The Populist Temptation


For the two decades that he's edited the scabrous and insightful U.K.-based web magazine Spiked, Brendan O'Neill, an occasional Reason contributor, has described himself—perhaps with a wee bit of provocation—as a "libertarian Marxist." That is, until the populist uprisings in Europe last year.

"The thing that's different now than it would have been six months ago," O'Neill told me during a February episode of the Fifth Column podcast, "is that I've increasingly gone off the word libertarian." The Brexit vote in England, the Yellow Vest protests in France, various anti-elitist spasms across the globe—these have packed more of a punch in two short years than four decades' worth of classical liberal think-tank thumbsucking, he said: "I think other things more interesting than libertarianism are happening in the world right now."

Individualists fond of Enlightenment rationalism do not generally hasten toward the excitement of street mobs or even electoral majorities. But the global rise in nationalist politics, from Viktor Orbán's Hungary to Donald Trump's America, has tempted many commentators with the thrills of revolution and machinations of power. Unsurprisingly, they are shedding their libertarianism along the way.

Daniel McCarthy, also an occasional Reason contributor, recently uncorked a Trumpian manifesto for First Things under the ambitious headline "A New Conservative Agenda: A governing philosophy for the twenty-first century." Like neoconservatives during the George W. Bush presidency, McCarthy is giddy with political possibilities yet oddly millenarian about the consequences of choosing the wrong ideological path.

"The most effective and honorable way out of the dilemma we face is to embrace something like nationalism as an economic program," he declared. "America's fundamental political choice now is between mild nationalism, resurgent socialism, or suicide by liberalism, whether of the libertarian or palliative sort."

We should be accustomed by now to such political appeals to our hormonal fight-or-flight reflex, even against a global backdrop the past three decades of unprecedented peace and prosperity. What was 2016, after all, if not "The Flight 93 Election," according to the famous Claremont Review of Books essay? (Never forget: "Charge the cockpit or you die. You may die anyway.") More recently, The American Conservative's Scott McConnell insisted that "Hungary Shows the West the Path to Survival," which is an odd way to describe a country losing population so fast that the government is now bribing women to have four children.

Progressive dystopianism, meanwhile, is getting so hysterical that it's hard to watch cable TV without giggling. When Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) in February announced his latest presidential platform—Medicare for all, a $15 federal minimum wage, free college tuition, breaking up the banks, and the Green New Deal, for starters—it came with the requisite hysterics that "this country is moving toward an oligarchic form of society," that "we have created a system which is basically out of control," and that his program is the only way to confront the "existential threat to our country and the world."

But it's nationalism that divides libertarians. Brexit was a righteous revolt against domestic and foreign elites…and it was the replacement of a free-trade zone with an arrangement sure to feature more tariffs. Orbán asserted Hungary's right to set its own immigration policies…and pandered repeatedly to anti-Semites. France's vest-wearing protesters are fed up with high taxes…and commit daily acts of violence against private property. We certainly need not look far to see the strong pluses and gaping minuses of Trump-flavored populism at home.

Such dissonances cry out for nuance as we poke forward into an uncertain, post-neoliberal future. Instead, the nationalism-whisperers are treating them with euphemism.

"The new nationalism's goals are modest," insisted editor W. James Antle III in a recent cover essay for The American Conservative. "Remind those in government that their primary fiduciary duty is to their current lawful residents, not the population of the whole planet, even in powerful and affluent countries like the United States; remain independent of the supranational entities that would transform mutually beneficial trade among self-governing peoples into rule by Davos-approved bureaucrats; police one's own borders rather than the world."

Such verbiage feels less like a forward-looking ideological program and more like a backfilling, rose-colored rationalization for a populist uprising that has already taken place. And fair enough—the political upheaval has been bigger than most smartypants types ever predicted, while creating institutional clashes the broader West hasn't had to confront in decades. Things are precarious out there.

But history has taught us that nationalism, in addition to resisting unwanted imperialism, can transition into collectivism, with outsiders easily scapegoated and deprived of rights. Whatever new order replaces the old, there will be an important role for us cranky individualists to play.