Populism takes a different view: At the center of its concerns is the people — or, increasingly, the People. If populism meant only being good at the real-world application of democratic politics, that would be only an acknowledgment of the political reality that you have to win to govern. But it is not that. It is rather the latest reincarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will,” that nebulous motive that is the will of the People as interpreted by men with power, as opposed to the will of the People as revealed by what the People do when left to make their own choices and to bear the responsibility for those choices. We are always fighting the French Revolution, in one form or another.
The fundamentally irresponsible nature of the general will is one of the reasons we have a representative form of government rather than a strictly democratic one. But representation itself is held in some suspicion by the populists. If you ask someone, “What ought Representative Smith to do about this problem?” the answer you will usually get is: “He ought to do whatever his constituents want him to do, whatever the People want him to do.”
But that is exactly wrong: What he ought to do is not what the People want, but what is best for them: If there were no difference, then the representative would not be necessary — and neither would the Constitution. In reality, neither the emancipation of slaves in the 19th century nor freedom of speech in the 21st century would have survived a plebiscite. Neither would free trade, if we held the vote tomorrow, because the general will demands protection from a government that is, in John Kasich’s ghastly phrase, “America’s Dad.” It is strange that in the case of political representation, trusteeship is considered by so many condescending, whereas outright patronage is not considered patronizing.
The current strain of populism on the Right often speaks in terms of restoration of the constitutional order, but its heart is in the New Deal, which anybody who ever has tried to touch Social Security has found out the hard way.