This was the motto that Winston Churchill’s father encouraged him to remember even as he was--shall we say--slightly more aristocratic than the average Joe. He didn’t mean that the people are always going to be right, of course. They’re not. But the fact remains that they are more often right than are the self-anointed experts and the self-declared wise. Of course, this was fitting advice for a future Prime Minister who was half-American in fact and, maybe, more than that in sentiment.
But for Conservatives--to say nothing of so-called "Progressives"--there has always been some tension in accepting that rule of the people. The wise guys of both types like to think that they’d do better without the annoying necessity of seeking consent. Bill Kristol offers an excellent column today that begins to examine the fundamentals of American sovereignty. Is it wisdom or is it the people--with all their flaws--who rule? Here, Kristol concludes, the people rule. This means that there has always been a kind of populism alive in American politics. It’s not simply a Progressive invention--though, as with most things, they succeeded in using it for their own purposes and to different ends.
The use to which Progressives put populism gave it a bad name as a kind of pandering to the baser instincts in people at the expense of reflection about and refinement in choice. But Conservatives are too quick to mistake refinement in tastes with refinement in intellectual or political ability. There is more than one way to skin a cat and there is more than one way to basic political wisdom. Some can get it from reading Plato and Aristotle at an ivy league institution, and others may learn it from washing windows under Communists or by installing toilets in America under a regime of excessive taxation and regulation. Most often, the readers of Plato and Aristotle would do as well to listen to the wisdom of the window washer or toilet installer as those window washing and toilet installing folks would do well to listen to the readers of Plato and Aristotle.
Though our regime is set up to encourage trust in the people, it is also true that the American people have not simply spurned wisdom. We’ve tried to set up ways for it to guide us with our institutions and by declaring the foundational principles of those institutions before a candid world. We’ve had varying degrees of success in maintaining those institutions and principles but, in all, it’s still a darn fine country and we are still a darn fine people. We still produce gentlemen like Joe Wurzelbacher and we still produce fine scholars and thinkers.
It’s too early for post-mortems on the election and it’s certainly too early for post-mortems on the performance of the conservative media critics who have been struggling with this burgeoning acceptance of populism in Conservatism. Those critics are not wrong to caution prudence . . . but, in general, they need also to follow their own advice--separating out the visceral from the intellectual critique. When this election is (finally) over the most important conversation within Conservatism is going to be this one. Bill Kristol’s column today should be bookmarked as a good starting place for that conversation.