Untimely Observations

Revolt of the Masses?

In thinking about "populists" -- or, more specifically, anti-government and anti-elite -- social revolutions, it's worth quoting a revealing anecdote from Paul's autobiography, Encounters. In 1995, Pat Buchanan invited Murray Rothbard, Sam Francis, Russell Kirk, and Paul to his home to discuss the possibility of a second run for the presidency. Paul recounts,    

I was wondering what positive good Pat and his sister Bay thought would come of this gathering. What they needed was advice from someone who would be able to get Pat lots of votes on Election Day. While the present company was more honorable and more interesting than this hypothetical strategist, my friends did not strike me as being well suited to manipulating the public. Sam and Murray ... went on about how Pat would do better at the polls if he ran a second time. The "people," they explained, were eager to break loose. Sam might have said such things with less than sincere conviction, in order to incite a populist revolt. His position that day was that while the masses are still basically decent, the elites are the ones who needed fixing. He assured that it was only a matter of time before the differences between the "two classes" would erupt into an open break. That would lead to a "middle American revolt" which would surge out of the "heartland." Whether this heartland referred to a place of the heart, a geographic region, or a sociological category was never fully explained. 


While Sam might have been speaking in a calculating way, Murray rallied to the same position with real zeal ... [he] still looked forward to the moment when "the people would awake." Unlike most of the other graying dignitaries in the room that evening, Murray was the genuine populist article. Russell and I certainly were not. Though we may have differed over whether "conservatism" was a socially possible political option, Russell and I did not differ in our estimation of the "people." When I was recently invited to discuss with libertarians from the Cato Institute whether the people have the government they deserve, I responded to the effect that "the government is far better than the one that the masses actually merit." I doubt that Russell would have come to a different conclusion. 

Paul's formulation is too hard on the public -- and too easy on the political class, almost all of whom are certifiable sociopaths. (Democracy is a theory of government based on the notion that only a population's sleaziest, most attention seeking, and easily bought individuals are the only ones fit for high office.) But overall Paul and Russell are right to emphasize that we shouldn't hold our breath waiting for hordes from the Midwest to reinstitute a Constitutional order.

What polls like the one Richard cites prove, first and foremost, is that there's always been, and will always be, an eternal "conservatism" in the hearts of the masses -- in the sense of fearing any deviation from the status quo. Republican-voting Americans might like to talk about "limited government" but the thought of, say, cutting Medicare or the Department of Education brings up fever dreams of elderly people dying in the streets or no one in the country learning how to read. The idea that all these programs have an opportunity cost -- that is, the infinitely better and more efficient solutions the marketplace would provide -- simply doesn't register.

Also at play here is what I'll call, for the lack of less awkward term, a "will to normalcy." Average Americans can't bear the thought that something is radically wrong with their country -- that the people running it are acting against their interests, that its entitlement programs are corrupt Ponzi schemes, that the Department of Education is staffed by morons asleep at their desks, and that the vast "security" and "defense" apparatuses supply little of either. It's better to think that everything's OK. Even at the height of Stalinism, most Russians just went about their business. 

There are certainly historical instances when the natives got restless and lost all faith in the regime. But these "pitchfork" moments -- which were invariably precipitous, violent, and reactive -- revealed only the weakness of the regime in power. Creating new social orders is done by forceful elites outside the regime. Lenin never "won over the people," nor did the American Revolutionaries ever command anything close to 50 percent of public opinion. The Framers were even less popular. 

Moreover, one can't underestimate a regime's ability to recognize popular unrest, harness it, and direct it towards others ends. In many ways, the "Middle American Revolt" that Sam Francis dreamed of actually did take place -- the men from MARs were eating Freedom Fries and demanding the U.S. government bomb the A-rabs into democracy. 

The regime, and its affiliated corporations, take polls like the one Richard cites mainly to see if the American people are still believing the lies it tells them. Apparently, they still are.