Prudence and Populism

COMMENTARY Conservatism

Prudence and Populism

Mar 1, 2023 8 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Richard was Director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Edmund Burke warned that in poorly ordered democracies, “moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors.” Inverse Couple Images / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Prudence is the habit of thinking, choosing, and acting according to the demands of reason.

Populism erupts when enough members of the populace believe their leaders have betrayed them.

Prudence demands that we acknowledge the situation we’re in, which spells eventual catastrophe, and devote ourselves to its reform over the long term.

Prudence might seem the last virtue that should be consulted in our present climate. To some, it indicates timidity, undue caution, and a moral hesitancy to do the things that are most needed. Others associate it with cunning, the savvy achievement of narrow ends.

These popular renditions of prudence need to be informed by its classical dimensions. Such an account of this virtue can improve our politics, guiding those who hold power to exercise it in all of its strengths and limitations. Prudence, Greg Weiner notes in his wonderful study, Old Whigs: Burke, Lincoln, & the Politics of Prudence, “is the virtue associated with reason. It has, in this sense, a deeply normative case, which is to say that the point of prudence is not what Aristotle calls ‘cunning.’”

Edmund Burke warned that in poorly ordered democracies, “moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors.” The political tenor of certain times, perhaps including our own, separates us from prudence. But that is not because we are more daring or more scientifically certain of our course. Rather, it owes to our moral and political weaknesses. We think we know far more than we do. Believing that ideology and the knowledge it provides will perfect us, we demand less of ourselves than we should. What need is there for virtue and responsibility when you have all the answers and only need to enforce them? One result is that we demean in the first resort those who are our fellow citizens merely because we are locked in disagreement.

Prudence, Burke held, is “the god of this lower world.” On this score, Weiner says prudence is “inflected with caution but not confined to it, bound to circumstances, and finding expression in the particular yet grounded in the absolute.” Aristotle argues that it is a “habit concerned with action under the guidance of reason.” Aquinas adds that Providence is “the principal part of prudence” showing us “why things are ordained to their end….”

Prudence, then, is the habit of thinking, choosing, and acting according to the demands of reason. In civic affairs, those choices involve judgment and deliberation over what matters and what does not, or what at least merits less emphasis. Statesmen must navigate the problems that are upon them with the facts they have, and their judgments could prove to be wrong.

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The opposite of prudence is the god of abstraction and rationalist certainty, leading us to project ideological rigidity and rashness, if not violence, in political debate. Burke famously confronted the French Revolutionaries who demanded absolute freedom and absolute equality in disregard of the principles and circumstances of French government, religion, culture, and history. This was precisely their point, to pull down foundations and rebuild on unreal premises and ideas. Their divorce of principle and circumstance was the source of their revolutionary extremism and violence. From a desire for the totality of freedom, liberated from the French past and its constraints, the revolutionary regime ended in absolute tyranny. Burke’s formulation was that “circumstances … give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour and discriminating effect.”

Can Populism Govern?

Inherently complicating the recovery of prudence for us is the populist moment we labor in. This term is frequently used as an accusation of unseriousness or illiberalism towards a group or party the author dislikes. As John O’Sullivan noted “liberalism without democracy” is an apt description of the system of government towards which the West has been moving since 1989, and populism is the resistance to it. We are increasingly governed in a post-democratic sense, with bureaucracies and courts imposing their wills or with key issues removed from actual debate by leaders of one or more parties. Populism challenges post-democratic governance and re-opens dismissed or ignored issues.

Populism is part of our democratic republic, but so also is the republican principle that combines and shapes how institutions should inform both popular sovereignty and populism. Cited in Federalist 39, the republican principle grounds our Constitution’s legitimacy in the sovereignty of the American people by selecting their governing officers. All power is derived from the people, and that ongoing consent must be secured.

Those who govern, however, are not the people themselves. Rather, elected officials take their cues from the duties and limits defined by the Constitution. The performance of their office is not a mere conduit of popular will. The justice they achieve must come through the process of law-making. And those results should emerge through deliberation, reaching an outcome that may not be the exact one mandated by voters, but one that they can endorse, approving its rough approximation to their own.

Populism erupts when enough members of the populace believe their leaders have betrayed them. They no longer wish to be governed through institutions that constitutionally exist in a degree of separation from their own will because they think the “republican principle” is no longer efficacious for the achievements of limited and just government. And this isn’t hard to understand when one considers how many limits and separations of power in the Constitution now seem to exist only on paper and not in the actual procedures and exercised powers of the federal government.

And there are multiple reasons for the people to believe that their elites have governed in disregard of the people’s will for some time. There has been a breakdown between popular sovereignty and republican institutions. Populism from this view is an attempt to secure justice when the officers of these institutions have failed. We see a rise in judicial activism, administrative state power, endless and irresponsible spending, and dubious foreign policy choices. And now comes an FBI and national security apparatus investigating and harassing domestic political opponents of progressivism. America is almost post-constitutional in practice, replete with capricious power that frequently breeds unreliable policy outcomes.

