Daniel Hannan, member of the European Parliament and longtime friend of National Review, pronounces the word “democracy” unlike any American politician — and it is not his English accent. American politicians of the Left use “democracy” in the vaguest possible way, as a catch-all for all things good in politics, even the un-democratic and anti-democratic ones. Politicians of the Right use “democracy” with some skepticism, having been taught to emphasize the fact that the United States is a republic, not a democracy, the latter being something that the Founders feared and dreaded and pronounced themselves opposed to even as they crafted the greatest set of democratic institutions known to man.
(Daniel Hannan might disagree, but only a little.)
Democracy, properly understood, is not the American form of government, but an aspect of the American form of government, one that we conservatives sometimes undervalue. Many of us agree with F. A. Hayek’s declaration that he would prefer a liberal (we might say “libertarian”) dictator to an illiberal democratic government, assuming that this libertarian dictator (what an idea) would be something like an Antonin Scalia, hewing as closely as possible to the letter of the Constitution — except for all the messy voting bits. One of the great differences between conservatives and progressives is that conservatives will sometimes say out loud that there is such a thing as too much democracy. Progressives believe there is sometimes too much democracy, too, for instance when the demos prefers policies other than those the progressives want it to prefer, but saying as much in public has been out of fashion since approximately the Wilson administration.
Hannan pronounces the word “democracy” with a certain specific kind of authority, that of a British patriot who lost his democracy to the planners and schemers in Brussels and who subsequently played an irreplaceable role in the campaign to win it back. On Thursday evening, the National Review Institute awarded Hannan the inaugural Whittaker Chambers Award for his role in persuading the United Kingdom to vote to leave the European Union. We honor Chambers as a writer, a thinker, and an advocate; it is appropriate that his great literary achievement — one of the great American books — is titled “Witness.” That is what Chambers was. Hannan is a witness, too, but one of a distinctly different kind. Where Chambers was gloomy and tortured, Hannan is confident. Chambers believed that when he abandoned the worldwide Communist enterprise for the cause of liberty, he was joining the losing side. Hannan confesses to having his doubts about the outcome of the Brexit referendum, but he does not seem very much like a man who has ever been on the losing side of anything.
Hannan received his award at the National Review Institute’s Ideas Summit, a biannual event at which we conservatives gather to reconsider our assumptions. It says something about conservatives that we have these soul-searching sessions after the Democrats win a big election — and after the Republicans win one, too. Some of us have learned, and some of us are learning, to moderate our expectations.
This is of course an odd moment for the conservative movement. We gathered in Washington to, among other things, celebrate the memory of William F. Buckley Jr. and to . . . confirm our detestation of big-city, East Coast, Ivy League elitism. WFB was an unlikely populist, a harpsichord-playing yachtsman who split his time between Park Avenue and the Connecticut shore, whose first book was an indictment of Yale’s failing to live up to its own standards. But he was a kind of populist, too, even if you take as obvious hyperbole his famous declaration that he’d rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard. (I wonder whether Maryanne O. Aa of Boston gets many inquiries about this.) But I do not think that his populism is the kind of populism we are hearing a great deal about right now. WFB objected to the corruption and incompetence of our elites, not to their existence. “It is not a sign of arrogance for the king to rule,” he wrote. “That is what he is there for.”
Hannan, too, is kind of populist, a leading figure in a populist political campaign. An American friend sent him a note during the referendum that read: “We voted ‘Leave’ in 1776, and it worked out okay.” There is something to that. My colleague Rick Brookhiser gave a talk the next evening at Mount Vernon, and he spent some time on the more important difference between George Washington’s revolution and the French one that Thomas Jefferson and his party so admired. The American patriots, like Hannan’s colleagues in Brexit, were not fighting for something new so much as they were fighting for something old, something that had been lost, “something precious,” as Brookhiser put it. The American revolutionaries were mainly republicans, but they were not motivated mainly by anti-monarchism. Most of them would have been content with an English king if that English king had respected their rights as Englishmen. What they detected under the government of King George III was an apparatus of oppression and a design for the same. It was a revolution that was simultaneously a restoration.
In 2009, I attended one of the early tea-party rallies, about which I had mixed feelings:
I believe the tea-party movement is a healthy and worthwhile development. But is it conservative? It is good for the people to sometimes shake their fists at The Man, and The Man should take it seriously. Politics necessitates compromise, but I wonder if the people at the Tea Party want the same things, or want enough of the same things to cohere, and to cohere in a movement that is recognizably conservative. And if they do want enough of the same things, I wonder what those things are — because I was there, and I am not sure.
