If Sarah Palin visits Nashville on her book tour, she really ought to stop by the Hermitage. Andrew Jackson's plantation is a lot more than a beautifully restored example of Greek Revival architecture and design. It's also a monument to the seventh president's democratic legacy--of rule by the people, of competitive commercial markets, of entrepreneurial individuals lighting out to the territories. It's a legacy to which Palin is heiress. And one she ought to embrace.
To be sure, by today's standards, Jackson's record is mixed. He was a slave owner whose Indian policy was nothing less than cruel. His war on the Second Bank of the United States had some dreadful economic consequences. But, when we look at Jackson today, the positive traits stand out. More than any other politician of his era, he aligned himself with the common man against self-dealing elites. Lacking formal education, he nonetheless understood that incumbents, whether in the market or in politics, raise barriers to entry in order to protect their positions. And because he sought to unsettle those entrenched interests, Jackson was at the vanguard of a spirited popular upheaval.
The Jacksonian era was the first populist moment in American politics. But it wasn't the last. There is something about the structure of American democracy that encourages periodic upsurges in popular opinion directed at nogood-niks on the East Coast. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democratic congressman and thrice presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan rallied his followers against agglomerations of power in New York and Washington. In Jackson's time, the bad guys had been Nicholas Biddle, his bank, and supporters of the tariff. In Bryan's time, the bad guys were the corporate monopolists who squelched individual risk-taking and their bag-men in the legislature whose monetary and trade policies favored big business over the small farmer.
Bryan's reputation, like Jackson's, has pockmarks. He was sympathetic to the Ku Klux Klan. He prosecuted Darwin's theory of natural selection in the heavily publicized Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925. The elites of Bryan's time certainly hated the prairie populist. To them, he was an ill-mannered dunce from the boonies and his supporters nothing more than a rabble. Such anxiety was understandable. Bryan was a rebel. He liked to quote Jackson's adage of "equal rights to all and special privileges to none." He didn't want to overturn the government, but he did want to ensure that government lived up to its duty to "protect all from injustice and to do so without showing partiality for any one or any class." In Bryan's view, the nation's elites had grown complacent. Irresponsible. In their lust for power, they endangered the American ethos of equality of opportunity.
Over the last century, the popular energies that fueled Jackson and Bryan shifted to the right side of the political spectrum. Increasingly, the public directed its animosity at the bureaucratic and governmental elites who robbed ordinary folk of liberties in the pursuit of "social justice." At the judges who designed busing schemes that disrupted neighborhood schools. At government-induced inflation and high marginal tax rates that destroyed savings and prevented the taxpayer from spending his earned income as he saw fit. At regulatory agencies that micromanaged the trucking, airline, power, and telecommunications sectors to the detriment of competition, innovation, and affordability.
For the last quarter century, right-wing populism, often infused with social conservatism, has been the most demonized force in American politics--and also the most interesting and dynamic. When the historian Michael Kazin wrote his 1995 book The Populist Persuasion, he counted Ronald Reagan among Bryan's heirs. These days, references to Bryan show up in unexpected places. Kazin notes that Bryan's second-favorite book (the first was the Bible) was The Jefferson Cyclopedia, a collection of the third president's thoughts organized by topic. When you google "Jefferson Cyclopedia" today, the first link doesn't take you to the Democratic party. It takes you to the Campaign for Liberty, a Ron Paul group.
In this country, whenever the public concludes that elite behavior is opaque and self-interested, a popular reaction ensues. In part, Barack Obama was elected president because of widespread discontent with the way Washington had managed its basic roles of fighting wars and maintaining the financial system. But Obama, who had the common touch during the campaign, has governed as an elitist. He's dismissed the populist revolts against his policies. And so Americans continue to look at New York and Washington with suspicion. Trust in government remains low. The president's job approval rating is around 50 percent. Congressional approval is at a dismal 21 percent.
