Alex Contreras, Wikimedia Commons
John Trumbull's "The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776."

President Trump’s critics understandably worry about the rise of “populism” — about the power of the people as moved by a popular leader. It may seem strange that these critics call themselves “Democrats.”

Who rules in a democracy? The word itself is of course supposed to answer the question: democracy is the rule of the people. But of course it’s not so simple. Who counts as “the people”? The democracies of ancient Greece and Rome were based on the enslavement of conquered peoples. “The people” were only the free citizens of the city. Apart from the question of slavery there remains the question, who counts as “the people”?

The “We the people” of the American Constitution is shaped but not created by that document; common history, experience and beliefs had to make Americans a people before their leaders, on their behalf, could declare their independence and frame their constitution. One might say that a pre-rational “populist” moment, a moment of experience, affection and common faith, necessarily precedes and underlies the moment of rational, constitutional democracy led by elites.

Our founding documents were based on “self-evident truths” of universal significance, but they were still the actions of a certain people, a determinate “We” (which includes the people and its leaders): “We hold these truths. …”

There is no democracy without what I have been calling “leaders.” Masses do not form themselves spontaneously into a “people” with one mind and will. But our Founders did not like the word “leader,” just as they did not like the word “democracy.” These words suggested precisely the tumultuous, faction-ridden little city-states of the ancient world. They preferred the more generic “popular government” or the more moderate and responsible-sounding “republic,” which resonates with a concern for the public good.

Rather than popular “leaders,” our Founders hoped and planned for “representatives.” In the best cases, the people would choose the best among them to represent them, and then these representatives, moved by honorable ambition and checked by the ambition of rivals, would not simply convey the people’s wishes but would “refine and enlarge” their views in an institutionalized process conducive to the common good, that is, to the people’s fundamental and long-term interests.

The Federalist Papers, published serially in 1777-78 by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay to explain and promote the proposed Constitution, can be quite shockingly “anti-democratic” reading for us today. It is a credit to the state of popular opinion in the Founding period that Hamilton could state plainly and openly in Federalist 71 that “the people know from experience that they sometimes err,” and that it is the duty of representatives to withstand the people’s “temporary delusion.”

The Founders' “republic” established a structure of fundamentally popular government that provided outlets both economic and political to elite ambitions. They understood that there was no guarantee that either the people or social and political elites would measure up to the moral and intellectual standards presupposed by their institutions, however realistic and reasonable these were by historical comparison.

America is now both far more democratic and far more elitist than the Founders envisioned or would have wished. That is, our elites are at once much more subservient to the people’s “inclinations” or “temporary delusion” and much more contemptuous of the actual people’s fundamental moral and religious goods and long-term interests. Our reactionary populism and our progressive elitism seem to be opposites, but they presuppose and feed off each other.

At the bottom of this destructive dynamic is an intellectual and media elite that cannot lead responsibly because it defines itself as somehow more democratic than the people itself. By more “democratic” this elite class means, especially, more “progressive,” or more liberated from the popular moral and religious beliefs that once formed the people’s character and thus channeled inclinations towards long-term interests.

Today’s populism is alarming because it is quite blind. Unfortunately, it is largely right in its distrust of the elites against which it defines itself. But populism can only be a protest and thus, implicitly, a question; it is never an answer to the question how to make government serve the people’s long-term interests. The people cannot govern themselves without the assistance of elites active in and shaped by political and social institutions.

The Founders had a good plan for holding together popular interests and elite ambitions. But it depended on a shared ethic, a common commitment to a certain understanding of a good and just life. As this bond between the people and elites has been torn asunder, I can only say, God help us put it back together.

Ralph Hancock is a professor of political science at Brigham Young University and president of the John Adams Center for the Study of Faith, Philosophy and Public Affairs. His opinions do not necessarily reflect those of BYU.