In (Limited) Praise of Right-Wing Populism

I am no fan of populism of either the left or right-wing variety. In my view, most populist movements exploit voter ignorance and irrationality to promote policies that tend to do far more harm than good. That said, I have been pleasantly surprised by the right-wing populist reaction to the economic crisis and Obama’s policies. With rare exceptions, right-wing populists such as Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, and the Tea Party protesters, have advocated free market approaches to dealing with the crisis, and have attacked Obama and the Democratic Congress for seeking massive increases in government spending and regulation. They have not responded in any of several much worse ways that seemed like plausible alternatives a year ago, and may still be today.

True, much of their rhetoric is oversimplified, doesn’t take account of counterarguments, and is unfair to opponents. But the same can be said for nearly all political rhetoric directed at a popular audience made up of rationally ignorant voters who pay only very limited attention to politics and don’t understand the details of policy debates. On balance, however, the positions taken by the right-wing populists on these issues are basically simplified versions of those taken by the most sophisticated libertarian and limited-government conservative economists and policy scholars. There has been relatively little advocacy of strange, crackpot ideas or weird conspiracy theories. Indeed, efforts to paint the Tea Partiers and others as merely closet racists usually have to rely on unsupported claims about “unspoken” assumptions and subtexts. Most, if not all, of the right-wing populists would have reacted in much the same way if the policies advocated by Obama had instead been put forward by a hypothetical President Hillary Clinton or President John Edwards.

Things could have been a lot worse. For example, the right-wing populists could have reacted to Obama and the financial crisis by embracing the kind of big government social conservatism advocated by Mike Huckabee during the presidential campaign. Still worse, they could have flocked to the protectionism and nativism advocated by people like Pat Buchanan. This latter possibility would have been in line with the anti-illegal immigration hysteria that swept the populist right just two years ago. One can easily imagine a right-wing populist movement blaming high unemployment on illegal immigrant “criminals” who “steal” American jobs. By and large, however, none of this has happened. Given the inherent constraints of popular political discourse, right-wing populists have reacted to the crisis and Obama about as well as one could reasonably hope.

We should not be too optimistic. If the crisis gets worse, right-wing populism could still go off in a more unsavory direction. There is a great deal of latent prejudice and irrationality in public opinion that a nastier version of right-wing populism could exploit. For example, some 25% of Americans blame “the Jews” for the financial crisis. While racism has declined greatly in recent decades, it is still present in a significant minority of the population. Other studies show that large numbers of people embrace a wide variety of conspiracy theories about government and politics, including some that could easily be exploited in dangerous ways during times of time of crisis. In addition, I still think that right-wing populists are seriously mistaken about many important social issues. Like many other conservatives, such as Robert Bork, they often seem unaware of the contradictions between their critique of government economic regulation and their advocacy of sweeping social regulation. Here too, one can imagine some dangerous developments. For example, right-wing populists could take the position that the economic crisis is some kind of divine punishment for our immorality, and advocate stricter morals regulation as a “solution” – exactly the sort of argument that Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson made in the aftermath of 9/11, which they claimed was God’s punishment of America for abortion, homosexuality, and feminism.

Despite all these caveats, I still believe that the right-wing populist response to the crisis and Obama is a positive development. Obviously, that’s an easy conclusion for a libertarian like me. But even if you think that their pro-limited government position is wrong, it’s still better to have an opposition that advocates free markets than one that promotes racism, protectionism, nativism, or crackpot conspiracy theories. To that limited extent, even liberals have reason to be happy about the present state of right-wing populism.

UPDATE: Some commenters think that my argument is refuted by the fact that Beck, Limbaugh and other right-wing populists were at the forefront of the anti-illegal immigration hysteria two years ago, and have not retracted their nativist statements. I am well aware of their record in this regard, and even linked an op ed that criticized Beck’s statements from that time in the original post. My point however is that this has not been a major part of their response to Obama and the economic crisis. I do not claim that they have actually become libertarian on immigration issues. I would say the same thing with respect to various other stupid or offensive things that Beck and the others have said on other issues. It is not my purpose to argue that these people are generally praiseworthy, merely that their response to the economic crisis has been a lot better than many (myself included) could have expected.

UPDATE #2: I should note, as a counterexample to my argument, Beck’s stupid remark that Obama is a “racist” who has a “hatred of . .. white culture.” Is it a counterexample I should have noticed before? Absolutely. Does it invalidate my general argument? I think not. Other right-wing populists have hardly taken up this remark or others like it as a rallying cry, and indeed Beck was immediately pounced on by the Fox News interviewer (see above link), even though Fox is surely the station of choice for right-wing populist viewers. Since then, Beck himself has had to downplay this remark and try to pretend like he didn’t really mean what he said.