When the average American looks at the headlines, he sees the government bailing out large, failed, politically connected enterprises even as the unemployment rate rises to 10 percent. He sees the Obama administration exaggerating the role its fiscal stimulus has played in reviving the economy, even though unemployment is higher than the administration's models predicted. (The average American also understands that there is no way to measure the number of jobs the White House has "saved.") He sees the president and Congress eager to pass a costly health care bill against the public's wishes; businesses funding Democratic campaigns so as not to be punished; the rich increasingly voting Democratic. In short, he sees a river of power and wealth flowing inexorably to Washington, D.C.
The public's negative reaction to Beltway profligacy has been visceral. The government is shoveling money to powerful interest groups, and the man on the street feels left out. In September, the Democratic pollster Peter Hart asked registered voters who they thought had benefited most from the Obama administration's economic policies. Sixty-two percent said the main beneficiary had been the "large banks." In contrast, 65 percent said the "average working person" and "small businesses" hadn't been helped. Seventy-three percent said "my family/myself" hadn't been helped.
Public opinion registers a widespread skepticism of government and elite decision-making. The percentage of voters who say that government is doing too much has risen to 49 percent. The percentage of voters who say that government should "worry more" about keeping the deficit low has risen to 62 percent. When pollsters ask voters what their priorities are, the economy is always the number one answer, but the deficit and national debt are not far behind. In the September NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, the deficit was voter priority number three. These worries are more than punctilious accounting. They relate to larger concerns over the government's unchecked fiscal power and its right role in American society.
What's most interesting about the popular ferment is that it transcends party. The number of self-identified independents has risen as the number of Democrats and Republicans has declined (in the GOP's case, to a generational low). About twice as many people call themselves "conservative" as "Republican," which means that a large chunk of potential Republican voters are alienated from the national party. We saw this divergence at play in the fight over the populist candidacy of conservative Doug Hoffman in New York's 23rd Congressional District. We see it in the ongoing debate over whether populist talk radio is good for the GOP's electoral prospects.
Above all, the public is dissatisfied with the solutions that both parties have to offer. But, because today's populists lack institutional support, and because they don't have a programmatic agenda, they vent their frustrations in disorganized ways. The left-wing populists rail against CEO compensation, bank bailouts, and lobbyist influence in government. The right-wing populists attack the auto bailouts, government spending, and Obamacare. There is no central authority directing the tea party protestors. There was no single leader who ordered the 9/12 taxpayer march on Washington. Instead, you have multiple voices, with overlapping (and sometimes contradictory) antagonisms, agendas, and priorities.
The upshot is a creative and unregulated political marketplace. The most compelling figures and ideas prosper. No one has a dominant position. But it's also clear that what Michael Barone has called the "balance of enthusiasm" in politics is now squarely on the right. And yet, like all markets, the political trading post is prone to bubbles, excesses, rumors, and even the occasional conspiracy theory.
All of which creates a gigantic opening for a politician to display imagination and leadership. An opportunity for a figure who will separate the good populism (championing free-enterprising individuals) from the bad (concocting loony theories and vilifying "enemies of the people"). Someone who will give voice to the millions who don't want government aggrandizing the powerful; who don't want government risking dangerous fiscal imbalances; who do want public policies that create the conditions for a general prosperity. Someone, in other words, who can play the same role in contemporary politics that Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan did in the past.
She lives in Alaska.
The similarities between Jackson, Bryan, Reagan, and Sarah Palin are striking. This is not to say that they are alike in every respect. Nor is it to say that Palin's achievements to date rank with the others'. And, of course, American populism is a deep and complex tradition. But it's nonetheless true that a couple of traits span the centuries and unify these four political figures. The first is the reaction they provoke among the elites of their age--what one might call the "Coonskin Cap Critique." The second is their advocacy of dispersed power, open markets, and American individualism.
Elites regard challenges to their authority with condescension and contempt. They routinely underestimate the capacities of populist leaders. They mock their enemies as uneducated provincials who lack expert knowledge and therefore have no place interfering in politics. They contemptuously refer to the supporters of populist politicians as an ill-kempt and dangerous mob.
