The framers of the Constitution did not use the term “populism,” but they were aware of the phenomenon it describes—that is, an uprising by the voters against what they judge to be a corrupt or out-of-touch elite. James Madison, for example, referred to something roughly similar in his extensive discussions in the Federalist of factions and “factious majorities.” To a considerable degree, the challenges posed by “populism” were front and center in the debates that eventually produced the Constitution. For better or worse, the framework Madison was instrumental in creating does not easily allow for the kind of popular referendum through which a majority of voters in Great Britain decided to pull that country out of the European Union, or the more recent referendum in Italy through which voters turned down a package of constitutional reforms. In this sense, the U.S. Constitution operates as an impediment to populism because it substitutes representation and deliberation for national referenda and direct democracy.One of the key points I made repeatedly last semester, when lots of people were freakin' out about Donald Trump, is that our Constitution is strong enough to handle whatever comes along. We survived the Civil War, the Great Depression, and World War II. I expect we'll survive the Trump regime just fine. Indeed, all this talk about "fascism" on the left is really leftist extremism in defense of favored progressive policy priorities. Seriously, these people are unhinged.
In the United States, of course, voters can decide to pull out of a treaty or an alliance or repeal a law, but they must do so indirectly by first electing a willing President and Congress, and then hoping that the two can find enough common ground to enact a program—and then sustain that program through subsequent elections. Under the U.S. Constitution, a populist “moment” is not sufficient to win the long game; the moment must be sustained over a sequence of elections such that a temporary uprising of voters is translated into a durable governing majority, which is a difficult thing to accomplish in a country as large and diverse as the United States, as the Founders well understood.
The populist moment that we seem to be in, here and abroad, is a propitious occasion to reconsider some contemporary assumptions about democracy and majority rule in relation to the arguments advanced by the Founders on those same subjects. Many today are instinctively inclined toward democracy and majority rule but are also worried about the implications of “populism.” Can they have it both ways? After all, populism, to the extent that we use it in a pejorative way, implies that majority rule is not always a good thing, and that, as James Madison argued in the Federalist, there can be “bad” majorities as well as “good” ones. How do we tell the difference? And how does one design a system to deter or to deflect these “bad” majorities? Once we raise such questions, we enter into the political and intellectual world of Madison and the Founders...
But keep reading.