The Public Interest

Of populism and taxes

Irving Kristol

Summer 1972

WHAT is populism and why is everyone suddenly saying such nice things about it? The answer to that last question, at least, is easy enough: When a populist spirit is abroad in the land, most Americans are always eager to say nice things about it. After all, populism as a political movement is indisputably based on popular passions and popular resentments, and very few commentators today are willing to adopt a critical posture toward it, lest they stand accused of the awful ideological error of “elitism.” During the 1950’s, the late Richard Hofstadter (among others) could explore the connections in American history between political populism and political paranoia—the belief that the world is being misdirected by some kind of mischievous conspiracy against the “common man.” The perception of such a connection permits one to understand some of the more interesting aspects of American populist movements: their tendency toward xenophobia and racism for one thing, their extraordinary ineptitude at significant institutional reform for another. But, in recent years, Hofstadter’s work has been nibbled at by a flock of younger historians who are maddened by his very detachment from populist clichés. In America, intellectuals are now more consistently populist than the populace itself. Political populism is a natural temptation for a democratic people, but the populist idea seems to have become something like a secular religion for the democratic intellectual, who is convinced that “the people” represent a holy congregation and, therefore, that their indignation is the wrath of God. Indeed, when the American people sensibly resist the populist temptation—when they exhibit a preference for a politics of calm deliberation over a politics of passionate resentment—they are likely to be rebuked by their intellectuals for their disgusting “apathy.”

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