The latest reincarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will?”

Kevin D. Williamson wonders if we’re getting a little Rousseau mixed into the current Trumpian version of populism, even though we on the Right tend to think poorly of the 18th century Genevan philosopher:

“Anglo-American” is a term with a long history. It used to mean “white people,” and before that it meant “white people who aren’t Jews, Italians, or Irish,” back before those groups were assimilated into American whiteness. We use it now mainly to mean something different, something related to Winston Churchill’s “English-speaking peoples.” It describes a way of political life that is rooted not in Anglo-Saxon ethnicity but in the thinking and habits that informed the English-speaking world from Magna Carta (which was sealed at Runnymede, in Daniel Hannan’s constituency) to the Bill of Rights, and which informs the best political traditions not only in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand but also in places everywhere from India to Jamaica. It contains much: property rights, the rights to speak and publish and worship, the right to criticize the government and petition it for changes. It also contains the right to go one’s own way, because while Anglo-American liberalism is not a philosophy by or for an atomistic society populated exclusively by variation on homo economicus, it is a philosophy that puts at its center the smallest minority — the individual, and his rights, and his responsibilities.

Populism takes a different view: At the center of its concerns is the people — or, increasingly, the People. If populism meant only being good at the real-world application of democratic politics, that would be only an acknowledgment of the political reality that you have to win to govern. But it is not that. It is rather the latest reincarnation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “general will,” that nebulous motive that is the will of the People as interpreted by men with power, as opposed to the will of the People as revealed by what the People do when left to make their own choices and to bear the responsibility for those choices. We are always fighting the French Revolution, in one form or another.

The fundamentally irresponsible nature of the general will is one of the reasons we have a representative form of government rather than a strictly democratic one. But representation itself is held in some suspicion by the populists. If you ask someone, “What ought Representative Smith to do about this problem?” the answer you will usually get is: “He ought to do whatever his constituents want him to do, whatever the People want him to do.”

But that is exactly wrong: What he ought to do is not what the People want, but what is best for them: If there were no difference, then the representative would not be necessary — and neither would the Constitution. In reality, neither the emancipation of slaves in the 19th century nor freedom of speech in the 21st century would have survived a plebiscite.

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