The Magazine

The Palin Persuasion

A case for the new populism.

Nov 16, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 09 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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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 slaveowner 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.