The Smart Set cannot see or hear the populism that elected Trump. Peter Berkowitz @HooverInst

Dec 01, 2017, 01:00 AM

11-30-2017 (Photo:NYC ) Twitter: @BatchelorShow

The Smart Set cannot see or hear the populism that elected Trump. Peter Berkowitz @HooverInst

Populism is inherently ambiguous. It is usually wielded as a term of reproach evoking charismatic demagogues who erode liberty and democracy by pandering to the people’s base instincts and fomenting intolerance and mob violence. But liberal democracy is, by definition, popular government, resting on the consent of the governed. If elites disrespect the people, neglect the public interest, and betray founding principles, the people are not only permitted to throw the bums out but are obliged to do so.

In “Vox Populi: The Perils and Promises of Populism,” editor Roger Kimball and an all-star lineup of conservative intellectuals place the resurgence of populism in America in broader historical and intellectual context. The essays collected in the volume began as articles commissioned by Kimball in one of his several day jobs — editor and publisher of The New Criterion. Also a PJ Media columnist, art critic for National Review, and president and publisher of Encounter Books, Kimball stringently explains in the book’s introduction that the authors are united by the anxiety that “under the cloak of democratic institutions,” the “essentially undemocratic activities” of today’s administrative state advance “an expansionist agenda that threatens liberty in the most comprehensive way, by circumventing the law.” The “common aim” of their contributions is to determine the relation between the populism roiling our politics and the preservation of national sovereignty, liberty, and democratic self-government.

In a concise survey of post-World War II American conservatism that leads off the collection, historian George Nash shows that the haughtiness and incompetence of elites have been a persistent theme of right-leaning intellectuals. Meanwhile, popular resentment of elites has been building for decades, as evidenced in the emergence of the religious right in the late 1970s, the mid-’90s Newt Gingrich revolution, the Tea Party movement in 2009, and today’s Trump insurgency.