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Guest opinion: The danger of unchecked populism

By Justin Stapley - Special to the Daily Herald | Apr 20, 2022

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Justin Stapley

The parlance of contemporary politics often connects the idea of populism to one of the most famous utterances of Abraham Lincoln, that government should be “of the people, by the people, (and) for the people.” However, Lincoln’s words reflect the idea of popular sovereignty more than they do the political phenomenon we call populism. The difference is subtle but important.

Lincoln’s idea of popular sovereignty is that government, as best as it can, should be of all the people, by all the people and for all the people. His was no majoritarian manifesto but the declaration that a free society must be interested in the common good. Most of the political and physical battles during Lincoln’s tenure in office were over the question of whether states had the right, by nature of majority rule, to violate the rights of individuals (slavery, for instance).

Populism, on the other hand, is quite professedly majoritarian and often less interested in the common good and more concerned with the interests of whoever gets narrowly defined as “the people.” Populism tends to make grand assumptions from weak consensus, claims decisive majority from vague plurality and speaks of voicing the will of the people while being mostly preoccupied with silencing dissent.

The danger of unchecked populism is that its vessel, whether a person or some institution, must inherently claim to be the one true voice of the people. This inevitably leads to a view that the opposition is an enemy of the people. Eventually, “the people” becomes only a quasi-representation of the populace based upon prejudiced sensibilities, and the “enemy of the people,” regardless of its true size, nature or argument, becomes a marginalized group of “non-peoples.” An unchecked populist movement will firstly use these “others” as a direction toward which to direct the anger of “the people,” secondly use them as a scapegoat for alleged woes of “the people” and thirdly, and eventually, relegates them as disenfranchised second-class citizens whose voices become silenced in order to allow the voice of “the people” to go uncontested.

The lie of such unchecked populism is that the people have kindled its beginnings, it directs its energies toward the people’s true will and that it leads, at last, to government for the people. The reality is that the roots more often begin with an individual or entity building upon the anxieties manifested by some of the people. This demagogue will then direct the frustration of this angry slice of the population toward goals that only benefit their interests and reflect their values, often ignoring the interests of the common good.

The form that government takes when such a demagogue takes power is more typically autocratic, despite the beliefs of the followers who think they are liberating themselves from some great calamity. The demagogue’s power does not rely on traditional aspects of legitimacy. Instead, a demagogue maintains control by ensuring followers sustain their heightened level of emotional anxiety.

Unchecked populism has always been the enemy of popular sovereignty and pluralism. Popular sovereignty and pluralism are essential principles of a free society. The rights of all the people are only secured when all interests and every individual have a place in the public square and are owed certain unalienable duties from the government.

Such principles are necessary for the growth and contest of new and untested ideas. And most importantly, they help provide the societal structure upon which all the rights and freedoms we claim to belong to all humanity rely. Without the belief that each differing perspective has value to the national whole, men and women would not be ultimately free to choose their associations, their beliefs and their lifestyles in order to thrive as each person sees fit.

It is an important civic duty of citizens in a free society to stand guard against those who would capitalize upon anxieties and fears to declare themselves arbiters of the people. Such demagogues corrupt the meaning of government “of the people, by the people, for the people” toward a path of extremism and marginalization, rather than as a sacred duty to maintain a sphere of liberty in which every member of society is free to live life according to the dictates of conscience.

Justin Stapley is a student at Utah Valley University studying political theory and constitutionalism. He works part time as a research assistant at UVU’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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