Conventional wisdom among Western elites today holds that populist leaders are nothing but accidents in their respective countries’ political histories. On the basis of that interpretation, these elites attribute populists’ power to voters’ credulity and susceptibility to false narratives that obscure the salutary movement of our societies toward more global exchange, international norms, diversity, and rights. And from this, they conclude that the new populist leaders won’t survive contact with political reality, and that education and communication will bring wayward citizens led astray by demagoguery back into the fold. Former U.S. Secretary of State and losing 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton surely illustrated that attitude when she said: “I believe that free people, human rights, and democracy will win out over closed societies, oppression, and authoritarianism. We are on the right side of History.”
Yoram Hazony, the Israeli author of The Virtue of Nationalism, however, hopes to show that populism has deeper roots than is commonly thought. His second National Conservatism Conference, headlined “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations — A National Conservatism Conference,” convened a select audience of about 200 guests and 30 speakers from conservative political and intellectual circles earlier this month in Rome. Media coverage, at least in Europe, focused on the presence or absence of this or that political figure (Matteo Salvini, Italy’s former Interior Minister, canceled at the last minute). But journalists were mistaken if they thought the question at stake was the next election and the role intellectuals may play in it. Populists have reached power without the latter and may manage to keep it without them. But politicians, even very talented ones, eventually lose or die. And if anything they create is to survive into the next generation, it will be through educators.