But the Tea Party has been very unusual for an American populist movement. It has not been focused on soaking the rich, as left-wing populists always have been. It has not even been primarily focused on reducing the tax burden on the middle class, as right-wing populists usually are. Rather, the Tea Party has focused on restraining government. It originated in outrage about federal bailouts, and has directed its energies toward pulling back the cost and reach of the state. It has asked for fewer government giveaways, not more. It has even given voice to a tight-money populism, criticizing the Federal Reserve for inviting inflation — a far cry from populists of old. And the Tea Party has also been intensely focused on recovering the U.S. Constitution, and especially its limits on government power (and therefore on the public’s power) — another very unusual goal for a populist movement.
These substantive demands of the Tea Party have been at least as important as its populist form. But that form, and the energy it has brought to the effort to resist Obamaism, risks causing us to draw the wrong lesson from the past few years. Populism as such does not define the proper response to the rise of technocratic administration, and cannot be the essence of the defense of our constitutional order against a resurging progressivism.
But those precautions do not amount to the rule of experts. The framers were disdainful of the potential of technocratic know-it-alls whose abstract expertise was often of value only in what Hamilton calls, in Federalist 28, “the reveries of those political doctors whose sagacity disdains the admonitions of experimental instruction.” And even men with expertise in administration should not be given too much power. In Federalist 68, Hamilton argues that, while good administration is very important, the idea that the best-administered regime is the best regime is a “political heresy.” There is much more to government than administration.
One view, which has always been the less common one, holds that liberal institutions were the product of countless generations of political and cultural evolution in the West, which by the time of the Enlightenment, and especially in Britain, had begun to arrive at political forms that pointed toward some timeless principles in which our common life must be grounded, that accounted for the complexities of society, and that allowed for a workable balance between freedom and effective government given the constraints of human nature. Liberalism, in this view, involves the preservation and gradual improvement of those forms because they allow us both to grasp the proper principles of politics and to govern ourselves well.