Populism and the Right: Problems and Possibilities, Carl F. Horowitz

It’s great to be back here.  Once again, I’d like to thank to Paul and Mary for giving me the opportunity to speak at the Mencken Club luncheon. 

Today I’m supposed to be talking about “The Populist Right.”  The topic suggests the question:  Is there a relationship between populism and the Right?  And perhaps more to the point:  “Should there be a relationship between the two?  My answer in each case:  Yes there should be.  And mindful of the perils, these times require it.    

The current context, needless to say, is the distinct possibility that Donald Trump will be elected president.  His campaign is that rare phenomenon:  an authentic, successful national populism.  Too many national populist movements, whether good or bad, follow a pattern:  They make noise, point fingers, get press coverage and flame out. 

The Tea Party is a textbook case.  Back during 2009-10, Tea Party organizations dominated the news cycle.  Their rhetoric was populist.  A number of their preferred candidates, none of them terribly impressive, were elected to public office in 2010.  But for the last several years the Tea Party has been effectively extinct.  It has not shifted the terms of debate on any issue.  It functions now as a fundraising tool for Republican candidates and fodder for political science dissertations. 

The Trump candidacy is different.  It is creating the foundation for a permanent shift in our political culture.  The shift may not be 180 degrees, but it is significant all the same.  And it will continue even if Hillary Clinton is elected.  Mrs. Clinton, as much as anyone, knows this.  She realizes that if she goes too far, too fast in transforming America’s demographic and cultural identity – and that is the intent of her and her base – she will encounter massive resistance.  You can bet your last dollar she will use her powers, wherever possible, to suppress this resistance.                

But I digress.  For before we can talk about Donald Trump and why his campaign matters, we have to define “populism” – what it is and what it isn’t. 


It’s intuitive that populist leaders want to be popular – and believe themselves to be popular.  Their rhetoric fairly brims with “bandwagon” appeals.  They convey to their audiences that their cause is righteous and their triumph is inevitable.  Yet very often neither they nor their followers are popular.  Money and publicity don’t necessarily translate into influence. 

Let’s put this in reverse.  Just as being populist doesn’t automatically make a cause popular, being popular doesn’t automatically make a cause populist.  This holds true for prominent public figures as well as for causes.

Exhibit A:  Al Sharpton.  As you probably remember from my talk a year ago – as if anyone needed any reminders – Reverend Sharpton has been a noxious presence upon our polity for more than 30 years.    

Admittedly, the Reverend Al has a large and admiring audience.  At times, he resembles a populist.  But deep down, he is nothing of the sort.  His vision is utterly removed from, and hostile toward, our nation’s historic white-majority identity.  Like his ally, President Obama, he represents a black-led coalition of aggrieved minorities.  And he’s backed by heavy doses of corporate money.  This past April, I traveled to Manhattan to attend the annual convention of his nonprofit group, National Action Network (NAN).  Listed co-sponsors included AT&T, Facebook, Master Card, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Time Warner, Verizon and Fox News Channel.  During 2014 NAN took in about $7 million from all sources.  Some populist! 

Many other persons and organizations have a surface populism.  Think of Bill Clinton, Glenn Beck, Billy Graham, Jimmy Fallon, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Jay Z, Occupy Wall Street, People for the American Way, and the American Association of Retired Persons.  Each is popular, yet none truly can be called populist.    

In defining populism, then, there is something going on besides popularity.  And there is a substantial literature on the subject, particularly as it relates to the American experience.  Books such as Michael Kazin’s The Populist Persuasion (1998) and Margaret Canovan’s Populism (1981) are good starting points.  America is a natural focus of study.  Our very founding was an act of populism, combining guns and fountain pens to resist a distant monarchy.       

In combing through the literature, several themes recur which, taken together, form a reasonable working definition of populism.   

