“No Man’s life liberty or property is safe while the legislature is in session”.

- attributed to NY State Judge Gideon Tucker

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Andrew Jackson's Brand of Populism

Michael Barone's editorial in last Thursday's Wall Street Journal, entitled "A Short History of American Populism," was a real eye-opener for me.

I was already familiar with Jackson's anti-Bank of the United States position. And I believe I knew of his opposition to government-financed infrastructure projects.

But I was unaware of the totality of his opposition to any government interference in the economy, as described by Barone in this passage,

"Jackson argued that government interference in the economy would inevitably favor the well-entrenched and well-connected. It would take money away from the little people and give it to the elites."

For a prime current example of this, by the way, see today's related post on my business blog.

As the first great Populist President, it's instructive to note that Jackson wasn't for indulging in government subsidies to the poor. Old Hickory had worked his way up from hardscrabble, uneducated poverty to becoming an attorney, judge, member of Congress and, eventually, President.

Barone moves beyond Jackson, contending that the enduring belt of similarly-descended Scoth-Irish working class people throughout modern day geographically-middle America continue to hold Old Hickory's values in high regard. He charts presidential election results with an eye toward showing the limits of populism, with Bryan's three defeats, and Roosevelt's need for WWII to give him his third term.

Barone closes his argument with these hopeful passages,

"Last year Mr. Obama and his policy strategists seem to have assumed that the financial crisis and deep recession would make Americans look more favorably on big government programs. But it turns out that economic distress did not make us Western Europeans.

Now the president and his advisers seem to be assuming that populist attacks on the rich will rally the downtrodden masses to their side. History does not provide much hope for this audacity. William Jennings Bryan, whose oratorical skills out-shined even Mr. Obama's, got lower percentages of the vote each time he ran."

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