What New Jersey Truck Driver Edward Durr’s Victory Reveals About Populism

“I am basing myself on this great republican principle,” said James Madison in 1788, “that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom. Is there no virtue among us? If there isn’t, we are in a miserable situation.

The idea that a virtuous people will choose virtuous representatives to exercise their judgment is at the heart of the American experience. Populism – the idea that “the people” are always right because they are numerous and ordinary – is totally contrary to our national idea. The founders hoped that America would be ruled by people of moral and intellectual excellence; they have built anti-majority firewalls in the Constitution precisely to avoid sudden and untimely movements.

Countries that fall into populism inevitably pay the price for maladministration. Populism is a great vehicle to motivate an angry population, but it is a bad path to better government. Turkey is the most recent nation to learn this lesson the hard way. Since 2016, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has purged tens of thousands of government officials (including judges). The result, as Turkish writer Semra Alkan recently noted, is that “the Turkish state has made its way into disaster”, with Turkey in free fall in all aspects, including its economy and its foreign policy, due to a “government of incompetence.” lackey.

Which brings me to New Jersey.

I really have no idea if the now defeated New Jersey Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney should have lost his seat. Perhaps he deserves to join the ranks of those like Eric Cantor and Joe Crowley, members of Congress who believed themselves invulnerable until a groundswell against them in their primaries proves otherwise.

But I’m not moved by the stories surrounding the candidate who beat him, a truck driver named Edward Durr. “I am absolutely nobody. I’m just a simple guy. It was the people, it was a repudiation of the policies that were imposed on them, “he told reporters on Thursday. Durr says he ran away because he was upset that he couldn’t obtain a license to carry a concealed weapon in New Jersey.

The good, ordinary fellow who felled mossy old Trenton pol was catnip to many of my old right-wing comrades, many of whom I respect enormously. But they seem to act on the belief that the local voter is always right and the longtime politician is always wrong.

Or, at least, that the local voter is always right if the challenger is a Republican. This is not a narrative, I should add, that the Tories seem willing (as far as I know) to apply to upstarts like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Few Republicans applauded the recklessness and courage of a young state lawmaker named Barack Obama, who they argued was just an arrogant jumper.

Inexperienced people who will move your agenda forward are good; inexperienced people who will oppose you are simply inexperienced and arrogant.

I find this kind of populist celebration of inexperience particularly distressing, because I know that local action can be powerful. About 40 years ago, my working-class town in western Massachusetts was in the throes of its post-industrial slide. Our little neighborhood was nestled against the polluted banks of the Connecticut River, glistening with oil and dead fish, and our view of the water was marred by the paper mills on the opposite bank spilling chemicals day and night. Real estate values, never particularly high, suffered; tidy three-decks were abandoned and then repopulated by an agitated crowd, including drug traffickers.

My parents were trying to run a struggling restaurant during the recession of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the short walk from our house to the business took us right past a small drug market. Cars stopped and sales were made in plain sight. My mother tried to get the city to do something, but there were few police officers and the owners of the building seemed immune to zoning or health violations.

My mom ran for the local alderman on the single problem platform to get out of the neighborhood drugs. She wasn’t trying to run the city, become a governor, or solve the Soviet-American arms race. She just wanted the drugs to be gone.

She won. Within a year, along with other city officials, she had helped set up a police station in the area and demanded better enforcement of municipal ordinances against landlords. The market was driven out of the neighborhood.

But my mother also learned something about governance. In particular, she learned that she was not very good at it. City budgets were complicated; his knowledge of other parts of the city was limited; she did not have the experience to do the millions of little things voters demanded. She was trying to run a business with my dad at the same time, and she couldn’t juggle the many hours of the day that both jobs required.

After one term, she was defeated by the same political machine that she had overthrown. In her honest moments later, she admitted that she probably shouldn’t have stood for re-election, but the race had a sort of grudge feeling, and she got drawn into one more campaign, well that she had already achieved the one thing she wanted to accomplish. I wasn’t a fan of the man who beat her, but he knew how to fill potholes, and my mom didn’t.

I sincerely hope that this truck driver turns out to be a good legislator. The first signs are not encouraging. His tweets and posts suggest he may not be the righteous, patriotic underdog that his followers think he is. In December 2019, for example, he tweeted: “Mohammed was a pedophile! Islam is a false religion! Only fools follow Muslim teachings! It is a cult of hate! His Twitter account is now deactivated. (In a statement released to multiple media yesterday, he wrote: “I’m a passionate guy and sometimes I say things in the heat of the moment. If I have said things in the past that have hurt someone , I sincerely apologize. I support the right of everyone to worship in their own way and to worship the God of their choice. ”)

People who express grievances tend to wear more than a few, and that’s what it seems in this case. I like the political stories of David and Goliath, but only if David isn’t also a Philistine, in which case the contest is a draw no matter who wins.

“To assume that some form of government will ensure freedom or happiness without any virtue in the people,” Madison said in his 1788 speech, “is a pipe dream. If there is enough virtue and intelligence in the community, it will be exercised in the selection of these men. Conservatives hammer the gong of “a republic, not a democracy” when it suits them. If America abandons Madison’s warning, we may still be a democracy, but we will no longer be a republic. We should seriously think about this distinction before drinking too much populist moonlight.

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