Marco Rubio, insurgent tea party candidate in Florida, makes the case for disturbingly counterproductive anti-elitism explicit:
The republic works and isn’t designed to elect a bunch of experts. Really to be an expert in our republic means to know what life is like in the real world. I think that’s the promising thing of this election. I think the more you are in touch with the real lives of everyday people, the better you are going to be as a representative of those people in a republic.
How interesting to see the term “republic,” used by Plato to describe the importance of wise governance, abused in a paragraph disclaiming that very value, and its long heritage.
That said, Rubio and his tea party colleagues have something of a point: in a modern democracy, we shouldn’t, and can’t expect our statesmen to be subject matter experts, and when people like me criticize them for this error, we might be ignoring an important distinction.
Rather, the statesman’s expertise should be in the application of another’s expertise to public problems, which implies a respect for, and willingness to listen to, the knowledge of others. Rubio’s error is really in imagining that the wisdom of “everyday people” can substitute for the expert analysis, when it should, in fact, inform (but perhaps not always determine) only the application.
Such is the task of representation. It is not “populism,” and not noble, to give the people what they want, because they want it. We call that pandering, or demagoguery. Wise representatives both listen to and guide public opinion, but do not in the process ignore objective truths, even if those truths are unpopular.
To do otherwise, and let the people imagine away hard truths, is not populism. It’s just bad governance. True populism lies in the faithful discharge of the representative’s related task, ensuring that the proper, valid place of elites in government does not allow them to substitute their subjective policy preferences for those of the people, during the application process. The statesman heeds the elite’s advice when given in the interest of all, and the populist ignores it when selfishness takes over, or the elite’s competency ceases.
Tax policy, and especially the coming debate over Bush’s upper-class tax cuts, provides an easy example. The objective case for upper-class tax cuts has never been strong; so the statesman would consider letting them expire, while the populist would demand it outright. It is nothing short of stunning, and proof-positive of how warped our conception of the elite’s place in society has become, that this outcome remains in doubt.