Thought for the Day: Jeff Bell on Populism

In my ongoing attempt to master the populism of our time, I recently reread Jeffrey Bell’s terrific 1992 book, Populism and Elitism: Politics in the Age of Equality. Bell was an important figure in the conservative movement from the late 1970s until his passing in 2018, and Populism and Elitism gives a short and fascinating historical account that more or less predicts things like Brexit, if not Donald Trump.

Bell’s book was way ahead of its time. Never more so than in this passage:

The central explanation of split-level realignment is the gulf that opened up in the 1960s between the elite and popular opinion streams. A populist-leaning conservatism gained the upper hand in the popular opinion stream, while an elitist-leaning moderate liberalism gained an even greater advantage in the elite opinion stream. And viable candidates for office originate almost exclusively in the elite opinion stream. Thus, given the overall leaning of elites since the 1960s, most serious candidates have naturally tended to be more liberal and elitist in their views that the electorate as a whole. Given the thousands of elective positions to be filled, the scarcity of populist-leaning conservatives in the elite opinion stream is a factor in and of itself.

But this numerical advantage among serious candidates, important as it is, does not ensure liberal or elitist victory in any one race. A conservative pursuing populist or anti-elitist themes can defeat conventional candidates if he or she can communicate directly with the popular opinion stream, over the head of unsympathetic political and media elites.

This passage, I submit, explains the raw disgust so many conservatives have toward Beltway Republicans like Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, and why Trump was able to dispatch the Old Guard so easily in 2016.

(Incidentally, Bell was a great fan and booster of my Reagan books, for which I’ll always be grateful.)

P.S. I distinctly recall several occasions in the pre-Trump times when Bill Kristol told me that “If you want someone with real insight into politics today, get Jeff Bell!” Hmmm. . .

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