When Andrew Jackson's supporters flooded the capital to celebrate their hero's ascent to the presidency, elite opinion was aghast. In his Andrew Jackson, H.W. Brands quotes a D.C. resident writing,
To us, who had witnessed the quiet and orderly period of the Adams administration, it seemed as if half the nation had rushed at once into the capital. It was like the inundation of the northern barbarians into Rome, save that the tumultuous tide came in from a different point of the compass. The West and the South seemed to have precipitated themselves upon the North and overwhelmed it.
Supreme Court justice Joseph Story was equally shocked: "The reign of King 'Mob,' seemed triumphant," he lamented.
The press of William Jennings Bryan's time saw the same thing. They called his supporters revolutionaries. Anarchists. Socialists. Dangers to the republic. In one editorial cartoon, Bryan is portrayed as a snake. In another, he's portrayed as an unruly little boy showing off the ugly contraption he's built--the populist Democratic party--to a worried Uncle Sam.
When the Reagan era rolled around, the Gipper's conservative supporters were "right-wing extremists" engaged in a racist "backlash." Later, "angry white men" brought Newt Gingrich to power in the 1994 Republican Revolution. When Sarah Palin-loving activists held anti-big government tea parties and engaged in rowdy behavior at congressional town halls in the summer of 2009, Democrats took out the carving knives once more. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Leader Steny Hoyer wrote of an "ugly campaign" that was "simply un-American."
The advocates of the Coonskin Cap Critique love to tar their opponents as dangerous zealots. The Philadelphia Monthly likened Andrew Jackson and his followers to "Peter the Hermit" and "his rabble of Christian vagabonds." Nicholas Biddle, head of the Bank of the United States, described Jackson's veto message killing the bank as "a manifesto of anarchy, such as Marat and Robespierre might have issued to the mob." To H.L. Mencken, William Jennings Bryan was the "Fundamentalist Pope" who represented everything the Sage of Baltimore disliked about America. During the 1980 presidential campaign, liberals sought to portray Ronald Reagan as an ideologue and lunatic who risked plunging the world into armageddon. In one editorial, the Nation declared, "We believe that a Ronald Reagan victory increases the chances for nuclear war."
Last year in Newsweek, Jon Meacham wrote that "-Palin's populist view of high office" is "dangerous." Then, when Palin brought up Barack Obama's association with William Ayers on the campaign trail, the pundit tribe went nuts. Bill Maher likened a Palin rally to a "hate-fest." E.J. Dionne speculated that John McCain may have "become the midwife of a new movement built around fear, xenophobia, racism, and anger." The Chicago Sun-Times columnist Andrew Greeley wrote that Palin was "a racist with her eye on the White House." The elite's great fear is that their supposed intellectual inferiors might rule them. John Quincy Adams described Jackson as "a barbarian and savage who could scarcely spell his own name." The journalist Charles Willis Thompson wrote of Bryan, "He did not merely resemble that average man, he was that average man." (Even historians can't help taking shots at Bryan's intellectual ability. His "capacity to convince himself," Richard Hofstadter wrote, was "probably the only exceptional thing about his mind.") Michael Kinsley pronounced Reagan "not terribly bright." Nicholas von Hoffman found it "humiliating" that "this unlettered, self-assured bumpkin" had been elected president. To William Greider, Reagan was a "hopeless clown."
It's Pavlovian: Whenever the arbiters of educated opinion witness the emergence of a populist leader, they spew insults. Sarah Palin has been called--among many, many other things--a "bantamweight cheerleader" (Maureen Dowd), an "airhead" (Charles Wohlforth), an "idiot" (Victoria Coren), a "character too dumb even for daytime TV" (Matt Taibbi), a "puffed-up dimwit with primitive religious beliefs" (Taibbi again), and a "white trash trophy wife wearing glasses so she looks intellectual" (Catherine Deveny). Palin's opponents will go to any lengths to prove that she is stupid. They've forged her SAT scores. They've prank-called her posing as foreign leaders. They tout every rumor or myth that fits into their world view and dismiss all contrary evidence.
