I am working on several projects that require me to grapple with the populist critique of capitalism in general and corporate governance in particular. So I read with great interest Frank Buckley's fascinating essay in Modern Age's Spring 2018 issue Conservatism: Beyond Trump.
Buckley's essay is a brilliant refutation of the conservative elite's disdain for Donald Trump's supporters (Kevin Williamson's multiple 2016 screeds sprang immediately to mind):
The four pillars of the Trump movement, themes that resonated with his supporters and that were largely ignored by conservative intellectuals, were mobility, jobs, religion, and nationalism. ...
The NeverTrumper had assumed that the white working class had lost its jobs because it smoked Oxy, because of moral poverty. But there’s another explanation. Maybe they smoked Oxy because they had lost their jobs. Maybe it was really about jobs after all and not a sudden loss of virtue.
Buckley envisions a new conservatism, which posits that "the best inducement to moral living is a good job."
But then Buckley makes an interesting move:
It was inevitable ... that Trump would be called a populist. You should never give your opponents the right to label you, but even some of Trump’s supporters have been willing to call themselves populists. They should know better. Trump is an America First nationalist, not a populist.
It’s true that, like most populists, Trump thinks that tariff walls that keep foreign goods out of the country might help American workers. But then Abraham Lincoln and William McKinley thought so too, and they weren’t populists. It’s also true that, like most populists, Trump championed an underclass unjustly held back by an aristocracy of wealth. But then Karl Marx and socialist Eugene V. Debs thought they were doing this, and they weren’t populists. We must also admit that, like most populists, Trump decried the influence of money in politics. But then so did Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren, and nobody called them populists.
Why is Buckley so adamant in rejecting the populist label? He argues that:
Populism was one of the nastiest of American political movements. ... The accusation of populism should thus be understood as a smear meant to link one to out-and-out racists such as “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, a South Carolina senator at the beginning of the twentieth century and one of the vilest people in American political history.
It is certainly true that many strains of American populism have highly unsavory views on key social issues. The Southern agrarians, in particular, held highly retrograde opinions on issues of race and, albeit to a lesser extent, class.
But does that mean that we should ignore everything else the populists had to say? The modern campus left, of course, seems to believe that holding one impermissible view is enough to justify silencing a speaker, but is that the model conservatives should follow? Or, for that matter, that anybody committed to the life of the mind should follow?
I think it is worth acknowledging that the Southern agrarians were, for the most part, racists (not to mention Utopians and various other flaws), but then going on to ask whether some of their ideas made (or even still make) sense. Otherwise, we might as well have a Ministry of Truth constantly rewriting history to eliminate anything that might offend modern sensibilities.
Which brings me back to Buckley's essay. Like Buckley, the Southern agrarians knew that work humanizes. “Since the most significant feature of our experience is the way we make a living, the economic basis of life is the soil out of which all the forms, good or bad, of our experience must come.” Tate, Allen. Reason in Madness: Critical Essays. Salem New Hampshire: Ayer Company, 1988, 230. Their critique of corporate capitalism thus speaks to the modern era, offering a way of thinking about the economy that--shorn of its worst features--provides an alternative political economy that may be more humane than the present model.