Resentment of centralized economic and political power.  All populism, even of the centrist, Ross Perot-style, “feel good” sort, feeds upon a groundswell of public opinion against remote powerful individuals and institutions.  Whether the targets of resentment are actually remote is less important than the widespread perception that they are. 

Populism operates on a conviction that “the system” is rigged in favor of an elite few.  It seeks major adjustments to return power to the people.

Wealthy businessmen, though not all of them, long have been a ripe target for this impulse.  Businessmen tend to be targets of resentment if they appear as cultural outsiders; if they manage finance capital, as opposed to manufacturing capital; and if they receive favors from government to achieve advantage over market competitors, the latter tendency known as “cronyism.”  Loathing of “the bankers” is especially ingrained in our character.  Thomas Jefferson famously observed:  “I believe that banking institutions are more dangerous to our liberties than standing armies.”  He had plenty of company.   

Yes, I know.  Ross Perot is a multibillionaire.  And so is Donald Trump.  But by articulating popular grievances against the “system,” they are first among equals as much as they are elites.   

Government likewise is a common target of resentment.  Everyone across the ideological spectrum hates “politicians” and “special interests,” so long as they are someone else’s.  This is part of the populist impulse.  But to be effective, such resentment must attach names to chosen targets.  Otherwise, elites will amount to nothing more than straw men.   

Desire for a forceful leader.   Popular discontent requires mobilization by an assertive leader capable of articulating grievances.  Audiences crave such a leader.  Populist audiences don’t negotiate, but their leaders can. 

At the same time, leaders of populist movements know they cannot lead people who don’t want to be led.  They can exploit discontent, but they can’t create it.  The discontent already must be there.  A leader tells his audience what they want to hear.  If he doesn’t, the audience is likely to transfer its loyalties to some other charismatic leader.  A populist leader and his audience have a symbiotic relationship; each becomes more powerful as the other does. 

Appeals to immediate emotions.  Populist audiences demand action.  They are present-oriented.  They thrive on heated speeches, rallies, leaflets, pamphlets, blogs and tweets that promise to “do something” as soon as possible.  Such people tend to be impatient with reasoned debate, dialogue, analysis, parliamentary procedure and judicial review.  To them, “gridlock” is a dirty word.  Winning debates is nice, but that is less important than “sending ‘em a message.”        

Attachment to place.   This trait is especially true in America.  A populist movement typically has a distinct local, statewide or regional identity.  This goes a long way in explaining why populists keep re-electing their representatives, even as they deride abstract “politicians.”    

The term limits movement promoted itself during the Nineties as an antidote to entrenched congressional interests.  Superficially, it was a populist crusade.  Real Americans, at last, were Standing Up to Washington.  Yet the movement rarely took into account the localist impulse that drove that entrenchment.  The movement’s supporters simply could not fathom that a great many voters across the country have no problem with returning their representatives to Congress.  Even pork barrel artists often get a free pass.  After all, they are delivering pork to us.         

European populism, it should be noted, is more focused on nationalism than regionalism or localism.  This is understandable.  For one thing, the nations of Europe have much smaller land areas and hence reason to develop strong regional identities.  For another, almost all European nations over the last quarter-century have had to answer to an increasingly unaccountable supranational body, the European Union.  And the fact that the EU, led by Germany, is now pushing mass immigration from virtually unassimilable cultures upon citizens of member nations gives these citizens all the more incentive to fight for their national identity.      

Racial/ethnic homogeneity.  Multiracial populism in any country may be appealing in the abstract, but it is not sustainable in the real world.  To be successful, populism must reflect the identity of a homogenous majority, not those of minorities suspicious of each other as well as of the majority.  For people to fight for self-governance – or “empowerment” – they must have consistently high levels of mutual trust.  And trust can’t be achieved in a multiracial context, except maybe in “The Fast and the Furious” and its many sequels.  I’m a big fan of those movies, by the way.  The problem is that their rules of the road don’t apply to the real world of politics.