At root, the Coonskin Cap Critique is about the battle between the country and the city. Jackson's strongest supporters were small landowners on the Appalachian frontier finally able to exercise the franchise. Bryan's were the indebted prairie farmers who took a hit during an era of falling agricultural prices. By the age of Reagan, America was transitioning rapidly to a service economy, and most Americans lived in cities and suburbs. The geographical frontier had closed. But the imaginative frontier--the beckoning American horizon of innovation and enterprise--remained.
Intellectuals belittled Reagan because he believed in this frontier of the imagination. Cosmopolitans detested him because he represented the provincial folkways of small town America. In a 1980 Nation essay, E.L. Doctorow wrote that Reagan was the product of
such towns as Galesburg, Monmouth, and Dixon--just the sorts of places responsible for one of the raging themes of American literature, the soul-murdering complacency of our provinces, without which the careers of Edwin Arlington Robinson, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, and Willa Cather, to name just a few, would never have found glory. The best and brightest fled all our Galesburgs and Dixons, if they could, but [Reagan] was not among them.
Twenty-eight years later, in describing Sarah Palin's Wasilla, the journalist Heather Mallick wrote that "small towns are places that smart people escape from, for privacy, for variety, for intellect, for survival. Palin should have stayed home."
The antiprovincial, antipopulist critique is not only perennial. It's indestructible.
Because Andrew Jackson was the founder of the modern Democratic party, we have a tendency to look at him through big-government eyes. We draw a line that starts with Jackson, runs through Bryan, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, and ends up at Barack Obama. But the facts are more complicated than that. Jackson and Bryan were representatives of an American system where self-made men reaped the fruits of their labor without government meddling.
There's a connection between a faith in the democratic wisdom of the crowd and support for free markets. Jackson and Bryan didn't feel that government should play favorites or manipulate society according to intellectual fashions. They felt it should level the playing field so that men of all stations, possessed with initiative and enthusiasm, could thrive in commercial society. As Richard Hofstadter wrote in the American Political Tradition (1948), like the Jacksonians, "Bryan felt that he represented a cause that was capable of standing on its own feet without special assistance from the government. The majority of the people, he declaimed, who produced the nation's wealth in peace and rallied to its flag in war, asked for nothing from the government but 'even-handed justice.' "
Ronald Reagan possessed a similar optimism about the individual capacities of the American people. His basic faith in American decency--his democratic faith--was more than a personal tic or a political tactic. It was one of the pillars of his philosophy. It gave him the courage to dismiss moral equivalence in foreign policy and challenge Democratic shibboleths. If you believe--as Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan did--that left to their own devices Americans will create a free, just, and prosperous society, the task of politics is simple. Identify the obstacles impeding the American spirit and eliminate them.
Is tight money dampening economic growth? Kill the national bank. Are tariffs depressing farm wages? Reduce them. Is inflation robbing the middle class and high taxes limiting investment? Squeeze out inflation and lower the tax rates. The people will take care of the rest.
In the past, populist leaders have understood that when large organizations--corporate or governmental--exercise power, the main beneficiaries tend to be large organizations. The populist therefore aligns himself with the folks who aren't displayed in portraiture. He's on the side of the small businessman and the ordinary individual. "When the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages, artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer, and the potent more powerful," Jackson wrote in his bank veto message, "the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government."
Likewise, the 1908 Democratic party platform, with Bryan as the nominee, stated: " 'Shall the people rule?' is the overshadowing issue which manifests itself in all the questions now under discussion." Among other things, the platform attacked "the heedless waste of the people's money." It called for free trade and the "reduction of import duties." It favored the "election of United States Senators by direct vote of the people." Later in the 20th century, President Ford would nod to the populists when he said, "Here, the people rule."
