The West’s mainstream news sources all bleat one refrain: populism is bad. According to the oracles that never saw Brexit and Trump coming, populism is angry, irrational, bigoted, and anti-democratic. Case closed.
Well, perhaps not – if you listen to some of the populists themselves. Steve Hilton, previously a key advisor to David Cameron, is one of them, and he has emerged in recent years as an increasingly consequential figure as a result of his weekly American television programme, The Next Revolution. His latest book, Positive Populism, presents a compelling argument for such a revolt, and gives American populists a solid agenda with which to launch their effort.
Hilton emigrated to the US in 2012 and his book is addressed to his new countrymen, advising Americans how to take their country back and reclaim power. While the book is sprinkled with specifically American references, to the Declaration of Independence and the Statue of Liberty, for example, its powerful analysis is rooted in something that transcends national identity. Hilton’s populism is about understanding people in all their facets, as workers and as consumers, but most importantly as parents, neighbours, and friends.
Populism is gaining strength across the Western world precisely because the elites who rule us no longer view us in those roles, or in that way. Hilton’s book decries Western elites for viewing people as things to be moved about for their benefit. That is what underlies their commitment to free markets, free trade, and free movement of peoples. Modern elites know what ancient patricians and medieval aristocrats knew: if the people can be denied political power, those who have domination of financial and intellectual power can rule without restraint for their own selfish benefit. That is why the elites prefer rule by international institutions which are not directly elected by the people, such as the EU or the UN. And that, according to Hilton, is why the Davos set must be dethroned.
Hilton’s populism is profoundly egalitarian. It rests on the idea that all of us deserve a shot at living decent lives in decent communities. That’s why he contends that economic security should trump aggregate economic growth as a political value and, if providing for the former reduces the latter, then so be it.
It’s also why he dedicates nearly a third of the book to reinvigorating local communities, not normally something attributed to populist demands. Hilton understands what many in the elites don’t, that populism is at heart a demand for self-determination and human dignity. That requires economic and political reforms so that real power rests with the many, not with the few.
This emphasis allows populism to strike back at the heart of the argument that it is inherently anti-democratic. In the ancient world, the many would often strike back at the few by centralising power in a monarch with sufficient power and military strength to destroy the power of the landed few.
Elites echo this ancient concern by alleging that populists will entrench themselves in power by controlling the media and suppressing political disagreement. That’s the essence of their claims about Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and Poland’s PiS party, and is also regularly part of the vitriol levied against President Trump.
Hilton considers this to be a canard. He makes the case for restrictions on migration and trade, especially trade with China. He rightly sees China as the true anti-democratic force in the modern world, and his most radical proposal is for the US to place an economic embargo on China, eliminating all trade with and investment in the Middle Kingdom.
But his strong commitment to decentralising government power, by giving states and cities more exclusive power to govern and by giving individuals more market power to shop for government-funded services, shows that defeating the few does not go hand in hand with enslaving the many. In fact, true populism requires exactly the opposite.
Hilton buttresses his argument with personal examples. He is the child of Hungarian refugees who fled Communism during the Cold War. He has seen close hand what tyrants can do – they have killed his family’s friends who sought freedom and stripped his grandmother of her job to punish her for her daughter’s flight. Giving any government such power is anathema to him, and the fact that such a government might be nominally ‘populist’ does not change the underlying evil it would represent.
As a native-born American, I found some of Hilton’s recommendations and beliefs politically naïve. The American Right is defined by an interpretation of the American Revolution that resists the exercise of all government power, not simply an elite-dominated centralised power. The American Left, meanwhile, remains wedded to the view that private power is suspect, and that only government provision of services can ensure that all people are treated equally.
Against these twin legacies, it is extremely difficult to see how contemporary American politics can embrace his agenda, especially his call for universal, government-funded health care delivered entirely by private actors. Such a move would slaughter both parties’ sacred cows, and those cows are precious enough that neither party will willingly sacrifice them in a bi-partisan compromise.
But it’s entirely possible Hilton sees that. His television show is not called The Next Revolution for nothing. It may very well be that electing a populist president is not enough. Americans may have to revolt against both established parties and create a new one to really take back control of their lives. If so, count me in – and Hilton’s book would be a great foundation for that new party’s platform.