From the Claremont Review of Books, Spring 2018, Charles Kesler writes, Thinking About Trump:

When the original American populists organized the People’s Party in time for the 1892 election, their rallying cry was the people versus “the interests,” meaning the railroads and large corporations that were squeezing farmers and small businessmen, and that allegedly dominated the two main political parties. So they started a new party calling for silver money and lots of it, nationalization of the railroads, a federal income tax, and other reforms including the initiative, referendum, and direct election of senators.

But in an age when the vast majority of federal laws are regulations passed by unelected bureaucrats, when state and federal courts freely strike down state initiatives they dislike, when the money supply is controlled by the unelected members of the Federal Reserve, when campaign finance laws make it difficult for new parties to form, and when there is already a federal program for almost every imaginable social problem—what is “populism” supposed to do?

The post-1960s bargain that Americans made with their government, not quite knowingly to be sure, was to exchange more and more aspects of popular control over government for a guarantee to the people of new, constantly updated rights, assigned by the government to economic, social, ethnic, racial, gender, and transgender groups. The exchange of power for rights has left us addicted to the rights but frustrated at the loss of power. The whole bargain seems increasingly hollow. 


The early progressives pushed for greater democracy and opposed constitutional restraints and dilutions of the popular vote.  Yet Wilson and other progressives favored a non elected administrative elite to reach solutions, assuming a general will that should be unimpeded.  Wilson also assumed a charismatic leader would properly discern this general or people’s will.

The  will of the people is a myth. Is is nothing more than the will of one interest group willing to use the force of government to enforce their will on  others.  Friedrich Hayek saw this clearly.  Wilson’s idea of a leader discerning this will is nothing more than a demagogue dictating the will of the people.

Wilson wanted more democracy, yet wanted more decisions removed from the democratic process. The administrative state came to do much more than administer the technical affairs of the state. It became a source of power and political rights with no electoral accountability. Through regulatory capture it became a means for the powerful to manipulate government power to their ends.  This was the last outcome the early Progressives would have wanted.