Although some pundits and grifters may claim otherwise, there’s nothing new about populism. It comes in waves, often but not always in response to sharp economic downturns, and is driven by outrage against the mistakes or misdeeds of political elites.
Sometimes that populist outrage is well-earned and its consequences beneficial. At other times, though, the flames of populism serve as little more than propulsion for demagogues seeking to make themselves new political elites in place of the old ones. George Orwell had their number, which he counted as legs. So did Pete Townshend of The Who, who invited listeners to “meet the new boss — same as the old boss.”
If you go looking for clear definitions of the policy content of populism, you’ll come away disappointed. But there’s a common rhetorical denominator: populists tend to say things like “the People have spoken” even though they are actually in the minority and “the People” have done no such thing.
It’s currently fashionable to denigrate right-wing populism, of the sort that produced the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. Although I’m no slave to fashion — my closet is full of clothes older than my grown children — I have repeatedly criticized such populist impulses myself, not only when expressed as conspiracy theories about stolen elections but also when directed against free trade, entitlement reform, and other causes that in my view cannot be abandoned by an American conservatism worthy of the name.
Today, however, I will focus on left-wing populism, of the sort that has produced its own violence and chaos but nowhere near the level of condemnation it deserves.
The riots of 2020 alone resulted in dozens of deaths and north of $1 billion in property damage. Of course, most people protesting the homicide of George Floyd were only expressing political views. They weren’t rioters. By refusing to maintain order, however, state and local governments allowed some protests to devolve into riots. It was a colossal error.
This manifest failure to enforce basic rules of conduct in public spaces had antecedents. Some happened right here in North Carolina. On August 24, 2017, a mob led by anarchist and communist activists toppled the Confederate Monument that once stood in front of Durham’s old courthouse. Thanks to some combination of clumsiness and purposeful malfeasance by local law enforcement, no one was ever really held responsible for the crime.
Almost exactly one year later, another mob (including some of the same activists) tore down the Silent Sam statue on the Chapel Hill campus of the University of North Carolina. Again, there were no serious consequences for those responsible. Again, the mob was rewarded by having the statue removed permanently rather than restored to its original location, as it should have been, until such time that it might be removed by proper authorities employing legal means.
As I wrote at the time, I was never sold on keeping those statues permanently in place. I don’t think past generations get to decide in perpetuity what persons or images should populate campuses, courthouses, and other public spaces. Confederate monuments have a history of their own, one that at best mixes familial desire to honor fallen ancestors with Lost Cause mythology and white supremacy.
Should Silent Sam and comparable statues and memorials have been moved elsewhere, then, or just dismantled? That was a legitimate question. It was not, however, answered by “The People.” It was answered by a self-anointed few who figured they’d get away with it. They were right.
Most North Carolinians didn’t agree. They opposed removing the Silent Sam statue, which was on state property. That remains the prevailing national sentiment about the larger issue, as far as I know. In a 2020 ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, only 43% of respondents favored “removing statues honoring Confederate generals from public places.”
Think the majority is wrong about this? Then persuade them otherwise. But don’t take the law into your own hands and then cloak yourself in populist claims that “the People have spoken.” They never got to.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.