This, in brief, is a rough template for populism.  But can this also be seen as a template for conservatism?  For the most part, the answer must be no.  The two fitfully overlap, but are not interchangeable.  Here is why.      

First, populism and conservatism are less about ideology than temperament.  And the populist temperament – present-oriented and given to mass incitement against constituted authority – is thoroughly at odds with the conservative temperament.  Populists are not the sort of people who read Russell Kirk, Kenneth Minogue, Robert Nisbet or Michael Oakeshott.  And if they did read them, they probably would be bored.  Populists want action, not reasoned discussions that counsel restraint in making big decisions.      

Libertarianism presents more possibilities for a populist Right, but not by much.  Its adherents have an almost unshakeable faith in the free market to harmonize conflict.  Whatever the social problem, removing government from the picture will fix it.  

Mind you, their critique of State overreach is compelling.  But rarely can it light a populist fire.  That’s why libertarians frame their appeal to a large audience by identifying pro-State “outsider” forces ostensibly keeping the majority down.  In other words, populist libertarians don’t rally for “free markets” or “the Constitution”; they rally against the Federal Reserve System and the New World Order. 

Unfortunately, this approach is self-limiting.  It appeals mainly to disaffected individuals on the far reaches of the Left and Right.  The main audience is a coalition of the fringes, not the center.  That’s why Ron Paul was never a real threat to win the Republican nomination, much less the general election.         

Second, the Left has a long populist tradition of its own, indeed, longer than that of the Right.  Red State-style blowhards can’t admit this.  They prefer to post angry messages on the Web, often in all-capital letters, caustically denouncing the Enemy Within (e.g., “libtards”) who allegedly “hate America.”  The truth is that Leftists very frequently invoke patriotism in putting forth a program.  And they’re quite sincere.  I’ll grant you, they’re also wrong, often hopelessly wrong, on most things.  But for the most part, they do not “hate America.”    

Consider the following partial roll call of populist Left (and white) Americans, past and present, in politics, journalism, literature and the performing arts:  Ralph Nader, Richard Trumka, John Steinbeck, Eugene Victor Debs, William Jennings Bryan, Mary “Mother” Jones, Barbara Ehrenreich, Barbara Mikulski, Woody Guthrie, Jim Hightower, Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Garrison Keillor, Tom Laughlin, Thomas Frank, Molly Ivins, John Grisham and Elizabeth Warren.  These people spout (or spouted) a lot of sentimental foolishness.  Yet calling them anti-American would be a stretch. 

As for their man of the hour, Senator Bernie Sanders, he has a pitch-perfect sense of Leftist populism.  That’s why his presidential campaign did so well.  When he announced his candidacy, many people dismissed him as a mere “protest candidate.”  I didn’t.  He combined radical populist convictions with an oddball charisma.  And he went a long way.  His audiences generally were poorly-versed on the issues.  But they sensed that Sanders, far from being a crazy old man, was tapping into their frustrations.  That’s why they turned out in droves to see him, cheer him and vote for him.        

Hillary Clinton’s campaign by comparison seemed stage-managed and spin-doctored.  Her rallies seemed like giant Tupperware parties featuring black women and unionized teachers.  It didn’t matter that she agreed with Sanders on at least 95 percent of everything.  In style, where it really counted, she came off as his opposite.  And populists on the Left, like those on the Right, instinctively recognize if a candidate is “one of them.”     

Even if Sanders never runs for office again – a prospect that will not cause me any loss of sleep – his 2016 campaign will reverberate for many years.  That so many of his supporters are under age 30 guarantees this.  

Third, populism is more about preserving economic security for the middle class than asserting a “pure” libertarianism or conservatism.  Typically, these movements are driven by small businessmen, skilled blue-collar tradesmen and civil servants insecure about their future.  Through the early-20th century, farmers were the leading force of economic populism.  But now comprising a very small portion of the U.S. labor force, they don’t exert all that much pressure.  

