Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Risks of a Populist Politics or The Risk of a Permanent Populism

by Michael P. Federici

Populism is a recurring phenomenon in American politics. It tends to rise and fall inversely with the fortunes of the leadership class. Its underlying presumption is that the people are far more trustworthy and sensible than elites who are out of touch with the struggles and values of common people. Populists assume that when things go awry, elites are to blame. Consequently, populists aim to reconfigure political institutions to shift power from elites to the people. At its extreme, populism advocates direct democracy, a form of government that removes all restraints from the momentary popular will. Moderate populist reforms include recall elections, referenda, and ballot initiatives. Populist ballot measures function outside or on the periphery of an existing constitutional system and are intended to provide a way for the people to govern directly by operating as a check on or independently from legislatures.

The American Framers were not populists. They constructed a government based on the assumption that no one social or economic class has a monopoly on truth or prudence. In the American constitutional system, it is assumed that all human beings and classes are flawed by nature and need to be checked and restrained. Consider Madison’s Federalist 10 as an illustration of the Framers’ rejection of both populism and unchecked elitism. Madison focuses the essay on the problem of faction. He is particularly concerned about majority faction, the instrument of populist revolts. Factions are, by definition, pernicious. They are “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adverse to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community.”

Why is it difficult for populist movements to function within the American constitutional system? The American system requires various leaders and interests to compromise and reach consensus after devoting significant time and energy to deliberating, reflecting, and considering how to reconcile and synthesize one’s interests and needs with those of competing and rival groups. No one group or class has a monopoly on truth or good. The common good is an amalgam of parts of what competing groups think is best for the country.

Populist factions attach themselves to leaders who echo their concerns and give voice to their ideas and values. Populist rhetoric is directed at the corruption of elites and the institutions they occupy and is convinced of the natural goodness of the people. Populism tends to be uncompromising and insistent that corruption, not merely competing opinions, is at the root of political differences. Compromising with rival elitist groups is akin to accepting the very corruption that populists are determined to root out.

It is one thing for populists to claim that elites are out of touch with the needs of the common people; it is another matter for them to suggest that the system is itself corrupt and that the rule of law should be circumvented by a strong populist leader animated by a populist mob.

While the American Framers were well aware that political elites are prone to abuse power—they created an elaborate system of checks and balances for the purpose of restraining power—they also realized that leadership was essential to good government. They did not expect that good leaders would always set the tone in American politics, but their constitutional system depends on them being at the helm at least some of the time. In Madison’s defense of representatives, he described them as “a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” He then expressed a balanced view of political leaders and the people. Good leaders will know the public good better than the people themselves. Yet, if leaders “of factious tempers, of local prejudices, or of sinister designs” are in office, then the people may know the public good better than the leaders. Madison recognized the possibility of both scenarios. Populists assume that the second circumstance is the permanent condition of politics: Elites are inherently corrupt.

In periods when the political leadership is corrupt and out of touch with the public good, a dose of populism may help to reorient politics to the common good. The risk of a permanent populism is that in reacting to temporary corruption in political leadership it tears down the very protections that were created to safeguard power and the common good. Just as political leaders do not always promote the public good, neither do populist leaders. Their views can be too narrow and interest-based to encompass the common good. They can be overly confident that they are the instrument of the people’s constitutional will and act as if they are immune from the rule of law. A sustained period of populism undermines the legitimacy of political institutions and subordinates them to the will of a populist ruler who claims to embody the pure will of the people. In addition, it erodes confidence in the leadership class that is necessary for the proper functioning of the constitutional system. In a twist of irony understood by Plato long ago, populist democracy sets the stage for autocracy and the tyranny of rule by a dominant faction. At the very least, it tends to erode faith in the institutions that keep both factions and political elites in check.

Discussion Questions:

  1. The author argues “The common good is an amalgam of parts of what competing groups think is best for the country.” Can we be confident such agreement will actually result in that which is genuinely good? What alternative do we have?
  2. How worried ought we to be when a leader speaks on behalf of “the American people?” Is there even such a thing?
  3. Is the tearing down of legal or Constitutional restraints ever justified? Can they be rebuilt?


Hamilton, Alexander, John Jay, James Madison. The Federalist. (The Gideon Edition). Edited by George Carey and James McClellan. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.


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