In both parties’ primaries a real populist is running, the kind of person many of the Framers would have called a demagogue. On the Republican side, the billionaire says we can deport all illegal immigrants and he will persuade Mexico to give the money to build a fence. Although he proclaims himself a conservative, his most substantial complaint about big government appears to be that he is not running it.
On the Democratic side, a self-proclaimed socialist argues that the problem with government is that it is not even bigger. He wants to sharply raise taxes and provide more government jobs. He also wants to criminalize all kinds of voluntary acts, from choosing to work at mutually agreeable wages to trading goods and services with foreigners, including those for whom that trade may mean the difference between subsistence and penury. This tribune of equality would ground down the truly destitute of the world. And, sadly, both these candidates are riding pretty high in the polls.
But these candidacies actually show the relative health of the United States compared to the most comparable democracies—those in Europe. Our populists of right and left are less bad then their populists, less likely to win power, and even in power less likely to do permanent damage. Let’s begin with the relativity of dreadfulness. The right wing authoritarian populists in Europe often host anti-Semites at the highest levels of their parties, like the founders of the National Front. Also, like the National Front, they not only want to run big government but make it bigger by providing larger handouts and greater control of industry. They are socialists of the nationalist kind. Many European socialists of the left variety not only want to raise taxes, but nationalize entire industries. In Britain the front runner to be the leader of the Labor Party wants to bring back the Marxist plank calling for workers to own the means of production. And he openly praises Chavez’s Venezuela.
Second, neither of our populists will ultimately get their parties’ nomination. But Socialists wield power in France and a party even farther left than Socialists may well gain a share of government in Spain. Right wing authoritarians are in coalition with leftists in Greece and prop up other European governments.
Finally, our separation of powers system prevents these candidates from accomplishing their most extreme goals, unless they can win not one but multiple elections. And that would be a problem for populists because their remedies are mostly snake oil. The House and Senate will not support their worst policies. The Supreme Court is likely to resist their predictable attempts to circumvent the legislature. Our Constitution fortunately has not yet been completely destroyed by the Progressive effort to streamline government and get rid of gridlock.
What Progressives fail to understand is that the first maxim of government, like that of medicine, must be to do no harm. Our system of bicameralism and judicial review slows politics down and allows time for the distempers exploited by demagogues to dissipate. The candidacies of Trump and Sanders have one happy consequence: they again remind us of this bit of wisdom from the Framers.