Redeeming Populism: The Promise of a Liberal Covenanted Republic

Redeeming Populism: The Promise of a Liberal Covenanted Republic

By Marcia Pally

ABC Religion and Ethics  3 May 2018

What makes populism work?

Earlier this year, New York Times columnist David Brooks told NPR that, because “populism has deep roots in America,” he believed “Bannonism” would outlive “Trumpism” as a decisive influence in elections and public policy.

By “Bannonism,” Brooks meant the populist, protectionist platform of Steven Bannon, Trump’s former Chief Strategist and former executive chairman of Breitbart News. Brooks associated Trumpism with the transfer of societal resources to the wealthy, evinced by the 2017 Republican tax code.

Brooks is right that U.S. populism has deep roots, but it’s not populism’s roots we should be investigating – as though populism were distinct from other aspects of society. On that view, if we find populism’s roots, we could extirpate them.

But populism, as Pierre Bourdieu among many othershave noted, doesn’t have its own, distinct origins. Its roots are among the myths, history and symbologies that nourish other aspects of society. Uproot populism’s roots and you’ve deracinated the rest as well. Society’s underlying historico-cultural materiel – its habitus or “conductorless orchestra” in Bourdieu’s charmed phrase – is the ground from which populisms both left and right draw their worldviews, symbols and policy preferences.

Populism and its solutions

To begin with, political affiliation today does not divide along classic left-right lines. The Pew Research Center 2017 Political Typology identifies eight categories of socio-political identification, which can be plotted across two axes: the degree of optimism/openness (to new people, ideas) and role of government in society.

The populist “right,” in this taxonomy, includes those who feel the economy is unjust but can be fixed by protectionist trade and immigration policies. In the United States, this is accompanied by “small government-ism,” the reduction of government regulations and social services by reducing government’s budget through tax cuts. Small-government-ism is one of the key differences between American populism and many of those elsewhere, which often demand governmental services for those within the populist group while excluding others.

The populist “left,” on the other hand, is comprised by those who feel the economy is unjust but can be fixed by civil society and government efforts, but not reductions in immigration or government services.

In other words, populism, left and right, is a program of solutions to economic and sense-of-place duress – threats to the “way things should go,” to a “decent” place in society that gives one a sense of purpose, of knowing what’s fair, what’s due you and what’s due others. The experience of both economic and sense-of-place duress may be present, or it may be fear or anticipation that causes duress.

Populist solutions, then, aim at answering these sorts of questions:

  • Who is under unfair duress? Who constitutes what Andre Gingrichcalls the “emotionalized us,” determined by what Jan-Werner Mueller refers to as a “moralistic imagination” which sees “a morally pure … single, homogeneous, authentic people”? It’s this pars pro toto vision that Donald Trump tapped into in a May 2016 campaign speech: “The only important thing,” he rallied, “is the unification of the people – because the other people don’t mean anything.”
  • Why and how have “we” been wronged?
  • By whom? In a word, “them.” (“We know in sociology,” political scientist Jamie Longazel writes, “when community identity is challenged or questioned in some way, the community asserts and defends that identity.”)

In the populist frame, these questions and answers are binary in form: not only “we” of my community, but mycommunity in struggle against others.

Populist solutions – in order to “feel right” and be thought effective – must be understandable. While new proposals are not precluded from understandability, the most easily grasped are familiar, drawn from society’s historico-cultural materiel – or what Matthew Engelke and Catherine Wanner call civil religious “ambient faith.”

Thijl Sunier’s illuminating example describes French populism as emerging from France’s understanding of modernity as the dual struggle against monarchy and church. This understanding yielded France’s laicist views of secularity and rational government as counterposed to religion, seen as intellectually dogmatic and incompatible with democracy. Current French anxieties about immigrants – identified by their religious affiliation – play out within these contours.

In the Netherlands, by contrast, pride is taken in the nation’s toleration of religious variety in a multicultural society. Anxieties about Muslim immigration is played out amid the fear that the Netherlands will lose its religious toleration by permitting entry to an intolerant faith. The rhetoric and programs of these populisms differ as their histories and cultures do.

Populism American-style

Following these commonalities, left and right populism in the United States are also responses to economic and sense-of-place duress. In addition to the long-documented research on unemployment and underemployment, Anne Case and Angus Deaton report on white working-class morbidity, mortality and “deaths of despair.” While in 1999, the mortality rate of high-school-degree whites was lower than that of blacks, by 2015 it was higher – and among the middle-aged, by as much as 30%.

