What is a populist?
This much used (and abused) term has gone through several American incarnations. First, it was the name of a 19th-century political party whose program was as vague as its success was short-lived: The party combined an untenable admixture of Southern agrarianism and social-democratic panaceas leavened with a healthy hatred of Eastern elites, with the bankers, the railroads, and the big merchants special targets of their animus. More recently, populism has been defined chiefly in negative terms, as anything abhorred by the elites. Indeed, anti-elitism is the essence of modern populism.
For conservatives and their libertarian cousins, however, anti-elitism is a mixed bag: Its usefulness in advancing liberty is contextual.
In a free society, where markets are largely unregulated by government and the cultural ethos is conducive to liberty, the best rise to the top—or, at least, they have a fighting chance. Ability is rewarded; persistence pays off. The entrepreneurial virtues are the key to success; political influence, not so much.
In such a society, anti-elitism means resentment of success for being success. It means hating the good for being good. In this context, anti-elitism is evil—there is no other word for it.
To our great misfortune, however, we haven’t lived in...