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Populism and Elitism:
Politics in the Age of Equality

by Jeffrey Bell
Regnery Gateway, 202 pages, $21.95

Jeffrey Bell has been an aid to both Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp, a candidate for the Senate, and fellow at a number of different institutes. He is currently president of Lehrman Bell Mueller Cannon, Inc., an economic and political forecasting firm in northern Virginia. This book, clearly based in large part on his own experience, is a curious amalgam of history, political sociology, political philosophy, and practical wisdom about our political life. At first it seems dismissable, built as it appears to be on certain rather simplistic notions about populism and elitism. Toward the end, however, one finds in it some provocative insights.

Bell’s thesis is that gauging the inclination toward populism or elitism is the most important factor in understanding modern democratic politics. “Populism,” he tells us, “is optimism about people’s ability to make decisions about their lives. Elitism is optimism about the decision-making of one or more elites, acting on behalf of other people.” Conversely, populism is pessimistic about the elite’s ability to make good decisions on behalf of people while elitism is pessimistic about people’s ability to make good decisions concerning themselves.

Bell’s definition of “elite” is the standard dictionary one: An elite is a group or body treated as socially superior; they are the best or most skilled members of a given social group. Lawyers are an elite group in American society; steelworkers are not, though the president of a steelworkers’ union is an elite member of a non-elite group. The people, in contrast, are ordinary, indistinguishable in any public way from others around them in their social groups.

The elite and the people generate their own opinion streams. The interplay, whether in agreement or opposition, of these two opinion streams is the central issue in political life today. Understanding how these opinion streams are tapped in democratic politics is the key to winning and losing elections or decisions on issues.

Populism emerged first in the political sphere, Bell argues, with the ascendance of the idea of political equality and its attendant mode of governance, democracy. It then appeared in the economic realm as the economic freedom of the individual to enter the competitive market as a producer or consumer. Later it became present in society as social pluralism. The key notion of populism is that people are enabled to make decisions concerning whom they wish to lead them, when and how they enter the marketplace, and what values they choose to order their lives as well as what standards they, along with other equal citizens, wish to enact to guide their common life.

Bell believes that there is today in most societies an inexorable move toward more populism. Even in those societies in which the elites have resisted the adoption of democracy, markets, and social pluralism, there is a strong stirring among the people for just such arrangements. This does not mean that elites are no longer important or that they are prevented from getting their way. On the contrary, complex societies tend to generate more elites, needed to understand and manage the variegated segments of the social order, and it is certainly possible for elites to use their position and expertise to make decisions on behalf of the people. In most modern societies, then, politics is the struggle over the issue of who is to make decisions for whom. But by and large, Bell argues, people in most countries have gained the ability to decide about more and more facets of their lives. And this is distinctly good, he believes.

Populism, Bell tells us, is founded on Hebrew, Greek (especially Stoic), and Christian notions about the dignity of the individual. These three streams have supported the noble idea that each person is precious and irreplaceable. If that is the case, he reasons, each person is shown respect by being given the freedom to make the decisions that matter most to him or her. This further means that respect for persons is shown by the commitment of the society to persuade rather than to command. Thus populism has grown on Western soil and is now spreading throughout the world.

The first two-thirds of Populism and Elitism is devoted to defining terms, qualifying them, drawing distinctions, and making a historical case for those distinctions. The argument tends to be formal and unnuanced—hard going. But the last third of the book gets more concrete and interesting. One chapter deals with the realignment of the 1930s, when, in Bell’s parlance, “valence issues” (serious issues that the vast majority agree are problems but disagree as to how they will be solved) were successfully dealt with by FDR. His success with these matters captured both the popular and elite opinion streams for the Democrats for at least a generation. When a political party captures both streams on a cluster of valence issues, we have democracy’s version of a revolution.

The author argues that a further realignment took place in the late 1960s, though this realignment has been based primarily on popular opinion streams and resisted by most elite opinion. This time the realignment was led by the Republicans, particularly by the populist leadership of Ronald Reagan.

The chain of events leading to this realignment was set off by the civil rights movement of the mid-1960s. That movement was successful because it partially settled an important valence issue—the obvious claims by blacks for basic civil rights. But, the author believes, the movement set in motion a chain of developments increasingly in conflict with the popular opinion stream. As certain specially privileged segments of American society in the sixties became more violent and critical of America’s traditional vision of itself, elite opinion abandoned its earlier identification with that vision and tended more and more to view American values as inherently corrupt.

Since the late sixties, then, the Democrats have been dominated by elite opinion streams while the Republicans have won all but one of the presidential elections (prior to 1992) by tapping into the popular opinion stream. Robert Kennedy, Bell speculates, was the last Democrat to have the potential of gathering in representatives of the popular stream for the Democrats. (The book went to press too early for Bell to take this year’s campaign into account.)

Still, the question remains, why have the Democrats been able to maintain control over Congress and most state houses and legislatures? Bell thinks that while Democrats have been weak at articulating the general electorate’s broad value commitments they have been better at the practical tasks of satisfying the wishes of their local constituents. Further, lower levels of politics are more dependent on elites in law, the media, and technical services. This attracts more elite-oriented candidates and tends to homogenize all candidates.

In his final chapter Bell offers his most interesting reflections. He believes future elections will be fought most intensely on values issues rather than on economic or foreign policy. The elites, who are deeply entrenched in education, journalism, the arts, and the media, are extending radical notions of equality into both economic life and social life. In economics this means equality of results, and in society it means that all opinions are equal. These elite causes move against popular opinion but are gradually affecting even that. They are leading toward a society in which merit is resented and the only intolerance shown is toward those who believe in objective standards of truth, goodness, and beauty. These elite ideas demand a great deal of managerial oversight for their realization and this is to the advantage of the elite. Bell fears that America is moving toward a society like Sweden, where he sees an omnipresent and omnicompetent state managing a society bereft of traditional values.

So he winds up with several poignant paradoxes. Populist ideas of equality are taken over by the elite and driven to their radical and destructive conclusion in the economic and social spheres. Traditional values are gradually undermined by the very populist ideas the author affirms, but they are carried to their extremes by the elite agents he distrusts.

Bell really has no way of sorting through these paradoxes because of serious philosophical deficiencies in his argument. Populism and elitism are exceedingly empty and formal categories. They assess the quality of opinions or decisions by who holds or makes them, rather than by the quality of the opinions or decisions themselves. A related problematic assumption is that the people’s opinion is more trustworthy than the elite’s, no matter what the substance of that opinion might be. The author gives no serious attention either to the content of human nature in general or to the content of values. Bell seems to think that if we respect persons we must necessarily at the same time consider their opinions and decisions right and good, a very serious non sequitur indeed.

These confusions can only be cleared up by a more developed philosophical or theological anthropology and by more systematic attention to the substance of values. The most profound thinkers about political life have a paradoxical view of human nature that withholds automatic trust in either the people or their leaders. Moreover, they do not equate respect for persons with blanket affirmation of the rightness of choices simply because the persons make the choices. Bell seems entangled in some of the assumptions of the liberalism he abhors.

Because values cannot be affirmed simply by reference to who holds them, Bell would do well to ground his “traditional values” in a particular, substantive vision of life, which in his case is the Judeo-Christian tradition. He should place more of his confidence in either elite or ordinary persons well-formed in that tradition, though even that confidence should be qualified by a healthy doctrine of sin. Bell will not be able to sort out the cultural wars without serious reference to real cultures. The question is not who holds the values, but what values are held.

Robert Benne is Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College

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