Revisiting Millman’s Taxonomy
Unlike Lisa, I’m hesitant to describe populism as a complete ideology. The characteristics of American populism she identifies – evangelism, a healthy skepticism towards meritocratic achievement, a reverence for the “ordinary” – are certainly distinct, but they don’t imply a coherent set of political positions. A person can be skeptical of meritocratic achievement and embrace either liberal or conservative ideas, which leads me to believe that populism is best understood as a political modifier (a politician is a “populist conservative” or a “populist liberal,” not a “populist,” full stop).
So where does populism fit on our political topography? I think of it as a disposition, comparable to other tendencies that color our views but don’t rigidly define a particular set of political orthodoxies. A few months back, Noah Millman proposed a three dimensional taxonomy for American politics. I’m tentatively adding populism vs. elitism as a fourth axis:
- populism vs. elitism
- liberal vs. conservative (attitudes toward the individual and authority)
- left vs. right (attitudes toward social/economic winners and losers)
- progressive vs. reactionary (attitude toward past and future)
In this context, “elitism” is shorthand for respecting established gatekeepers, whether in the realm of politics, culture, or science. Populists, however, are more skeptical of these institutions. I had originally thought that populism vs. elitism was another variation of the old liberal/conservative divide, but it occurs to me that a populist can venerate individual achievement (the more libertarian-minded tea partiers come to mind) or traditional authority (think the libertarians’ culturally conservative comrades-in-arms). Perhaps more importantly, an elitist conservative might support traditional institutions against populist conservatives, who are generally more suspicious of established gatekeepers.
Does any of this make sense? Does adding a populism vs. elitism axis turn Millman’s elegant taxonomy into an unwieldy mess? You’ll note that I described the populist tendency as a suspicion of established institutions, a narrow definition that may not do justice to such a diverse political tradition.