Moreover, looking now at sense-of-place duress, white working-class voters who fear that American culture is in danger from foreign/immigrant influence were 3.5 times more likely to prefer Trump than those who do not share this concern.

Left and right populisms diverge, however, on just who “we” and “them” are. The left populist “them” are wealthy corporations and individuals that take an unfair share of societal resources and resist fair contribution to the common good. The “us” is relatively pluralistic, “ordinary hardworking Americans,” “older immigrants” who have been in the United States for two or more generations, who speak English and participate in America’s economic and social institutions. But it also includes newer immigrants, blacks and, importantly, national government. Though government may house corrupt politicians, it is seen overall as the people’s representative, able to create programs that boost broad-based opportunity.

Right-wing populists report greater sense-of-place duress in the fear that the values “we” believe make the best person and society are unravelling. The culprits are identified as national government, new immigrants and blacks, who should therefore be constrained. 60% of white working-class Americans believe the country needs a leader who will break the rules, a frequent government-wary, populist stance; 55% of white Americans maintain that government “is treating them unfairly compared with other racial groups.”

These left and right populisms have arrived at their differing positions by drawing, not on divergent Americas, but on shared historico-cultural materiel. Most central to our discussion are covenantal political theory, republicanism and liberalism.

Covenant, republicanism, liberalism

American covenantalism begins with Reformed Protestant political theory, which, building on the Hebrew Bible, understood covenant as a reciprocal commitment between parties where each gives for the flourishing of the other yet retains her unique identity and value. Johannes Althusius (1563-1638), among the most political of covenantal thinkers, held that persons have a “symbiotic” nature so that we live in covenant with God and each other. The “fundamental law” of the commonwealth “is nothing other than certain covenants by which many cities and provinces come together and agree to establish and defend one and the same commonwealth by common work, counsel, and aid.” Sovereignty itself, Althusius held, lies in the network of covenantal bonds.

Covenantal politics was the foundation for the Massachusetts Mayflower Compact (1620), declaring: “We … covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick.” John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity” (1630) held that community hangs together by “mutual consent” in bond with God and among persons “so that” – echoing Althusius – “every man might have need of others.” To ensure that no power overtakes these bonds, Massachusetts enacted the Body of Liberties (1641), establishing protections of the common good against the rich and politically ambitious. As for them, Winthrop explains, “The care of the public must oversway all private respects.”

Protecting the covenanted community from exploitative power was the aim of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. The checks and balances of tri-partite government as well as U.S. federalism aim at preventing abuses of power over the covenanted polity or “We, the People.”

A second tradition funding American socio-politics is the Aristotelian republic, which also understood humanity as social. Living in networks of networks (families amid communities, communities amid republics) is the way we start – not the way we might choose to form ourselves in social contract. Networked living is not only necessary for survival but we achieve our fullest development through participation in the polis. Freedom, for Aristotle, is thus the ability to contribute to governance not the “freedom of the heath” to roam alone. The unjust person is one who shirks responsibilities to the commons and grabs undue benefits. Thus, a republic is successful insofar as it educates citizens in civic virtue, enabling them to overturn unjust laws and care for the common good.

By mid-eighteenth century, a meld of covenantal and republican thinking had emerged. Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of Boston’s Old West Church, in 1754 held that persons are both covenanted together and yet free in contributing to political self-determination, which requires Christian and civic virtue. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence, was succinct: “Republican forms of government are the best repositories of the Gospel.”

Unlike covenantal and republican theory, liberalism sees the individual not so much networked as free to leave the polis to pursue opportunity. Her freedom is freedom from constraint. This separable individual is recognizable in Descartes as he located the determiner of truth in the individual mind. It grounds Immanuel Kant’s idea of the individual who on her own follows the moral law. It is recognizable in the Protestant emphasis on individual Bible reading and individual inner faith, especially among pietists. They, Stanley Grenz writes, “shifted the locus of true Christianity from baptism [a sign of group belonging] to personal conversion, from the objective to the subjective, from the external to the internal … a move that opened the way for the eventual advent of the modern self.”

The idea of the separable person was persuasive in America not only because of the Protestant faith of its early settlers, but also due to immigration and the frontier. As many immigrants were fleeing persecutory or economically oppressive states, their flight reinforced the advantages of separability. The uprooting experience of immigration and harsh frontier conditions boosted the advisability of self-reliance. With remarkable trust in the individual, preachers of the First Great Awakening (1730s-1740s) declared the “absolute necessity for every Person to act singly.”

