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The New Old Thing

Jeffersonian populism returns

Aug 19, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 46 • By JAY COST
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In a pseudonymous essay written for the National Gazette in 1792, Madison argued that the first goal of republicanism was to establish a “political equality among all.” The second was to withhold “unnecessary opportunities from a few, to increase the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches.” The subtext, at least for readers in Madison’s day, was pretty clear. His beef was not with economic inequality per se, but the inequality created by Hamilton’s bank, which had showered riches upon a select few.

This brand of republicanism dominated the political landscape more or less until the Civil War, being reinvigorated by the Jacksonian Democrats in the 1820s and ’30s. Indeed, Martin Van Buren hoped to use the celebrity of Andrew Jackson to unite the “planters of the South and the plain republicans of the North” under the old Jeffersonian principles. That is essentially what happened, and this “Democratic party” would basically dominate the political scene until Abraham Lincoln’s Republican party supplanted it.

Unfortunately, the old Jeffersonian ideas were ultimately perverted by the slaveocracy, and later the perpetrators of Jim Crow. The essence of Jeffersonianism was that true republicanism could be protected only through local institutions, where the people were closest to their leaders. But the Southern plantation elite co-opted Jefferson’s “states rights” ideas to ensure white supremacy over black slaves and sharecroppers, in the face of a federal government that had finally discovered the political will to enforce the constitutional requirement that every state establish a republican form of government.

In the 20th century, progressivism replaced Jeffersonian republicanism as the premier leftist ideology in the United States. In The Promise of American Life, Herbert Croly called for a détente between Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians to combat the vast concentrations of wealth in the newly industrialized America. Croly proposed merging 

the two into the kind of democratic nationalism trumpeted by Teddy Roosevelt: a strong central government to promote the welfare of the common man. Of course, Hamiltonian big government had, in no small part, contributed to the vast discrepancies between the haves and have-nots in Croly’s day. Just as when Jefferson and Madison railed against the Bank of the United States, profit-seeking elites combined with ambitious politicians to carve up the body politic for their mutual benefit. And while today’s liberals are certainly loath to admit it, that kind of practice has arguably gotten worse, only today the moneyed interests have formed alliances with both the left and the right.

Nevertheless, 20th-century progressives were effective at uniting behind pols who could sing convincingly from the Jeffersonian hymnal—Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton (all of whom, not coincidentally, came from the South or a border state)—to sell the idea that an ever-larger federal government was in the average man’s best interests. In so doing, they shifted the conversation away from a debate over imbalances in power relations between the elites and the population, and toward imbalances in wealth. Average people could vote for progressive Democrats and receive new federal benefits, but at a steep price, as more and more power drifted from their communities to Washington, D.C.

For generations, meanwhile, the GOP made very little hay over this, despite its strong opposition to the centralizing designs of the progressive left. The party has political roots tracing back through Henry Clay’s Whig party and ultimately to Hamilton’s Federalist coalition and has generally believed in the capacity of “big government” to facilitate the economic development of the country. A fairly straight ideological line can be drawn from Hamilton to Clay to William McKinley, and later to the postwar GOP. Republicans have long decried the Democrats’ use of big government to redistribute wealth but have nevertheless been ready, willing, and able to use federal power to promote economic development.

Thus, for a hundred years, Jeffersonian republicanism has essentially been dormant, motivating neither political coalition in any meaningful way. If it were to succeed as a mass-based political ideology, the “libertarian populism” of which Carney, Douthat, and others speak would essentially constitute a Jeffersonian revival.

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