Populism and Elitism: Two Sides of an Evil Sword

Ryan Lau | @agorisms

In American politics, we often see the switch between populism and elitism. In the 1890s, for example, the People’s Party took the nation by storm. Many of their policies, from the direct election of senators to a shorter workweek, eventually went into effect.

Not long after, Woodrow Wilson came into office. At this point, the pendulum of politics swung toward elitism, with resegregation and Wilson’s own attitude of superiority following WWI taking a hold. But of course, what swings in one direction must come back.

The McCarthy era saw a quick snap back to populism, though this time, it was of the right wing. Presidents Johnson and Nixon followed suit. A few decades later, the focus shifted back to the elite in the Bush/Clinton era. Now, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have reignited the populist flares of both sides. Like left and right, populism and elitism run, always opposed and never in control for too long. But do either of them have any merits?

Elitism: The Ultimate Gamble

A system that practices elitism has a fairly small number of people making most of the decisions. In a sense, it suggests that people are not properly equipped to decide many things for themselves. Instead, those who are most qualified and specialized should make more important decisions. For example, an elitist is more likely to support the appointment, rather than election, of senators. They believe in reduced importance and role of the people.

Without a doubt, elitism opens itself up to a number of problems. For the sake of simplicity, let’s assume that a monarch in elitist country X makes most or all of the policy decisions. The people have little to no power and can’t vote for a new leader if they don’t like this one.

Three possibilities occur here. First, the leader may, as an expert, do a good job fulfilling the needs of the populace without harming them. Second, he or she may do a poor job in doing so. Third, it is possible (and even likely) that some combination of these previous two outcomes happens.

The Benign Elitist

In the first situation, the leader of country X knows what is best for all of his or her people, and makes decisions that make them happy. Yet such a feat would require a superhuman ability to please. The simple fact of the matter is that no leader can adequately know what is truly best for everyone. The second he or she makes a decision that helps most people, others may see harms.

There are far too many people in any country to make them all happy. Thus, it is impossible for any elitist ruler to do so; the idea is a contradiction. Different people have different needs, and no leader can wave a wand and meet them all. The individuals themselves are far more likely to make these decisions best. After all, they have a vested interest in the situation. For instance, imagine a trial lawyer trying to determine whether to take a risky case. Though his financial advisor may be rich, powerful, and brilliant, he alone truly knows the case; hence, he is the best person to make a final decision about it.

On the contrary, some may state that elitism is necessary for certain functions of life. A baseball coach, for instance, is far more useful than a novice player in teaching how to swing the bat. But politics is not a sport. The swinging of a bat harms nobody unless the player decides not to grip it well. Unfortunately, politics does not work in this manner, and the decisions have much greater impacts. Moreover, political events affect individuals in ways that no elitist can truly understand without being involved. Due to the size of an elite, though, it is almost impossible for them to have knowledge of all people’s needs.

Hit or Miss

Alternatively, elitism offers the possibility that the leader in charge does not satisfy the peoples’ needs. In this case, the power that an elite has can lead to dangerous consequences. Tyranny grows even faster when all of the people in power share it. Without any strong resistance from other people in power, there is not much short of a revolution to stop an unjust elite.

Even if the leader violates the laws of logic and makes truly everyone happy, there is no guarantee that he or she will continue to do so. Moreover, a term of rule is never permanent, and future rulers are unlikely to carry on an identical legacy as past ones. Even if a ruler pleased absolutely everyone, the successor, more than likely, would not.

Thus, it appears that elitism is not an adequate way to promote good. The elitist cannot be truly good, for there are too many people to tend to; it is impossible to do so for all of them. When he or she is bad, the consequences are far too dire. We must not entrust power to those who will be unseeing at best and despotic at worst.

Populism: Lukewarm Water

Populism, on the other hand, gives a far greater role to the people. As stated previously, they tend to support more policies that reflect the desire of the majority, which usually is the working and middle classes. For example, they may strongly support unions and oppose giving government elites too much power. This does not, however, necessarily mean they support smaller government, as many populists support a strongly graduated income tax and high tariffs.

Populism and elitism both are ridden with issues, but a particular one is unique to populism; so many people are in the decision-making processes that the voices of legitimate experts are weak. Populism is more likely to be democratic and give strong favor to the majority. And if the majority is wrong? Tough luck, it isn’t the will of the people.

Despite its prevalence on both the left and the right, populism generally limits the realm of acceptable thought. As masses of people must approve policies before they go into action, it is hard for an individual with an innovative idea to further it. Majorities are often wrong, as are elites.

The Moderating Effect

Imagine that 10 people in a room of 30 are fascists. 10 more are standard American liberals and conservatives, but the last 10 people are anarchists. In a populist system, each opinion receives equal weight, and those that do not have the support of the people will falter. In this case, the ten fascists will not see much support from the other 20. So, it is safe to say that populism has a moderating effect on tyranny. In an elitist system, if the one or few in charge is or are fascist, then fascist policies will rule. A populist system, however, can quench the fires of extreme tyranny.

Yet, this same effect happens on ideas of liberty. The 10 anarchists, under populism, are not going to receive support from the 20 who do believe in a state. Similarly, populism has a moderating effect on liberty, preventing true freedom from ever occurring. Where elitism takes a gamble, populism removes both the risk and the reward. In place, there is only a system of lukewarm moderation, in which no forms of true liberty are likely to exist.

Majority Rule

As stated above, people have drastically differing needs. An elite leader may or may not attempt to make them all happy. The populists, on the contrary, are far more likely to do so. But is this a good thing?

If ten people believe in a free society that benefits all, but fifty people propose a notion that they believe will benefit the people (as the majority, whatever they believe will benefit them will benefit the most people in a disagreement), then the fifty, however right or wrong they are, will take precedence. Generally, populism, like democracy, places tremendous importance on the people are stresses equal say.

On the other hand, if the roles are switched, the fifty people in favor of liberty will see their idea gain more momentum. However, this is not due to the merits of the idea itself, but simply due to a majority holding the opinion and the majority can certainly be wrong.

In fact, most Americans do not even know the basic functions of their own government. In a recent poll, 37 percent of Americans could not name a First Amendment right. 74 percent could not name the branches of government and more than half said that illegal immigrants have no Constitutional rights. Are these really the people that should be making the decisions that affect us all?

Populism and Elitism: Shared Faults

Populism and elitism, without a doubt, differ considerably in their means and implementations. Also, they have some distinctly different flaws. Despite this, there is a key piece that the two ideas have in common; they both suggest that others can and should forcibly make decisions for you.

In a situation in which you are not the expert, it is wise to allow one to step in. On the contrary, it can be beneficial to take a poll of many other perspectives to see the merits of an idea. Yet, populism and elitism do both of these things by force, imposing them through the will of the government onto the people. In neither case is anyone really free, with the possible exception of the rulers in an elitist system.

The court case example from above applies to populism as well. There is nothing necessarily different about a majority and an elite. Both may have good intentions and be correct. But, both may also have wicked intentions or be incorrect (or both). For this reason, it is highly irresponsible to give the power of decision-making to anyone but the individual. In most cases, the individual is the most capable of making his or her own choices. Exceptions certainly exist, but nothing is stopping people from choosing to seek the opinions of majorities or experts. But overreliance on one, the other, or both is a road to disaster. We must, in order for a free society to prosper, allow each of us to make our own choices. Populism and elitism simply are not compatible with this idea.

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