Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Trust the People

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.

Discussions - 12 Comments

That is a very good article and I hope you can excuse my relating it to this from Justice Clarence Thomas' speech How to Read the Constitution excerpted in the WSJ. Politicians have to trust the people because they govern by the consent of the people. If that is populist, then the Declaration might be seen as a populist document.

However, I will argue that there is a huge number of Americans for whom the nanny state seems like political wisdom. I hope there are fewer Joe the Union Plumbers who want to soak the rich to pay for government programs than there are Joe Wurzelbacher the plumber who want to be - maybe not so much the rich as the really comfortable, and who would like everyone else to be really comfortable, too, so they could afford to have his employees put in new bathrooms.

I don't know about where you guys live, but where I live, you can't tell the difference between those two kinds of people when they walk in the door. I have agreed to work at the polls again this election. In the primaries, without much thinking about it, I found myself guessing at the party affiliation of the folks in line. The different colored ballots gave them away. It was fun to do and I was often wrong, but there was some party switching going on, too. Some folks joked about that. This time, I won't be able to tell. Except for the underclass, I don't think predicting party splits on economic lines can be anything like easy. I could be wrong. I don't think my county HAS an underclass and those who might be so classed out here are too ambitious to stay in that category. They aspire to be Joe the Plumber. Not a bad aspiration.

Where does Kristol get off claiming that the people should rule, when he supports an economic system where the money and labor of the many are controlled by the few? The economic populism of Obama (although he's still a "free marketer", or so he claims - and I think he is, to an extent) certainly puts money and labor into the hands of the few through taxation . . . but at least we get to elect those people. I wonder if I'll ever be able to elect my boss . . . even though my economic stability will rely on his judgment and prudence.

Matt, if you don't like your boss, change jobs. Who controls your labor? You do. I guess that is control by the few - the few being just you. Who controls your money? Don't you? You do get to elect your boss, in that you get to elect whether or not you will work for him. You get to elect whether or not you will work at the wage he pays you, too. Please explain how you come to your conclusions about Kristol on economics. I must have missed the "economic system where the money and labor of the many are controlled by the few" column.

Kate - oh come on! Last time I checked, I just can't go pick any job I want. So you're saying that if I work somewhere, and don't like new management or something like that, and don't agree with what they do with the money made off my labor, I should just ship out? Yeah . . . that sounds like a smooth transition - especially if I have a family.

And this is the same argument I hear from the right all the time . . . as if people get to literally pick whatever life circumstances they might have or whatever job they can find. The capitalist system controls my labor . . . Everytime I work, that money goes into the hands of someone who doesn't need my approval to use it in whatever business venture he wants. That's how it is at practically every job (less so if you're unionized, of course . . . but who here likes that?) and THAT is elitism at it's best.

Do you honestly believe that I can find a wage, a job, a boss, and a work environment that I'll like all at the same job? No way! Everyone sucks it up and works anyway . . . Why? Because they have to eat. And in order to get that money, that slice of your labor's earnings, you have to - somewhere down the line - cede the money made from your labor to someone else so that they can grow the business and, supposedly, make your life better (HA!). That's how capitalism works and you guys just love it.

But I've talked about this before on this blog. It's like trying to talk to the television (unsurprisingly).

Matt . . . do you actually believe what you say here? I am pained to read it knowing, as I do, that you must be a reasonably smart guy and that you will one day be ashamed to re-read what you've posted here. Your beef is with God, Matt--not Capitalism.

Let's be clear about "where we are, and whither we are tending." The American people are smart about things they understand, and dumb about things they fail to understand. In 2008, they are the victims of a massive con job: the Obama campaign, official and unofficial, and they are victims of a con job even if Obama loses. In a well-informed society of continued center-right preferences, this guy wouldn't even be in the game. America is two weeks away from stepping into a pit of statism, political correctness, relativism, and foreign policy weakness that it may never get out of. Rather than praise the wisdom of the American people at this profoundly grave and tragic juncture, we had best think with real clarity about them, as we should about any other political variable. In the words of Whittaker Chambers: "Whether we like what we see is not in point. To see is in point."

80% of americans work under at-will termination conditions. There is no reciprocity between the worker being able to leave and the manager being able to fire. The right is operating under a completely mythological conception of capitalism here. It is the capitalist who dictates wages, working conditions, pensions, and who can renege on any deals with workers just by calling for bankruptcy. Matt, Ponzi's God reference is typical. The right has long since taken God to be sort of a CEO and capitalism to be some divine dispensation, any criticism of which you should be 'ashamed to re-read.'

Your beef is with God, Matt--not Capitalism.

Oh, sorry. Sometimes I get the two mixed up after reading this blog for awhile.

I am pained to read it knowing, as I do, that you must be a reasonably smart guy and that you will one day be ashamed to re-read what you've posted here.

In all seriousness - I appreciate the compliment and the concern, but I think I like hanging out with all the other dumb kids over at The Nation and The New Left Review . . .

Matt, I am not speaking to your failure of nerve. I am speaking of your freedom to make the choice, even if the choice is hard. You might not be qualified or capable of the kind of job you want. (Though, honestly, I am not qualified for the job I have, much less the one I want.) You are also free to try to become so qualified. Perfection in all the aspects you speak of is probably not possible, because perfection is not possible. That's not a matter of a system, that's a matter of humanity. Julie's has a point about your problem - complain to God about the human condition. Why not? Everyone else does.

Have you ever read Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics? I used it to teach economics in high school because it is a much better read than any textbook on the subject. It is certainly not the only book on economics that will help you through your grief at not being Superman, but it might help.

And, no. You don't just ship out of a job. Here's what you do: you keep working at the job you have, but you look for another you will like better, then you work your way, eventually, to the kind of job you actually like. So many of my students are at the community college trying to change their lives. Some can and some can't right now, and maybe, just maybe, some can''t at all. I do not believe you fall in the latter category.

Yes, sometimes "suck it up and work anyway" is the greater part of valor. Any wife can tell you that.

Honestly! This is my sixth go-round with Captcha. I have been trying to post this silly comment for about an hour. If I was not stuck at my computer already, I would have given up in disgust long ago. "now analyze" sits below, and will it post me? God knows.

Success! Oh, giddy joy!

Twice in a row, what a moment! How I wish I had more to say on the subject.

Here, David Frisk, you'll like "Get Ready for the New New Deal", which article I suspect you will like.

But if the coming wave of new regulation from an Obama administration is harmful to the economy, Mr. Obama will take a page from FDR's playbook. He'll blame Republicans for having caused the market crash in the first place, and so escape blame for the consequences of his policies

The prospect of a new New Deal, and God knows what else, seems to be what ren and Matt agree upon. The prospect of freedom daunts them Let's whip the what's left of capitalism into submission, because I do not like my boss. God help us all.

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