In a 1978 radio commentary that he wrote while overlooking traffic from a hotel room window, Reagan distilled the populist belief in individual ability. "They are not 'the masses,' or as the elitists would have it, 'the common man,' " Reagan said of the people driving cars on the highway below. "They are very uncommon. Individuals, each with his or her own hopes and dreams, plans and problems, and the kind of quiet courage that makes this whole country run better than just about any other place on earth." Reagan's mission was to remove the obstacles that prevented these men and women with "quiet courage" from realizing their potential.
Populist leaders have held very modest views of government. "Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government," Jackson wrote in his bank message. "Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth cannot be produced by human institutions." In Bryan's view, government was so easily corrupted that it needed to be subject to constant democratic renewal. "The conscience of the nation," the 1908 Democratic platform stated, "is now aroused to free the Government from the grip of those who have made it a business asset of the favor-seeking corporations." Reagan famously likened government to a baby--"an alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."
And Palin? Time and again, she has run against elites who, in her view, are ignoring the public interest. She overthrew a three-term incumbent mayor of Wasilla because he wasn't as conservative as the people he represented. She used sales tax revenues and bond issues to help the town grow into a thriving suburb. She knocked off a Republican energy commissioner, a Republican attorney general, and an incumbent Republican governor because she felt that they were helping themselves and their friends and not the Alaskan people. As governor, she passed a sweeping ethics reform, changed the tax code so Alaskans got their fair share of oil revenues, and introduced competition and transparency into the construction of a natural gas pipeline.
Palin has an intuitive faith in builders and traders, in hockey moms and plumbers. She is clearly on the side of competitive, entrepreneurial capitalism. But she hasn't spent much time on the national stage. Nor has she tied her pointed criticisms of the Obama agenda and the liberal media to a larger argument about how ordinary people with common sense can rescue the American economy and revitalize American democracy. Palin has Jacksonian instincts, but she still hasn't forged her own political persuasion. Time to add flesh to the bone.
For example, take energy policy. Last week, when Joe Biden traveled to upstate New York to campaign for Democratic congressional candidate Bill Owens, the vice president took aim at Sarah Palin. "The fact of the matter is that Sarah Palin thinks the answer to energy was 'drill, baby, drill,' " Biden said. "No, it's a lot more complicated, Sarah, than 'drill, baby, drill.' "
A good sign of condescension is when someone tells you that "things are more complicated" than you think. In truth, as Palin pointed out on her Facebook page later that day, she has "always advocated an all-of-the-above approach to American energy independence." It was, moreover, Biden and not Palin who was treading dangerous policy ground. Palin's positions align squarely with the American people's. In an August ABC News/Washington Post poll, for instance, almost two-thirds of respondents supported more oil and gas drilling. A 52-percent majority favored building more nuclear power plants. A similar majority supported additional coal mining. Fifty-one percent wanted "more power plants that burn oil, coal, and natural gas." And another two-thirds favored constructing nuclear power plants within 50 miles of their homes.
The popular and sensible approach to energy policy is obvious. Remove the restrictions on offshore oil exploration--if Obama thinks it's fine for Brazil to drill offshore, why can't the United States? Lower tariffs and reduce subsidies for domestically produced ethanol. Get rid of the regulations limiting the construction of oil refineries. Dismiss airy prophecies about "peak oil," "green jobs," and "limits to growth." Pledge, instead, that Americans will have access to as much of the cheapest, cleanest energy they need to stimulate the economy. Palin is right. No limits. "All of the above" is best.
Or take health policy. In the tradition of Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan, Palin could point out that the price of health care is rising because the market in health care is broken. When you buy insurance in the individual market, you don't receive the same tax break as large corporations who buy group plans for their employees. Instead of one, more-or-less free market for health insurance, there are 50 heavily regulated state markets. The mandates for insurance that state governments impose--guaranteed coverage for hair plugs or in vitro fertilization, for instance--increase prices. And since an individual cannot shop for insurance across state lines, a young, healthy person in mandate-manic New York cannot buy a low premium, high-deductible plan on offer in lightly regulated Utah.
