The Possibility of
Conservative Populism

By Jeremy Rozansky


In a short year, the Tea Party has rapidly eliminated the Right’s inertia and become the single greatest object of the Left’s scorn. Even with all the attention, the assessments have too often betrayed their authors’ conceits. One reason for this is that only in the last month or so have comprehensive polls examined its demographics and ideological idiosyncrasies, the other reason is that so few assessments ask the fundamental questions: Is the Tea Party a faction of the American conservative movement? Is this seeming conservative populism even possible?

The Tea Party is not going away any time soon and nor are these questions. In fact, the Tea Party’s numbers are increasing: Rasmussen found that the 16% of Americans who identified as a part of the Tea Party movement in March of 2010 rose to 24% in April. They grew as a response to the national agenda: Stimulus, Omnibus, Cap-and-Trade, and Obamacare. The agenda they oppose is the same agenda that has also been nearly unanimously opposed by the Republican Party and by conservatives. National Review, the chief artery of American conservatism, has live-blogged Tea Party rallies, defended its moniker from the lewd and inane “teabagger,” and mused extensively, and largely sympathetically, about what the Tea Party means. That National Review would make its website a forum in defense of the Tea Party is one of the clearest indications that conservatives believe the Tea Party to be an important ally, if not just a quirky branch of American conservatism.

Bedfellowship alone does not make the Tea Party conservative. It remains an open question whether the Tea Party can be considered conservative—whether any populist movement is legitimately conservative. However, a measured reflection on the Tea Party and the possibility of conservative populism lends itself to the conclusion that we are witnessing a new kind of populism: a conservative populism that takes up the paradoxical aim of using the power of the people to delimit the power of the people.

With his first glance at the Tea Party, the conservative should recoil. Conservatives understand that democratic rule must be tempered by religious or aristocratic traditions. Albert Jay Nock, an early conservative, spoke of a “Remnant” of educated men who would understand the proper role of the state in society and would be needed at the disastrous end of the West’s course toward collectivism and mass-culture. Jose Ortega y Gasset, another influential conservative, scolded the barbarism of the mass-man and urged the noble life, not the common life. The list could continue. Anti-populism, or elitism, is basic ground for conservatives. In The Conservative Mind, his canonical, yet flawed book, Russell Kirk cites as the third of the six principles of conservatism,

Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a ‘classless society.’ With reason, conservatives have often been ‘the party of order.’ If natural distinctions are effaced among men, oligarchs fill the vacuum. Ultimate equality in the judgment of God, and equality before courts of law, are recognized by conservatives; but equality of condition, they think, means equality in servitude and boredom.”

Conservatives believe in natural aristocracy. Different conservatives have had different conceptions of the natural aristocracy. As Kirk tells it, John Adams believed a natural aristocracy comes about through republican governance. As individuals select their representatives, they look to give power to those who are the best among them. Many conservatives have supported traditional aristocracy in some form as an institution that also offers the cultivation and preservation of society’s best. Whether for the valiant or the just men, conservatives have supported forms that harness natural inequalities. Popular collectivism is opposed, in part, because the basis for collectivism is generally social leveling. To continue his project, the collectivist must smooth the natural differences among men—a level of power that could enslave each man.

Most of all, conservatives believe in the wisdom of traditional social forms. They also find truth in Tocqueville’s assessment that, more than any other regime, democratic man disdains traditions. This tradition-slackening democratic man grabs power through popular movements like the Tea Party; it is no mistake that, for Aristotle, mob rule is the corrupt parallel of the constitutional republic. But could there be a popular movement of democratic men in favor of traditional forms and other conservative things? This is where Willmoore Kendall comes in.

When he worked at National Review, it was said that Willmoore Kendall was never on speaking terms with more than one editor at a time. The inspiration for Saul Bellow’s “Mosby’s Memoirs,” Kendall was one of the larger-than-life characters of the early postwar right, and a salty one at that. The son of a blind Methodist minister in Konowa, Oklahoma, Kendall became a Rhodes Scholar at age 23, after his first book, on baseball, was published. Originally a Trotskyist and a supporter of the Spanish Republic in the Spanish Civil War, he became disillusioned with communism while in Spain. Stateside, he obtained a PhD in political science. His dissertation was on Locke’s popular majoritarianism—a view that would evolve with Kendall. He eventually attained tenure at Yale and, after his tenure was bought-out by put-off colleagues, he joined William F. Buckley Jr., his former student, at a start-up publication, National Review.

