In my view, one of the most important political trends of the last ten years has been the resurgence of anti-elite populism, especially right-leaning populism, in liberal democracies throughout the world. Populism is a political style where a politician divides citizens into two groups: the good, virtuous “people” and the corrupt, immoral “elites.” The politician then makes a rhetorical enemy of the immoral elites, promising to defend the “people” against the threat posed by the elites. Right-wing populists tend to focus their rhetoric on making political institutions, the news media, and racial/religious minorities into enemies while left-wing populists tend to rail against the wealthy and “special interests.”
I am a strong opponent of populism as a political style. While not always the case, populism tends to be associated with authoritarian illiberalism and tends to weaken democratic norms and institutions in the communities whose leaders channel populism into their rhetoric and policies.
Which is why today’s daily office reading threw me for a loop:
They arrived at Jerusalem. Immediately on entering the Temple Jesus started throwing out everyone who had set up shop there, buying and selling. He kicked over the tables of the bankers and the stalls of the pigeon merchants. He didn’t let anyone even carry a basket through the Temple. And then he taught them, quoting this text: “My house was designated a house of prayer for the nations; You’ve turned it into a hangout for thieves.” The high priests and religion scholars heard what was going on and plotted how they might get rid of him. They panicked, for the entire crowd was carried away by his teaching.Mark 11:15-18, MSG
It is not unreasonable here to interpret Jesus’s actions in the temple as a classic example of populism: he entered the temple and made a show of denouncing and disrupting the activities of the bankers, the economic elite, who were there with the blessing of the religious elites who controlled access to the temple. For their part, the institutional religious elite were terrified because Jesus was threatening their legitimacy and hold on power among the people. The longer I think on it, much of Jesus’s ministry could arguably characterized as a form of “religious populism” against the religious elites of his day.
So now this is something I am sitting with: I simultaneously applaud Jesus for giving a black eye to the religious elites who were seeking to control and economically exploit their people… while also firmly of the opinion that politicians who make populism central to their rhetoric and politics are dangerous to the health and vibrancy of a liberal democratic political system.
Questions I’m going to keep thinking about:
- Is it fair to characterize Jesus as a “religious populist”? Why or why not? (Here’s one blog post that argues “no.”)
- Should I rethink my position on political and economic populism? Should I be more open to its positive effects? Is there a way for politicians to use “good” populism in a way that does not weaken liberal democracy? (Or maybe I’m missing the point: perhaps liberal democracy does need radical disruption, but that would be a different conversation.)
- Is populism appropriate in a religious context but not a political/economic context? Why or why not?