Meanwhile, state and federal government, which accounts for a large (46 percent in 2006) and growing portion of national health spending, uses its monopoly power to bid down the price of the medical services it purchases, and thereby raises costs for everyone else. Medicare fraud is rampant. Defensive medicine increases expenditures. And doctors and hospitals are under no obligation to share prices with consumers until after services are rendered--which means that patients cannot shop around for the most affordable treatments.
What's a populist to do? Trust in the commercial ideal, and dismantle the regulatory barriers to true competition and innovation in the health care marketplace.
Next, consider the financial sector. The government is doing its best to prop up failed giants at the expense of competition and innovation. Held to the standards of the marketplace, companies like GM, Chrysler, AIG, GMAC, and Citi probably would disappear. They'd be bought and sold, carved up into little pieces, and the overpaid CEOs who made bad bets would lose their jobs.
Instead, these firms are on government life-support. Hundreds of billions in taxpayer money is propping them up. The dollars keeping GM alive and UAW workers employed are dollars that could be spent more productively elsewhere. The dollars enriching Vikram Pandit and his cronies are being financed by Americans who aren't even born. Worse, rather than bury the idea of "too big to fail," the Obama regulatory scheme would enshrine it. The administration seems bent on repeating the same mistakes that Japan made in the 1990s, when political favoritism triumphed over regulated capitalism. The result was the zombie banks that haunt the Japanese economy to this day.
Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan would be furious at the way the financial crisis has been handled. They would want to break down the ossified constellations of power. They'd want to let new businesses replace the old.
Step one is to set a timeline for withdrawal from the bailout state. Policymakers need to be clear that they have no intention of maintaining these huge transfers of wealth for much longer. Rather than micromanage government-owned banks and auto companies, they need to focus on weaning them off the federal teat. For the banks, a complicated and technocratic regulatory scheme isn't necessary. A few simple rules that separate the solvent banks from the insolvent would suffice.
Feeling outrage and impotence over the actions of Wall Street bankers and government regulators is natural and understandable, Palin could say. But the answer isn't further government control and politicization. It's using government to break apart concentrations of power--and then stepping back to watch as the market imposes its iron discipline.
Last year the public elected an inspirational leader who promised change. Barack Obama promised to open government, end insiderism, and confer no special privileges. He promised to reach across the aisle and adopt his opponents' best ideas.
This was all an illusion. As the Obama presidency has developed, people have realized that this is not the change they sought. The Treasury secretary is a tax cheat overseeing a Wall Street bailout program. The congressman in charge of the tax code is under investigation for various frauds. From auto bailouts to the stimulus to health care, the president has implemented or advocated policies of which the people disapprove.
Obama's governing style is based on personal interaction with major policy stakeholders. So, when the president formulates a policy, he brings into the White House all the titans of industry and top lobbyists who might be affected. The rule applies whether the issue is the financial system, climate change, or health care: Obama listens to and makes deals with market incumbents. The theory is that such negotiations will produce legislation that satisfies everyone involved. But whatever the benefits, the costs are all too clear: Incumbent stakeholders use government access to drive out competition, increase their leverage, and limit transparency.
In other words, Obama has rejected the tradition of Jackson, Bryan, and Reagan. He has rejected putting trust in the common wisdom and collective judgments of the American people. He's sought comfort in the "expert" knowledge of technocratic elites. Liberal Democrats in Congress set the agenda. The unions drive trade, health, and labor policy. The bankers drive economic policy. Joe Six Pack is left out in the cold.
But the elites continue to mess things up. Confidence in American institutions continues to erode. Faith in the American future continues to decline.
Is there an exit? Yes. All it would take is for a populist leader like the one in Wasilla to pick up the Jacksonian, Bryanite, Reaganite torch and deliver this simple message to Obama and the political class: You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this big-government crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon the cross of Goldman Sachs.
By Matthew Continetti:
Reprinted with permission from The Weekly Standard