Populism Isn’t Democracy, It’s Ochlocracy

     One of the great achievements, and integral elements of America as a civic nation (and formerly the Anglosphere more widely), was the keystone concept of liberty under law—an ordered liberty ordered not by either a ruling elite or some Rousseau-esque volonté générale, but by that great contract that is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those whoa re dead, and those who are to be born”, as Edmund Burke wisely noted.

     This very concept brings forth the very essence of equality under the law by the equal application of rules without prejudice or favor. By grounding our laws and rules with history, tradition, and common law sensibility, we create laws of a general nature, equally applicable to all according to the facts and circumstances. This is the way to prevent some ruling over others: To rely on the “fixed principles and institutions of society express[ing] not merely the present opinions of the ruling part of the community, but the accumulated results of centuries experience”, as James FitzJames Stephen noted consistent with the understanding of Burke. It is the lodestone that dissuades tyranny, and provides a guidelight back when we stray—to eschew that is folly.

     It is when we eschew such limitations that we empower whoever does rule over us to do so without practicable limit beyond perpetual civil war.

     Yet some on the post-conservative Right (that some refer to as the “trans-conservatives”) embrace the oppressor/oppressed power dynamic of the hard Left with all the dripping Marxist seething of their intellectual forefathers. In this false framing they focus not on restraining power, but using that power against some imagined elite as if it were the One Ring in order to vanquish some real life Sauron!

     Oh, there are those who deign to rule over us all, and accumulate power and influence to do so. Your humble author has for well over a decade on this blog decried, condemned, and belittled Nomenklatura. But rather than work towards a restoration of the rule of law, some have become envious and wish to use power to to rule over the elite, regardless of whether they are Nomenklatura, or simply are declared to not work for the common good as defined by whoever will have the power to define it. There is a difference between Nomenklatura and people who simply have achieved some leadership role, gained some position of relative influence, or simply have money.

     The false dilemma fallacy of elites vs. the people is an old one, and just as fallacious now as it has always been. It is quite a fancy to see “populism” as the perfect solution to rein in disagreeable elites, as if “the people” were some single entity with a common will, a volonté générale if you will, rather than a potential mob to be manipulated and used by a populist elite like a sheepdog guiding sheep. But then, they might even claim that the sheepdog is simply animating vessel of the collective will of the sheep!

     Such anti-elite elites declare populism, as they define and shape it, is but true democracy! In truth, populism is the most elitist of political ideologies. Rather than populism being democracy, populism is in reality ochlocracy with a thin veneer of superficial legitimacy. But some people try to claim otherwise by painting opposition as the evil elite to be overcome… and who wants to side with this “evil elite”? If you don’t oppose these “evil elite” then you are not one of the “ordinary people”. Do note the false dilemma fallacy underpinning this type of argument, along with reliance on non sequiturs, strawmen, class warfare, and other song  n’ dance measures.

     Note how, ironically, he redefines populism as being specifically the hoi polloi standing up against the elite and being antithetical to it, as if a populist leader is somehow inoculated from elitism or elitist rule by spiritual balm of the volonté générale!

     It is easy for people to fool themselves into thinking that they are the ones who rule under a populist regime. As James FitzJames Stephen notes:

“People came in time to regard their rulers rather as their own agents and the depositaries of their own power than as antagonistic powers to be kept in check, and it did not occur to them that their own power exercised through their own agents might be just as oppressive as the power of their rulers confined within closer or wider limits.”


     Populism isn’t the “voice of the voiceless”, it is the organization of sentiment by the elites to be used by the elites, towards the ends desired by the elites! The “people” do not and can not rule, for they have no collective will nor singular voice. To equate “populist” with “authoritarian” or “strong man” is not some Orwellian changing of the meaning of words… but an observation grounded in reality.

     This ultimately ochlocratic sentiment tries to deflect from the very real negatives of mob rule and the populist elite by declaring the danger to be the “elites” who are defined as whatever the populist elite decide isn’t being used for what the populist elite deem to be the “common good”. How dare, these populist elites say, organizations, corporations, or simply people with money try to have a say in the government that rules over them, especially when it is a populist government! Any real student of 20th century Italian history would note this organization of business for the common good under a government that speaks for the people to be corporatism. Sadly, some populist elites must outright fib and declare it to be business ruling over other via the government (which wouldn’t even be possible under a society that insists upon the rule of law).

     Elitism, if understood as rule of the Nomenklatura, is unique no neither the Left nor to the post-conservative elite. It is conservatism in the American vein that stands against it! The problem is not that it is news media, businesses, academics, &c. using government to impose, being the Nomenklatura they are, their whims on others, but that the power is there—unmoored from any superseding rule of law—to be used by some to rule over others.

     The beauty of the rule of law where the rules are elevated above the rulers, be they some dictatorial elite who declare they are better than the people or the dictatorial elite who claim to speak on behalf of the people better than the people can speak for themselves, is that no one has the predominant power over others.

     Just as democratic elections serve as a critical check upon the government and whoever may hold the reins thereof, one of the wisest elements of the Constitution, and the true Anglospheric tradition it embodies, was the understanding of the necessity of contra-majoritarian elements in any government or even society itself to serve as a check on populist sentiment. The only way the people can be protected from the people is by proper checks and balances against the people, for “the people” is but many individuals who speak with millions of individual voices, and as much as democracy is a “mild and disguised form of compulsion …[where we] agree to try strength by counting heads instead of breaking heads”, as James FitzJames Stephen noted, placing checks and balances on populism serves to prevent the populist elite from democratically breaking heads anyway.

     So NO, populism is not democracy. The sentiment of the majority, or even plurality, is part of democracy and a key and integral part of American governance, but such sentiment must be protected from populist elitists and even headless mob rule lest we fall into ochlocracy.

     A little mood music:

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2 Responses to Populism Isn’t Democracy, It’s Ochlocracy

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