The most well-known story of American liberalism, however, is political: the constitutional protections for individual belief and action. Alexander Hamilton spoke for this position, defining liberty as “natural rights” that must be shielded from government interference. He considered freedom a means to private ambition and check on government overreach rather than a condition for participation in government.

While covenantal and republican traditions fit uneasily with liberalism, they emerged together as responses to America’s foundational conditions. Rough settlement made both individual self-reliance and close-knit communities advisable. The religious dissenter’s concern for individual freedom also bonded together groups of the like-minded. Protestantism both emphasized individual inner faith and built communities to bolster one’s moral compass.

In interaction, they yielded America’s hybrid, liberal covenanted republic, protecting individual liberties within the common good for the well-being of both. Anthony Smith concludes that America’s “union was based on national ideologies with significant covenantal and civic components … the earlier covenantal example of English parliamentarian revolt and the Puritan commonwealth, and adapting it to a civic tradition of public culture, modelling their republic on that of republican Rome.”

Resources for left and right populisms

As America’s socio-politics is concerned with individual flourishing in and for the commons, a great deal hangs on who is inscribed into the covenanted republic. Indeed, because an immigrant nation cannot rely on ethnicity or faith as societal glue, this inscription is key.

One possibility sees government as emerging from and inscribed into covenanted community, itself broadly inclusive. Following covenant as a “blessing of all the nations” (Genesis 12:3, 26:4, 28:14), this republic mandates care for the needy and stranger, who are written into covenant, republic and government responsibilities. Inclusion underpins both liberal rights and social services. That is, granting liberal rights and social services are both means of societal incorporation – from Rhode Island’s guarantee of religious freedom (1663) to Republican President Dwight Eisenhower’s letter to his brother:

“Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things … Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

This socio-political strain is a central resource for left-populism, the historico-cultural materiel from which it draws its worldview and policy preferences. The “emotionalized us” is inclusive, and government, along with civil society, is seen as responsible for relieving duress by directing resources and opportunity to a broad-based “us.”

A second strain of America’s socio-politics draws the covenanted republic more closely. As many immigrants were escaping oppressive government and as the harsh experiences of settlement boosted individual and local self-reliance, America self-selected for a wariness of “interfering” central government, which in any case was not seen as reliable because there was relatively little of it around to rely on. A distant government and other alien groups were not so readily seen as “us” but as potentially disruptive outsiders.

This localism also runs through American history, beginning with Winthrop, who sought community with those who shared his specific views on covenant. In 1872, Henry Bellows, president of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, described the “thousands of American towns, with an independent life of their own,” and historian Daniel Rodgers notes the value of localism into the twentieth century, when in many places, the individual was advised to “do what the community determines it is best for him to do.”

Though the role of national government expanded as did the country, localism has remained vital to both right and left politics. Historically, it grounded state labour laws more progressive than national legislation and racist legislation that enshrined segregation into local statues. It is the basis for strong and weak state environmental protections, for restrictive and progressive state abortion policies, for lax and tight state gun control, and for local “sanctuary movements” that shield the undocumented from deportation by national agencies under Trump.

But what happens under duress? As duress prods binary worldviews, it reconfigures local community into community-in-struggle-against-others. “We” are taking a stand against the interlopers who threaten our covenanted republic: national government and immigrant and racial “outsiders.” Through this duress-prodded mediation, America’s local covenanted republic becomes a resource for right populism – the cultural materielwhich populism reads binarily in its worldview and policies.

Perhaps the best arena in which to observe government-as-interloper is in the gun rights movement, whose first reason for resisting regulation is resistance to government. Writing in National Review, David French explains that “an assault-weapon ban … would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against [government] tyranny.” A National Rifle Association lawyer similarly explained in the 2009 Harvard Law Journal that the right to bear arms is “to protect against the tyranny of our own government.”

Evident not only in the gun argument – with its echoes of just revolution – wariness of government grounds right populist views on a range of other public matters. In December 2017, as Trump opened large, formerly protected land to business development, he hailed the change as freeing Americans from national government: “Some people think that the natural resources of Utah should be controlled by a small handful of bureaucrats located in Washington … They’re wrong.” In their brief to the court, the eleven states that brought suit against Obamacare wrote that healthcare program “rests on a claim of federal power that is both unprecedented and unbounded.” By contrast, under the Republican plan, Speaker of the House Paul Ryan assured, “People are going to do what they want to do with their lives because we believe in individual freedom.”