But can populism, of the left or the right, govern? Populism’s desire for more direct self-government frequently leads to a politics of outrage that is devoid of respect for institutions. Populism’s inherent, if not fatal weaknesses, are seen in its inability to join its deeply felt need for justice to institutions and to republican principles.

The country splits sharply across key issues of social welfare spending, defense policy, fiscal policy, gender, abortion, and environmental policy, to name only a few. No one leader or political party is likely to sweep its opponents from the field. Capitulation by either side, given these entrenched divisions, doesn’t appear likely. Those who would lead a democratic republic like the United States must do so within the tensions, circumstances, and limits that define it.

Populism and Constitutionalism

Such a critique does not ignore that our governing institutions and many policy areas require substantial reform. But a prudential populism must account for the elements that obstruct the restoration of constitutional self-government. Populism must join itself to and be balanced by popular sovereignty and republican institutionalism if it is going to have a salutary effect on our constitutional order.

Prudence will recognize no compromise here; to compromise on the Constitution is to lose everything, every opportunity for reform, and our continued existence as a people. But this demands pro-institutional politics that we might call prudential populism. Some voices on the right now extend the populist principle to its breaking point, calling seemingly for a new country. They refuse to serve the god of this lower world. To follow them is to accept an unpredictable set of consequences.

Moreover, such prudential populism must work with popular sovereignty to make arguments capable of securing majorities around policies that shape the constitutional republic we want. Part of prudence involves counsel and providing explanations to the populace—outraged or otherwise—when they are wrong. Prudence must modulate republicanism to prevent it from descending into a rabble. Election mandates won’t be the final word, but deliberation in Congress in consultation with constituents will be, even as results may not line up, with the most emphatic enthusiasms.

Prudence is the virtue most needed by the conservative populist statesmen who would turn back the rolling progressive campaign to hollow the republic of its essential nature—its guarantee of ordered liberty for free and equal citizens. This is countered by the altogether rigorous discipline of progressives who have made it quite clear that they stand for vast amounts of social spending, climate legislation, socially progressive policies, including transgender surgery on children, and an aggressively secular public square. Progressives articulate well the America they want, and they tirelessly work to bring it into being. But their commitment to unreal abstraction opens them to defeat.

One issue that a prudential populism must reopen is fiscal excess tied to the principle of limitless government spending. Fiscal policy is more than policy—it defines the very nature and extent of our government. Do we continue to give a wide berth to individual and associational liberty, or is everything compromised by the reach of government?

Dealing with this crisis in government, one that has not been dealt with in quite some time, requires a recognition of the circumstances and limitations of the situation. It would also demand rebuilding deliberation within Congress over the contents of the federal budget. This would bring not only the prospect of renewed fiscal probity but the repair of an institution that has been underperforming in its constitutional role for decades.

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The debt ceiling mini-crisis could be an opportunity to begin a prudential process of spending retrenchment. Our annual federal deficit is seemingly beyond the reach of political decisions to curtail it. It just grows, and who is the fool to say otherwise? In the past three years, Washington has run deficits of more than $7.5 trillion. Annual multi-trillion-dollar deficits are the new order of business, a problem that will likely get worse as interest rates stay elevated in the presence of such extreme federal crowding out of capital markets.

One of many circumstantial constraints faced by any would-be fiscal hawk is that Americans prefer vast amounts of federal spending. Entitlements are popular despite their escalating costs. Most Americans believe they have earned Social Security and Medicare, despite most recipients receiving many times more than they’ve actually paid through their taxes. But our untenable situation will only get worse as net interest payments will soar past total defense spending in a few years and total debt-to-GDP will exceed 124% in a decade.

A realistic trimming approach acknowledges these stringent conditions and forgoes rhetoric for drastic cuts that are practically unachievable and only turn voters against any spending reductions. There have been numerous attempts by Republicans to attenuate federal spending since the Reagan administration. Most have failed or found limited success, being divorced from what voters will accept in cuts and from what legislators are willing to back. The current situation demands acknowledging these difficulties and planning accordingly.

What’s possible? Could annual discretionary appropriations be frozen? Could you cut hundreds of billions over the next decade? Perhaps this is too limited. But the point is to lay down serious markers for spending reform while understanding that change will come incrementally through a commitment to no longer accept our unyielding deficits.

Prudence demands that we acknowledge the situation we’re in, which spells eventual catastrophe, and devote ourselves to its reform over the long term. While there are limits on what can be achieved now with fiscal retrenchment, the failure to list, detail, and highlight the facts of our fiscal recklessness would be a failure of prudence.

This fiscal struggle will go on for years, pursuing necessary ends while taking assaults from every side. This mix of principle and prudence will need to be conducted at a high and honorable level. To achieve it will be to achieve not only fiscal probity but one of the highest ends of constitutional government.

This piece originally appeared in Law & Liberty

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