Eric Posner Interviewed on Populism, Reform, and "The Demagogue’s Playbook"

Questions Around Elite Control: Talking to Eric Posner

How to tell a corrosive populist from a constructive institution-reformer? How to fuse inclusive citizen autonomy and cohesive elite control? When I want to ask such questions, I pose them to Eric Posner. This present conversation focuses on Posner’s book The Demagogue’s Playbook: The Battle for American Democracy from the Founders to Trump. Posner teaches at the University of Chicago. He has written more than 100 articles (on topics including international law and Constitutional law), as well as more than 10 books (including Radical Markets: Uprooting Capitalism and Democracy for a Just Society, and The Twilight of Human Rights Law). His opinion pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Slate, and other popular media. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a member of the American Law Institute.


ANDY FITCH: Before we take up populism, could we consider an even more basic political tension, the question of how modern representative democracies should reconcile elite control with principles of self-governance and citizen equality? And why should we assume that the vast majority of “anti-elite” political projects throughout US history have sought to reinvigorate our durable hybrid of elite and popular rule perhaps, but not to call for direct democracy or anything more anarchic?

ERIC POSNER: Those questions around elite control stretch across American history. Elite control often has found itself in tension with principles of popular sovereignty and self-government. I consider this basic tension more or less unavoidable, since we do need elite control at some level. We expect the people running our government, this very complicated institution, to possess certain exceptional traits and skills, usually acquired through some combination of education and relevant work experience. And the Constitutional framers tried to reconcile this tension between elite control and broader self-governance by vesting most institutional authority in elites, but allowing citizens to vote elites out of office from time to time.

This reconciliation did not satisfy many people, then or thereafter. It always remained possible for those out of power to blame all of our nation’s problems on “the elites” running government. The key was to shift this discussion from debate about the wisdom of a particular government policy, to a debate about whether the incumbent elites were acting in their own interest. Both out-of-power elites and non-elites alike found the rhetoric of anti-elitism quite useful, because it resonated with the nation’s commitment to self-government and political equality. But if, as I believe, government is possible only with some degree of elite control, then any movement that begins from anti-elite impulses must, if it succeeds, ultimately place a new group of elites in power.

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