George Wallace, by far the foremost populist of his time, a man who embodied both the best and worst aspects of populism, understood this.  Back in 1968, when he was running for president, his stump speech contained this ode to the common man:  “This man in the textile mill, this man in the steel mill, this barber, this beautician, the policeman on the beat.”  It wasn’t exactly Walt Whitman or Carl Sandburg, but it had a poetic ring.  The man knew his audience.  And his audience lapped it up.  Far more than any animus toward blacks, this explains why Wallace won 13.5 percent of the national popular vote.     

Wallace voters didn’t go away after the election.  It short order, they were absorbed into the Nixon base.  They became part of that clever marketing niche, “the silent majority.”  A decade or so later, many among this audience, especially white “ethnics” in and around Northern cities, became Reagan Democrats.  They were a major reason why the Republicans won back their governing coalition in 1980 and why they kept it for another dozen years.   


Thus, populism and the Right can mix.  They just don’t mix that often. 

The Right may take advantage of a situation in which large numbers of people feel grievance and loss.  But they can’t create that feeling.  What they can do is ride the wave and appeal to its better instincts. 

Populism can be either good or bad.  On one hand, it is a terrific corrective to the abuses of power and a strong reminder of one’s collective identity.  On the other hand, it can be a nasty piece of work.  When people feel that they are losing their jobs, identity, property and freedom, reason often takes a back seat to emotion.  An aggressive “us vs. them” psychology can produce demagogues and mindless mass fawning over them.   

Even when level-headed and averse to mob rule, populism may identify the wrong “them.”  This is why conservative populism isn’t necessarily conservative or effective.  A classic case is California’s Proposition 13, a genuine populist movement.    

For those who can remember back that far, Proposition 13 was an initiative placed on the ballot in June 1978 to amend the California state constitution to limit real estate taxes.  The wording was complicated, but in essence it said that local property taxes couldn’t go up by more than one percent in any given year without two-thirds voter approval.  

This movement generated tremendous attention across the country.  Here out of the blue was a pair of aging white men, Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, leading what appeared to be a Bircher-style uprising.  Yet Proposition 13 was not a conservative ideological crusade, though it did contain the raw material for one.    

The catalyst was a 1971 California State Supreme Court ruling, Serrano v. Priest.  Originating in Los Angeles County a few years earlier, this decision ordered the equalization of expenditures across local school districts.  The court effectively told middle-class communities that they had to pay the costs of lower-income ones.  

Most of the people feeling the pinch were middle-aged and elderly white homeowners.  These people were well-off, but hardly wealthy.  Their home was their prime asset.  Property taxes, the main source of funding for public schools, were increasing rapidly.  Many people feared losing what had taken decades to accumulate for the purpose of indirectly subsidizing people receiving public benefits that were way out of proportion to the taxes they contributed.           

Proposition 13 passed by a nearly two to one.  Opponents filed suit.  The case eventually made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court as Nordlinger v. Hahn.  In 1992, fully 14 years after passage, the Court ruled that the law was constitutional.        

Formally, Proposition 13 has been a success.  It limited residential property taxes for large numbers of people.  It spawned similar initiatives such as Proposition 2½ in Massachusetts.  It was upheld by the Supreme Court.  And it’s still on the books.  No California legislator has tried to repeal it.   

Yet where it mattered most, Proposition 13 didn’t win.  It made no effort to slow down, much less halt, the explosive population growth driving home prices skyward.  And it was silent about the escalating immigration by low-skilled laborers from Mexico and Central America; i.e., the kinds of people who not only lived in “poor” school districts, but who were making them poorer by moving there.    

Proposition 13 was authentic populism.  It was made of grass, not Astroturf.  Yet it dealt with effects, not causes.  As such, it was unable to stem larger social forces giving rise to it.  The same can be said of subsequent American populist movements ranging from the Moral Majority to the Tea Party to Ross Perot’s 1992 and 1996 presidential runs.        