This small government-ism – the binary of “we” in struggle against Washington – contrasts with populisms in other countries, where the state is considered responsible for addressing societal ills even if the party in power is wrong-headed. Such populisms are apt to claim governmental services for themselves over “outsiders.” The nomenclature reprises the difference: in Europe for instance the term is “neo-nationalism” as the nation is (re)sacralized against “aliens.” The American term is “populist” as the populace is (re)sacralized “We, the people” distinct from government and other outsiders.

As for those other “outsiders,” animus against them runs through American history in tension with the inclusive covenanted republic. One might look at the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798), anti-immigrant laws passed during an undeclared naval war with France. Or at racist immigration laws, begun in 1875 in partial response to economic recession and continued in 1882 and 1924 during the post-1917 Red Scare. One might note the World War II imprisonment of Japanese-Americans and the support for Trump’s “Muslim Ban” and “border wall.”

Indeed, research by the Public Religion Research Institute and The Atlantic finds that sense-of-place fears were more decisive than economics in support for Trump among white working-class voters. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that non-Hispanic whites will comprise less than 50% of the population by 2044 and less than 50% of American children by 2020. Minorities now are majorities in areas of Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, New Jersey and Texas.

One response is the “Latino threat narrative” seen in the emergence of “whiteness studies” university courses, in the television show Dear White People (satirizing the idea of a “post-racial” America), in the alt-right cry “You will not replace us,” and in the Confederacy as a symbol of white pride. After removing the city’s Confederate monuments, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu conceded: “There is a white Christian ethnic identity that people have tied onto and somehow connected to the Confederacy. They feel like somebody has taken something away from them.”

The “Latino threat” narrative, Jamie Longazel explains, runs roughly like this: our town used to be “close-knit, quiet, obedient, honest, harmless, and hardworking” but now it’s filled with foreigners who are “loud, disobedient, manipulative, lawless, and lazy.” This is the “ambient faith” – though the Latino population in the area Longazel studied revived the local economy, abandoned by the coal mines and twentieth-century manufacturing. It has attracted such firms as Amazon, Cargill and American Eagle, creating jobs and giving the local tax base a boost that took the hospital out of bankruptcy.

For Americans persuaded of the “threat” narrative, owing to the economic and sense-of-place duress of the last quarter century, Trump and populist policies are the solution. “We have one of us in that White House,” a Trump supporter told Newsweek in March 2018. He is seen not an authoritarian figure but as uncorrupted by Washington and fighting for all Americans who are losing out. Sufficient numbers of primary-election Sanders supporters voted Republican in the main election to win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania for Trump, handing him the presidency. “We are going to make America great again,” our Trump supporter continued. “We” are “the Caucasians that built this country.” This is the “we” of “hard-working, honest” (white) “old” immigrants, not the new “lawless” and “lazy” ones – though this Trump supporter told Newsweek that her own immigrant family was subjected to the same stereotypes two generations ago.


The great failing of duress-prodded binaries is that they uncouple concept from context. Immigrants may bring challenges to a host country. Governments may be corrupt, tyrannical, or incompetent. But wariness of immigrants uncoupled from socio-economic context – a “solution” to be applied always – brings unproductive outcomes even to the host country. It ignores, for instance, that immigrant communities in the United States are less-crime ridden than non-immigrant ones. It overlooks that immigrants are, according to the Harvard Business Review, disproportionately entrepreneurial; they comprise 25% of America’s entrepreneurs and just 13% of the population, a pattern found globally. And it risks losing the $30 billion that immigrants bring to U.S. tax coffers by the second generation and the $223 billion brought by the third.

Wariness of government uncoupled from its purpose of protecting the liberal covenanted republic may become a means to undo it. As not only tyrannical government but government itself becomes suspect, the idea of government as representative of the covenanted community, able to support broad-based opportunity, fades. As “small government-ism” becomes the universal “solution,” government accountability becomes an anachronism in which only the naive believe.

Moreover, “small government-ism” – seen as the universal Good – may be proposed for any public matter, including those where it benefits not the covenanted republic but sectors that gain from keeping government regulation small. And precisely because small-government-ism has become part of our “ambient faith,” it stands to be accepted by those who lose out from it. It will “sound like” democratic heritage and resistance to tyranny. And it will acquire their legitimacy.