The Populist Revolt Against Failure

What erodes faith in the ruling class are bungled wars, uneven growth and insecurity.

By William A. Galston
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The populist revolt against governing elites sweeping advanced democracies is the latest chapter in the oldest political story. Every society, regardless of its form of government, has a ruling class. The crucial question is whether elites rule in their own interest or for the common good.

In the decades after World War II, the ruling classes in Western Europe and the U.S. managed their economies and social policies in ways that improved the well-being of the overwhelming majority of their citizens. In return, citizens accorded elites a measure of deference. Trust in government was high.

These ruling classes weren’t filled by the traditional aristocracy, and only partly by the wealthy. As time passed, educated professionals assumed the leading role. Many came from relatively humble backgrounds, but they attended the best schools and formed enduring networks with fellow students.

Some were economists, others specialists in public policy and administration, still others scientists whose contributions to the war effort translated into peacetime prestige. Many were lawyers able to train their honed analytical powers on governance. They were, in a term coined in the late 1950s, the “meritocracy.”

In some human endeavors, meritocratic claims are largely unproblematic. In sports, we celebrate the excellence of those who win. In the sciences, peer review identifies accomplishment; most people in each specialty can name the handful of individuals likely to win the Nobel Prize.

Politics, especially in democracies, is more complicated. Democratic equality stands in tension with hierarchical claims of every type, including merit. In a letter to John Adams, Thomas Jefferson characterized elections as the best way of elevating the “natural aristoi” into positions of authority. He had in mind people like himself, liberally educated and trained in the subtle art of governance.

This view didn’t survive the 1820s, when Andrew Jackson led a popular revolt against it.

Alleging that a “corrupt bargain” among elites had cheated him out of the presidency in 1824, he swept to a victory in 1828 that he portrayed as a triumph for the common man—farmers, craftsmen, sturdy pioneers—against the moneyed interests. Ever since, the trope of the virtuous people against the self-dealing elites has endured in American politics.

Yet this is more than an American story. In democracies, meritocracy will always be on the defensive. Its legitimacy will always depend on its performance—its ability to provide physical security and broadly shared prosperity, as well as to conduct foreign policy and armed conflict successfully. When it fails to deliver, all bets are off.

This is what has happened throughout the West. Failed wars, domestic insecurity and uneven growth have undermined the authority of governing elites. Although the pro-Brexit vote in the U.K. came as a shock, it was the latest in a series of surprises tending in the same direction.

Among these surprises was the outcome of last year’s Polish election, which replaced a government led by the center-right Civic Platform Party with the populist-nationalist Law and Justice Party. During the past decade, Poland’s economy had grown twice as fast as any other member of the European Union. But as Henry Foy points out in the American Interest, the gains were concentrated in Poland’s largest cities, while other areas lagged. The postcommunist market economy, he observes, “eroded traditional ways of life without adequate recompense.”

Unequal growth triggers cultural resentment. “We only want to cure our country of a few illnesses,” the new Polish foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, told a German newspaper in January. Most Poles, he said, are moved by “tradition, historical awareness, love of country, faith in God, and a normal family life between a woman and a man.” But the previous government acted “as if the world, in a Marxist fashion, were destined to evolve only in one direction—towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion.”

The new meritocrats, then, are exposed to cultural as well as economic resentment. Education prepares them to surge ahead in the knowledge economy, leaving industrial and rural areas behind. But it also inclines them to question traditional values and welcome cultural diversity.

Educated classes are less moved by particularist appeals to ethnic and national identity and more by internationalism and universal norms. Many identify more with elites abroad than with their own less-educated, less-prosperous countrymen.

Similar divisions are evident throughout the West. Depending on the balance of forces, political outcomes vary from one country to the next. But the terms of the struggle are much the same.

And so are the dangers, not least to democracy.

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