The virtue matrix: Elitism and Populism

American history moves in various cycles. For example:

  • isolationist ↔ interventionist (in foreign policy)
  • prudish/puritan ↔ permissive/liberal (sex)
  • progressive ↔ conservative (attitudes toward change)

But perhaps the most striking and consequential cycle is the one between elitism and populism.

The question here is about virtue. Who is most likely to be virtuous/corruptible? The common people, or the elites?

This question has an ancient pedigree. The answer a society gives at any given time in effect determines the kind of democracy it will practice and the kind of institutions it will build: It will shift power (or pretend to shift power) to the pole it considers more capable of virtue.

I’ll say more about all this in future posts (especially in response to a great biography of Andrew Jackson I just finished reading). But for now I just wanted to amuse myself with another little diagram. As ever, I’m not taking it too seriously, just trying to order my thoughts and invite yours.

Below, I’ve placed some of the figures that have appeared here on The Hannibal Blog over the past two years (each one has a Tag, or you can search for his name) along a spectrum.

Classical thinkers are in normal font, American ones in bold italics.

(Notice the centrality of James Madison, the primary architect of the Constitution. His answer was, in effect, to be agnostic on the question. Therein lies his genius and the strength of the constitution. So he represents the neutral value, 0)

So weigh in. You can also suggest where to place other thinkers, such as John Locke or Montesquieu, or modern pols such as presidential candidates, or foreign politicians.