These examples underscore a reality:  Any attempt at achieving a populist-Rightist fusion quickly bumps up against hard limits.  To be successful, populism has to go beyond generating a hip-hip-hooray bandwagon illusion.  To produce lasting effects, it must run the risk of being unpopular, and even hated, among large numbers of Americans.  And unpopularity is something most leaders on the Right, especially in the Republican Party, have been unwilling to risk. 

President Reagan’s genial, folksy “straight talk” conservative populism was appealing and often effective.  Yet he was also somewhat gun-shy.  Maybe he wasn’t aware of what he was up against.  Maybe he was aware, but had grown weary of answering his critics.  Either way, his populism was only fitfully of the Right. 

Put it this way:  If Reagan really was a hardcore conservative, would he have signed the 1986 IRCA legislation authorizing amnesty for 3 million illegal immigrants?  Would he have signed the 1983 legislation creating Martin Luther King Day?  No doubt a veto would have been overridden.  But he could have made a forceful statement in opposition anyway.  If he truly was as popular as his fervid supporters insisted, he would have had very little political downside to worry about.                 

And this, mind you, was Ronald Reagan, the most successful American conservative statesman of the last 100 years.  Less still can be said on behalf of the putative successors to his modest revolution.  George Bush the Elder, George Bush the Younger, Newt Gingrich, John McCain, Mitt Romney and Jack Kemp in their own way each proved unwilling to bringing opprobrium upon themselves, especially if it meant being tagged a “racist.” 


That raises a larger issue:  Populism plays well during election time, yet the “populists” of the Right who get elected seem unable to mount a successful challenge to the sources of populist discontent.  How, then, can Rightist populists win elections while broadening the boundaries of debate in a constructive way? 

I offer three basic rules. 

Rule #1 – Put American identity over ideology.  Many on the Left will interpret this as “racism.”  Fine, let them.  It’s an empty charge.  And the response should not be the usual Conservatism Inc. response, “Liberals are the real racists.”  It should be:  What’s so bad about defending American identity?  Political office seekers and holders on the Right thus far have been terrified of responding in such a manner.  Even Donald Trump has pulled back on this score too often for my liking.   

Yes, ideology still matters.  But it is not the defining aspect of a populist program.  Every modern nation has its own version of Red State vs. Blue State/Left vs. Right schism – France, Japan, Russia, Argentina, Canada, Israel, Austria and many others.  The fights can get bitter.  But in the end, they are manageable if the vast majority of the people share a common ethnicity, language, and sense of history.             

It’s when identity disintegrates – especially when encouraged by unaccountable political leaders – that the Left becomes lethal.  Much as I oppose socialism, it is at least possible to halt and reverse its march.  I cannot say the same thing about national identity.  Once dismantled, it cannot be put back together.    

Rule #2 – Engage our nation; don’t disengage from it.  For all that is wrong with us, there is still a lot more that is right.  There is something reprehensible about giving up on America.  Assuming that remaining here is preferable to migrating somewhere else, it is crucial that we keep the nation together despite the political and cultural differences.  Populism otherwise is not possible.    

Secession, and its close relative, a voluntary breakup, is not an option.  No doubt you have come across calls for splitting up the U.S. into two separate countries, one Leftist and the other Rightist.  On the surface, it is an attractive solution to seemingly irreconcilable conflict.  Yet I believe such a breakup would be disastrous, both for populism and for the Right.  Consider:

  • No one state is ideologically homogenous nor should it be.  The bluest of states have red patches and the reddest of states have blue patches.  Would we require a political litmus test for citizenship in order to ensure a permanent political majority?  Would we deport residents from the Republic of Conservatia who display nascent liberal tendencies?  Would we protest second-class citizenship accorded conservatives who are left behind in the Republic of Egalitaria?  
  • Once initiated, the process could be self-perpetuating.  For starters, our two new nations would not have contiguous land areas, which necessarily would restrict freedom of movement.  More to the point, many states could face an internal secession crisis.  The Atlanta area, for example, is liberal; the rest of Georgia is conservative.  Should metro Atlanta secede from Georgia?  Or vice versa?  Carried to its ultimate conclusion, the result would not be two countries, but rather a patchwork of mini-countries resembling England’s “rotten boroughs” of the mid-17th century.  That led directly to civil war over there.  If I recall, a similar situation led to civil war here as well.       
  • Forcing people to minimize if not cease contact with others on account of political differences – and that is exactly what such an arrangement seeks – far from assuring peace, may well undermine it.  The idea carries a whiff of totalitarianism.  A functioning nation does not require across-the-board cognitive affirmation.  You can learn a lot from someone with a different point of view.  As they say in romance:  Opposites attract – at least once in a while.   
  • The history of secessionist governments has shown that secession is an invitation to disaster for people living under its jurisdiction.  A breakaway conservative nation in this country would be one whose citizens are highly vulnerable to military invasion and economic isolation.  It would face boycotts and other forms of isolation of a magnitude potentially dwarfing that which befallen apartheid-era South Africa.      

Advocates of a national breakup no doubt have thought through such possibilities.  But I don’t think they understand just how severe the consequences may be.  The problems might well do more than impose inconveniences; they could inflict terrible trauma.    

There will always be strong differences of opinion in any union – whether of 300 million-plus people or just two, also known as “marriage.”  The way to arrive at agreements is through engagement rather than disengagement.  Simply by remaining a European-derived and English-speaking majority, we can minimize the possibility of a national breakup.  It is a far better route for populism to pursue than assimilating (in vain) large numbers of unassimilable immigrants.          

Rule #3 – Elevate an audience; don’t appeal to its base instincts.  In addressing an audience, whether in print or the spoken word, use light and not heat to make a point.  And be open to criticism.   Few things are more depressing these days than reading Web posting boards and social media pages, where posters seek to banish “trolls” from their safe space.  Enforced unanimity of opinion is at once tyrannical and boring.  And it doesn’t build consensus on the issues.     

Populism and anti-intellectualism, regrettably, have a long history of marching hand in hand.  In the long run, it’s a partnership to avoid.  If populism of the Right is to have a lodestar, let it be Thomas Jefferson, not Sarah Palin. 


I will end by coming full circle.   

Donald Trump, a genuine populist, may well be our next president.  But if he is, the battle for creating a lasting Rightist populism only will have begun.  If you think Trump has problems now, wait until he takes office.  Here is a partial list of combatants against him:  hundreds of members of Congress, including more than a few Republicans; the federal courts; renegades within the executive branch; various news media; and a plague of Social Justice Warrior bloggers.  Anarcho-Left street demonstrations will erupt on the slightest pretext, Guy Fawkes masks optional.  Opposition researchers will dig ever deeper into Trump’s public and private life in search of smoking guns.  Clergymen across the nation will inject anti-Trump references into their Sunday sermons, claiming that if Christ were here today he’d be seeking impeachment.  The National Council of La Raza will ramp up its fundraising.  Samantha Bee will tell lots of anti-Trump jokes on her TV show – none of them funny.       

Yet keep your heads up.  A Donald Trump presidency, should it happen, will suffer setbacks.  All administrations experience them.  Yet it also represents a pivotal moment in American history.  It already has set in motion a realignment in our political culture, especially within the ranks of the Right.  And this realignment will not be reversed.  The end result just might be a recovery of our diminished sense of national identity.

Thank you very much.


Carl F. Horowitz is project director for National Legal and Policy Center, a Falls Church, Va.-based nonprofit group dedicated to promoting ethics and accountability in American public life.  He holds a Ph.D. in urban planning and policy development.  The opinions of this presentation are his own and not necessarily those of NLPC.