I am even less sure today, as that populism has come into its own as a genuine political movement on the right. The National Review Institute’s convention not only was civil, as Rich Lowry assured us it would be in his opening remarks (the most uncivil person I encountered was myself, but, like the lust-dogged Jimmy Carter, I sinned only in my heart) but also remarkably open, honest, and engaged. There was very little in the way of boring, predictable political speechifying, even from politicos such as Kellyanne Conway and Paul Ryan, from whom such politician-y behavior might reasonably be both expected and forgiven.
But there was much that was said, honestly and in good faith, that left me increasingly convinced that the current expression of populism — Trump populism, in short — is simply incompatible with a politics based on property rights, individual liberty, and the traditional moral and social order and the hierarchies that sustain it. There is more to conservatism than free trade, but the argument for free trade contains within it practically the whole of conservative economic thinking and a great deal of conservative thinking beyond economics: facing reality, making choices, enduring the consequences, accepting tradeoffs, accepting responsibility. The right to trade is implicit in the right to own (and hence to control) property. A right to trade that exists at the sufferance of the sovereign is not an unalienable right with which we are endowed by our Creator. It is something else, and something less.
In his speech, Hannan said that one of the desirable outcomes of Brexit would be that with the United Kingdom once again in control of its own trade policy, it would have the opportunity to establish free trade relations with the United States in a trade pact based “on mutual product recognition rather than common standards,” meaning roughly that if you can legally sell it in London, you can legally sell it on the same terms in Los Angeles, irrespective of differences in tax policy, environmental standards, labor arrangements, or the like. This is part of what Hannan (and Frédéric Bastiat and others before him) describe as elevating the consumer interest over the producer interest — or, in more explicitly political terms, elevating the general welfare over special-interest demands. That idea is practically heresy in conservative circles at the moment, with the Right obsessed with the idea that low wages and lax regulation abroad cause hardworking Americans to be cheated out of their livelihoods by the Chinese and Mexicans . . . and Japanese, and Germans, and Dutch, and Canadians.
No, that does not make much sense, but populism has a way of transcending ordinary good sense. In the NRI Summit’s opening session, Heather Higgins answered concerns about Donald Trump’s character (remember how conservatives used to go on and on about character?) with assurances that he has “good relations with his wives,” plural. Heads nodded. What the words “good relations with his wives” might hope to mean outside the context of a polygamous society is not entirely clear to me. I had been under the impression that the word for “good relations” with the mother of one’s children is “marriage.” If you are curious about the compatibility of Trump-era populism with what we sometimes call “social conservatism” (which is more properly known as conservatism), consider that, or consider how a proposal to restrict the general availability of no-fault divorce would be received in 2017.
I had that in mind while David French, J. D. Vance, and I were discussing the politics of class in the United States, particularly as it relates to the dysfunctional and downwardly mobile people we euphemistically call the “white working class,” which is white but isn’t working. French is hopeful about the role of churches in restoring order to the family, which — if our populist friends will forgive the reference to someone who was both an elitist intellectual and Chinese — Confucius argued was necessary to order in the kingdom. I would make a pretty poor Puritan, but I found myself wishing for a visit from Jonathan Edwards — and not the one with the hair and the mistresses.
“Anglo-American” is a term with a long history. It used to mean “white people,” and before that it meant “white people who aren’t Jews, Italians, or Irish,” back before those groups were assimilated into American whiteness. We use it now mainly to mean something different, something related to Winston Churchill’s “English-speaking peoples.” It describes a way of political life that is rooted not in Anglo-Saxon ethnicity but in the thinking and habits that informed the English-speaking world from Magna Carta (which was sealed at Runnymede, in Daniel Hannan’s constituency) to the Bill of Rights, and which informs the best political traditions not only in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but also in places everywhere from India to Jamaica. It contains much: property rights, the rights to speak and publish and worship, the right to criticize the government and petition it for changes. It also contains the right to go one’s own way, because while Anglo-American liberalism is not a philosophy by or for an atomistic society populated exclusively by variation on homo economicus, it is a philosophy that puts at its center the smallest minority — the individual, and his rights, and his responsibilities.
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. There has been a restoration of one of the cardinal features of Anglo-American liberalism in Dan Hannan’s United Kingdom, or there is at the very least one under way as the Brexiters lead the country back toward democracy and national sovereignty — which in the end are, as Hannan argues, the same. On this side of the Atlantic, where some — some — conservatives have been experiencing an odd bout of Jacobin-envy, things are a little different, as I suspect the first Englishman who shows up here with an offer of genuinely free trade among the English-speaking peoples will learn to his dismay.
Daniel Hannan was among friends, as, indeed, were we all. (I can share these thoughts among friends, since it is just us.) American conservatives love Daniel Hannan. But what about the Anglo-American tradition for which he stands, with its free trade, its free enterprise, its confidence, its generosity of spirit — and its limits on what demands We the People might make and expect to be satisfied? How much Rousseau has seeped into those offices decorated with Churchill busts? I was there, and I am not sure.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.