No, conservatism should not embrace populism

Lee, a very smart guy, is anything but nonsensical. He is clearly trying to exploit Trump’s supposed populist moment for conservative ends. In his telling, “principled populism” becomes a menu of conservative proposals “focused on solving the problems that face working Americans in a fracturing society and global economy.” I’m all for the menu, but that’s not “principled populism”; it’s conservatism — or, as Lee unnecessarily modifies it, “authentic conservatism.”

To slip it into the trendy “populist” brand, Lee has to misdiagnose the “chief political weakness of conservatism,” which he takes to be the failure to perceive problems. To the contrary, conservatives are quite good at perceiving problems — especially problems demagogically manufactured into crises for the purpose of rationalizing populist solutions of the statist variety. In reality, the chief political weakness of conservatism is that modern Americans are conditioned to expect that government can — or must at least try to — solve all our problems. It is the lot of conservatives to resist ill-conceived solutions. Populism cannot change the fact that government is incapable of solving problems upstream of government — problems of culture and complexity that government amelioration efforts, however well-intentioned, often make worse.

There is obvious incompatibility between conservatism’s “don’t just do something, stand there” nature and populism’s demands for action that is forceful even if rash. Yet, by the end, Lee convinces himself that populism can not only ratchet up limited-government approaches but even “anchor conservatism to the Constitution and radically decentralize Washington’s policymaking power.” Again, these are worthy conservative objectives. They are rooted, however, in a deep understanding of why the Constitution’s separation-of-powers framework and promotion of individual liberty are, in the long run, good for society. It is fantasy to believe these objectives will be helped along by populism. More reflective of a mood than a theory, populism is notoriously content to have big-government preening overrun limited-government caution.