Described by Leo Strauss as America’s “best native theorist,” Kendall propounded, as he termed it, “egghead McCarthyism”—an admittedly strange term. Certainly a demagogue if not also a populist, Senator McCarthy drew the ire of intellectual conservatives like Whittaker Chambers who said of McCarthy, “He can’t think. He is a slugger and a rabble-rouser” who “simply knows that somebody threw a tomato and the general direction from which it came.” Kendall saw McCarthy as inarticulate and rude and also as a vestibule for a fundamental conflict over the nature of American democracy, in which McCarthy was in the right.

That Willmoore Kendall was not put off by the inarticulate and rude (traits which can certainly be attributed to elements of to the Tea Party) is the larger point. One reason for his tolerance is that he was from the area between the Appalachians and the Rockies and had a certain sense about his people’s basic intention. Kendall did not have Kirk’s absolute reverence for Burke, nor Chambers’ dismay at the crude machinations of majority rule. He did not want to co-opt the ancien regime for the American sphere, and took up a project to identify the traditional elements of American politics. As George H. Nash assumes, while most conservatives were unsettled by the possibility of the popular and democratically legitimate abandonment of the truths we hold, Kendall was satisfied by a faith in the American people. These people, the people of Konowa, Oklahoma were “virtuous people.” The Great Tradition of Western political thought—vaguely described as the notion that there exist fundamental political and personal duties alongside rights—was instilled within Americans at large. According to him, the American people had the Great Tradition—“in their hips.”

Because of all this, Kendall did not yearn for a more aristocratic age. His projects focused on the democratic elements of the American founding. In one project, Kendall took efforts to examine the symbols of American politics put forth in The Federalist Papers. The Federalist, he argues, refuses to accede to the modern, liberal majoritarianism in which, as Jefferson put it, “democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people rule the other forty-nine.” Such a conception makes political life about winners and losers, in which the economic and social levelers achieve fifty-one percent and impose institutional changes on the other forty-nine. Instead, Kendall quoted Publius in Federalist 85:

I never expect to see a perfect work from imperfect man. The result of the deliberations of all collective bodies must necessarily be a compound, as well of the errors and prejudices, as of the good sense and wisdom, of the individuals of whom they are composed...: [A] common bond of amity and union, must as necessarily be a compromise of as many dissimilar interests and inclinations. How can perfection spring from such materials?

This does not enunciate the conceit that if reasonable men discussed policy civilly then they could find the midpoint where the true solutions to political problems lie. Rather it expresses contentment with imperfection and tension and conceives of democratic governance as fundamentally accommodating; no side overpowers the other because neither side is so invasive. Bicameralism, the filibuster, the Electoral College, and the congressional seniority-principle all frustrate the majority and, as Kendall believed, would all be assented to by Publius. As Barack Obama has recently discovered, fifty-three percent is not a mandate for ambitious federal overhaul.

Populism is defined by the basic idea that the people are better than their government. The necessary conclusion of this is that people should have more political power either in influence on policy decisions or in more fundamental ways—like amending the Constitution to expand direct democracy. The exemplary American populist, William Jennings Bryan reflected this malleability of the populist label well with his 1908 slogan “Shall the People Rule?” Bryan’s slogan attacked both the undemocratic process that designated Taft as the Republican candidate and what he believed to be the monopoly-favoring Republican administration.

Willmoore Kendall would agree that the people are often better than their government (he could be open to populist sentiment), but he would also caution against determining “the people” purely by majority-rule. Instead, conservative populism must combine modesty about what a populist movement can do with a fundamentally conservative inclination toward the Great Tradition. They must believe in duties alongside rights. Without giving away the ending, the Tea Party fits the first half, and the second is still possible.

As a matter of organizing our assessment, one must realize that there are umpteen Tea Party organizations with different regional, sub-regional, and local chapters. They go by names like “Tea Party Patriots,” “The Tea Party Express,” “Tea Party Nation,” and “Tax Day Tea Party.” They have no chief figure. Sarah Palin, who recently spoke at the National Tea Party Convention (put on by Tea Party Nation), might be imagined to be this chief figure of the Tea Party, but a recent New York Times poll found a plurality of Tea Party attendees do not think Governor Palin is even qualified to be President, let alone would support a bid. Other recent populist movements have coalesced around charismatic political figures, whether they be Ross Perot or Barack Obama, but the Tea Party appear to be the first significant populist movement arising without a leader since the anti-Vietnam War movement and the New Left. In many ways the Tea Party embodies the populist ideal: loosely structured, sporadic, and without obvious leadership.

