Popular Nonsense

President Joe Biden speaks to guests at the Laborers’ International Union of North America training center on February 8, 2023, in De Forest, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

You hear it all the time, including from me: Our politics are too partisan, too polarized, too divided. Why can’t both parties work together for the common good? But it’s worth pointing out that sometimes bipartisan consensus is awful.

The worst form of elite agreement is usually the product of politicians pandering to populist sentiment. When both parties serve as vessels for popular passions, they ignore experts and the lessons of history, and they suspend their own critical faculties.

This assertion bothers a lot of populists because they confuse populism with democracy. But the two things, while superficially similar, are in fact very different. Democracy, properly understood, is about disagreement and debate, about making public arguments about unpopular truths. Populism is inherently anti-intellectual, elevating emotions and gut feelings, denying the existence of inconvenient facts. “The people of Nebraska are for free silver and I am for free silver,” the great American populist William Jennings Bryan declared. “I will look up the arguments later.”

For the last week, Washington’s chattering class has been obsessed with Joe Biden’s politically successful exchange with Republicans over Social Security and Medicare. During the State of the Union, he maneuvered the GOP into a standing ovation to “protect” these entitlement programs. But while his admirers cheer and his detractors grumble about Biden’s framing of the politics—the GOP never signed on to Sen. Rick Scott’s proposal to “sunset” entitlement programs every five years and did not threaten to hold the debt ceiling debate “hostage” to cuts—there’s been precious little attention to the lies about the policy underneath the alleged lies about politics.

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