublimate this inequality as a “brute and irreducible fact of nature” that is “deeply and mysteriously built into the structure of natural reality itself” and can be seen in the 

“distribution of matter within galaxies, [because] a small number of stars have most of the mass, the movement of water within ecosystems [because] a small number of rivers carry most of the world’s water, the habitation of people within geographical regions [because] a small number of cities have the majority of people, the severity of natural disasters [because] a small number of earthquakes destroy the most buildings, and the distribution of natural resources [because] a small number of oil fields have most of the deposits.”

Given this, it is neither just nor natural for the “winners” in society to redistribute much or any of their earned wealth and status downwards.

The uglier flip side to this meritocratic ideology is less talked about. That is, if the well stationed come to believe that their status comes from being life’s deserving winners, then the vast majority of people who don’t rise to the top are life’s losers. Brown points out that under neoliberal conditions, the destitute come to internalize their low station as a sense of personal failure and individual inadequacy. After all, if, contrary to all the facts, life is conceived as a fair competition and you just happened to lose out, then you have no one to blame but yourself. 

Ironically, this kind of brutal ideology wasn’t even present in the feudal era, where, at the very least, disparities in social station were ascribed to God’s will and not the intrinsic superiority and inferiority of individuals. In a competitive neoliberal society, what we therefore find is privileged groups who feel they owe nothing to the people at the bottom and an underclass made to feel responsible for their own marginalization. This creates fertile ground for elites to feel resentful of any efforts to redistribute wealth and power downwards from those who have “earned” it to those who have not. Ben Shapiro’s characterization of the student debt cancellation as a slap in the face to those who had to pay for college is a typical example. Interestingly, conservatives may even express resentiment towards progressive efforts—even those that don’t tangibly impact them—if they feel that the resulting “equality” undermines their own deserved higher station. In his United States of Socialism, Dinesh D’Souza mocked the idea that, even if the Nordic countries are economically successful, we should try to emulate them, since the ease and security provided to all undermines the will to be successful and undercuts the sense that some are more deserving. We would become a society of “last men” who lack the drive for self-elevation.

Nor is expression of resentiment limited to economic issues; one of the ways capitalists populists have formed coalitions is by forming overlapping alliances with socially conservative groups who feel their historically elevated status is being challenged. A lot of the furor over LGBTQ rights originated in resentiment that tolerating queer partnerships meant disrespect to straight couples who had behaved properly. Similarly, some first generation Republican Latinos worry that being soft on illegal migrants and even asylum undermines their status as assimilated émigrés whose families entered the country more conventionally.

Johnson builds on Brown’s analysis to explain why conservative populists will direct a lot of their animosity towards the state, even while calling for more draconian policies like increasingly brutal forms of policing, perpetuating the failed war on drugs, maintaining the death penalty, and militarizing the border. This is because their concern isn’t really with an expansive state, but instead with the idea of the state democratizing social and economic power in the interests of the unworthy. Much this flows from what Johnson calls the “producerist” ideal “central” to the populist ethic of the United States prior to the rise of mid-century conservatism. Producerism is the “belief that membership in the social and political body is not given but earned through effort and labor that builds social and political infrastructure.” While producerism can have a more progressive element when it leads workers to demand a fair wage for their efforts, Johnson points out that it has clear “exclusionary tendencies.” After all,

“where there are producers, there are also those who are thought to live—without warrant—high on the hog, ranging from parasitic monopolists and financiers to layabouts who tend to be, especially for right-wing purveyors of producerism, Black, as in the racist figure of the welfare queen.”

This producerist imaginary marries very well with neoliberal notions of meritocracy and the conception of the market as a kind of secularized theological mechanism to sort the winners and losers of society based on their worth and contribution. One thing I’d add to Johnson’s analysis is that when we understand how conservatives come to support capitalism by aligning it with the producerist ethic, we can also see why it might compel them to turn on it when markets fail to sort the worthy from the unworthy. A lot of conservative anxieties about “woke” capitalism stem from anxieties about consumers rewarding companies that endorse progressive and inclusive policies (however unambitious) like trying to diversify along racial, ethnic, or gender lines, while also punishing companies that fail to abide by the new, marginally more inclusive social standards. In these circumstances, as Hayek himself predicted, they’ll regard market outcomes as dangerously responsive to the unworthy or immoral and so in need of correction. Lately, we’ve even seen conservatives like Ron DeSantis willing to use state power to compel business to straighten up.

Johnson’s I the People is a welcome and major contribution to the growing left literature on the political right. It’s deep, erudite, and very well researched, sharpening old tools of analysis and offering us some new ones to boot. What one takes away from it is that the vulgarity of conservative populism à la Trump or De Santis is hardly some monstrous abnormality. While earlier figures like Buckley or Reagan may have argued for vicious policies in a more genteel manner, despotism delivered with a thesaurus is still despotism. I the People asks us to take a much deeper look into the worldview of powerful people and asks why millions of people can be convinced to march alongside them. At its conclusion, I the People leaves the reader wondering how we can, instead, get millions to march for emancipation and equality.

  1. Interestingly, Adams argues that “very few Men, who have no Property, have any Judgment of their own. They talk and vote as they are directed by Some Man of Property, who has attached their Minds to his Interest” and holds it as a reason to deny voting rights to those without property. 

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