Any movement is united by either interest or principle. It is not, on the surface, clear which unites the Tea Party. Tea Party activists tend to be better educated, slightly wealthier, and older than the average American. It is possible they may have common interests—although why the elderly would be more inclined than the young to protest against accelerating debt is not clear. More likely, they are united by principle. Their speeches, signs, rallying cries, symbols, and objects of opposition clearly stem from certain basic ideas and principles.

The Tea Party movement can trace its origin to what has been dubbed, “The Rant Heard ‘Round The World” made by Rick Santelli, a CNBC reporter at the Chicago Board of Trade. To the hurrahs of traders, Santelli proclaimed that there is a “silent majority” that is skeptical of stimulus economics and opposes “promoting bad behavior” through corporate bailouts and, in the specific instance, federal mortgage refinancing. While talk of a populist opposition had been brewing among traders and talk-radio hosts before the Santelli rant, the rant helped unite the factions around a single image: the Sons of Liberty plunging the newly taxed tea into Boston Harbor.

In American lore, the revolutionaries protested at Boston Harbor against “taxation without representation.” The contemporary Tea Party opposes spending bills and the concomitant prospect of higher taxation put forward by legitimate representatives. Although some regard Barack Obama as illegitimate, largely for unfounded suspicions about his birthplace, they make up a very small and overexposed minority. Most Tea Party members do not regard the system as illegitimate, only as corrupt and poorly guided. But the “taxation without representation” line was not the sole case for the Boston Tea Party. The Tea Act would, among other things, secure a monopoly for the British East India Company, squeezing colonial smugglers out of the market. Part of the motivation for the Boston Tea Party was to oppose the steady centralization of power that is intrinsically paired with the suppression of personal liberties within the marketplace.

The same motivation underlies much of the Tea Party. The Tea Party Patriots, for example, cite “fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets” as their core values. Their justifications, however, tell a more complete tale. Fiscal responsibility is valued because high taxes lessen the freedom of the individual to spend his earnings and high government spending inevitably means high taxes. Their belief in constitutionally limited government is justified by a basic faith in the correctness of the founders’ original intent, with an explicit reference to less-centralized federalism and a general deference toward personal liberty. Free markets are supported as the “consequence of personal liberty.” These ideas all originate in a basic libertarianism.

One must pause to deflect a misleading comparison; the Tea Party, unlike the Libertarian Party, articulates few practicable political ends. They articulate that the debt should decrease, taxes should be lowered, government functions should be narrowed, and that bailouts are corrupt. These demands call for a shift in the policy-making disposition, but they do not make up a comprehensive policy platform.

This policy-making disposition they call for is the same basic libertarianism. In his surprisingly affectionate account of the Nashville Tea Party Convention, Jonathan Raban of the New York Review of Books confirmed much of what the polls have said: the Tea Party is made up of those who are, on average, better off than the nation at-large. Moreover, there are a striking number of political novices who are finding the Tea Party as the first modern political movement that speaks for them. But, ideologically they are hard to group. At the Nashville Convention, Glenn Beck’s books were passed around, a birther spoke (and was shouted down), Randians were certainly in attendance, and “Obama spends—Jesus saves” was a popular shirt. There were nightly benedictions offered by, among others, Christian Zionists. Raban also found some moderates, shyly put off by the sloganeering, even as others found it to be good, political fun. Only in a big tent could one find the Randians, fiercely atheist, rubbing elbows with evangelicals. Only a normal political movement has the gradient from kook to moderate.

While contemporary libertarianism is explicit in its policy preferences, the Tea Party is composed of an ideologically wider mix, based on simple notions about the dangers of an expanding government. Although it represents an unprecedented composition of ideologies and influences, the Tea Party seems to contain two of the three basic elements of the conservatives’ coalition: social and fiscal conservatives (attendants might also be national security conservatives—but that doesn’t come up as much).

Not only is there overlap between the Tea Party and the conservatives, over 75% of the Tea Party self-identify as conservative. But one still must hesitate to call them conservative. They do not measure as the Republican base: 40% of Tea Party believe Roe v. Wade was decided correctly, 57% are in favor of gay marriage or civil unions, and only 30% support the relaxing of gun control laws. While these numbers mark the Tea Party as more conservative than the nation at large, they are not the most conservative conservatives. One must conclude that the Tea Party is neither the Republican base nor a political movement separated from the conservatives. Instead, they are a dynamic swath of anti-Obama America loosely united by a belief that government expansion suppresses personal liberty.

