The revolt against the elites and the limits of populism

Among poli sci savants, such contrariness at the ballot box is defined as “populism.” But it’s a definition that does nothing to define the phenomenon. Populism is just a name for an opinion common in most democracies: There exists a large herd of the clueless, and running circles around them is a small pack of wiseacres. Populist opinion has an effect even in political systems where the opinion of the populace doesn’t matter. Vladimir Putin harnessed populist outrage at the kleptomaniac incompetents who took possession of Russia after perestroika. Xi Jinping’s neo-Maoism makes use of populist anger at the all-the-tea-in-China scale of corruption among the Chinese elites.

There are even populist aspects to Islamic terrorism. Fanatical interpretation of “jihad” is antielite. Islamic terrorists hate elites so much that they have suicide squads of elites who go around killing themselves.

Countries with strong democratic traditions—and let’s hope we live in one—don’t harbor the kind of populism that goes psycho, like ISIS. Americans don’t appreciate being labeled as clueless, or as wiseacres either. Thus American populism has its limits. This does not keep American politicians from doing everything they can to provoke the alarums and excursions of populism. The most privileged politicians will give it a try. Hillary Clinton, wiseacre, toiled among clueless Latino, black, and millennial voters in hope of using the alarums of Donald Trump to promote her excursion to the White House.

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