Streetwise Professor

February 8, 2010

Populist vs. Populist

Filed under: Economics,Politics — The Professor @ 4:51 pm

In light of Obama’s populist pivot, last week in the WSJ Michael Barone had an interesting analysis of the history of American populism.  Barone is spot on drawing the distinction between leftist “soak the rich” populism and libertarian populism.  The best part of the analysis focuses on Jacksonian populism, which is of the latter strain:

Ask anyone reasonably well versed in American history to name our most populist-minded president, and you’ll likely hear the name of Andrew Jackson. He was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, raised on the frontier, and he ran the first democratic (and Democratic) campaign. A gang of Jackson’s roughneck supporters, so the legend goes, rushed to the White House after his inauguration and tore the place apart.

But Jackson was not a “spread the wealth” populist. On the contrary, he opposed the American System of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to have the government build roads and canals and other public works. He killed the central bank and paid off the national debt.

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.

That view seems to be shared today in what I have called the Jacksonian belt, the broad swath of America settled by the Scots-Irish from the Appalachian chains in Virginia southwest to Texas. The Obama administration argues that Democratic big government and health-care programs will help the little guys. Jacksonians today, as in the 1830s, don’t agree. [Emphasis added.]

Redistributionist populism of the variety that Obama is now appealing to is quite different in its attitude towards government power.  There are some points of intersection–both Jacksonians and left-populists detest banks–but for the most part the two populisms are diametrically opposed on most economic issues.  And don’t even start on issues relating to the military, terrorism, and foreign policy.

The current political situation in the United States is, in essence, a conflict between Jacksonian-libertarian populists who are deeply suspicious of government power (in large part because of their belief that the government serves specific economic interests) and progressives using populist rhetoric to advance an agenda that would lead to a massive increase in the reach of government power.  This will lead to considerable rhetorical confusion as both sides will employ populist tropes to advance their respective causes.  It’s therefore quite important to keep the distinction in mind, and Barone’s article is an excellent primer on the subject.

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1 Comment »

  1. Jackson was also a genocide-practitioner, by some definitions. And the people behind the “American system” arguably contributed greatly to US industrialization.

    Jacksonian populism, or “redneck populism” as I’d call it, is certainly something I don’t support.

    Comment by Sublime Oblivion — February 9, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

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