David Brooks has compared the Tea Party to the 1960’s New Left, citing their anti-elitism, rally tactics, conspiracy theories, and elemental feelings against the establishment. This comparison deserves examination. Harvey Mansfield in his foray into contemporary political surveys, America’ Constitutional Soul, notes that the New Left’s demonstrations were never about reasons but about feelings—they were not logical republican actors, they were, rather, emotive democratic masses. The Tea Party is a similarly emotive democratic masses. Yet the New Left’s “participatory democracy” was about increasing the power of the people so that government would be, to paraphrase a Carter slogan, as good as the people. To make government as good as the people means not only to increase the presence of popular will in decision making but to increase the purview of government. For government to be subservient to the people’s will—a will which was concerned with all aspects of national life—government could not be delimited; after all, the people’s will was sovereign and, as such, had no permanent delimitation. New regulations for the environment, for instance, were supported by the New Left so that private institutions could become democratically accountable.

The conservative’s problem with the New Left might be that they were an emotive democratic mass, but that was never Kendall’s problem. Kendall had a problem with the attempt to expand the power of the majority in American life and uncompromisingly assimilate more and more institutions under the banner of “participatory democracy.” It was a corruption of American democracy to do so. If the Tea Party is seeking to undo the New Left by employing a basic libertarianism in governance then they are reviving American democracy as Kendall understood it. They meet Kendall’s understanding of conservative populism insofar as they are a populist movement seeking to delimit the power of all populist forces.

Yet, Kendall was certainly hostile to those with “near-neurosis about government power… and the cult of the weak government” and he would not have supported many of the ideologies present at the Tea Party. The purpose of the conservative who follows Federalist 85 is not to frustrate government per se but to frustrate the levelers when the levelers became the majority. Kendall would probably see the Tea Party for their dual possibilities.

On the one hand, the Tea Party’s ranks could be the “virtuous people” who inspired his faith in the American system. They are, even inelegantly, articulating something profound about the role of the individual in American political life and deserve accommodation by the liberal classes. Through this articulation, the Tea Party members could be an electoral force, a new majority modest in its aims. The Tea Party could roll back the New Left’s participatory democracy and shrink the size of government. In believing that the people are better than their government, it would not take the tact that the control of the people over national life must be expanded via government. Rather, the Tea Party would understand how government power frustrates the individual and let the people be better than its government by involving government less in the people’s lives. The Tea Party could become a populism that diminishes the ability of other populist movements to change national life via government.

On the other hand, the Tea Party could be a majority in waiting. It could be ready to slash the accumulated social fabric of the entitlement age and resist accommodating the liberals it usurped. It would be unfortunate if a movement that proclaimed its constitutional seriousness was caught up in the temptation of absolute majority rule that other movements have fallen into. It would also be tragic if the Tea Party members failed to link up with the great tradition and proclaim the role for duties in political life.

Perhaps Kendall is right in his analysis but wrong in his conclusions. The Federalist sought compromise, accommodation, and harmony, but we are left in a world in which we are deeply divided on multiple issues on which accommodation is functionally impossible. The expansion of government as a leveling agent, for one, has made social policy universally felt. As was once the case with slavery, we need a way to overcome an impasse, and majority rule is certainly preferable to war. Our institutions are meant to protect against majority overreach and are, as such, fundamentally conservative. But rather than merely upholding these institutions, conservatives since the rise of the neoconservatives believe that through a conservative disposition we can improve upon what has been set up by liberal victories. The Tea Party is a transformed conservative populism for a transformed conservatism. Conservatives are now advocates of a new order which seeks to unseat the liberal order that through its own policies has necessitated, coincidentally, the new majoritarian populism of the right.

What is conservative about the Tea Party is that they are the populism delimiting the power of the people. To fully claim the conservative mantle, they need to be about more than personal liberties. They must, even ineloquently, enunciate the Great Tradition as Kendall called it. They need to articulate duties. The Tea Party, if one has correctly calibrated expectations of populist movements, is off to a half-way decent start: they hold-up thrift and responsibility as duties for politicians and homebuyers. While the conservatism of the Tea Party is not guaranteed, let us learn from Willmoore Kendall and be optimistic, for the new populist upsurge may well have this Great Tradition “in their hips.”