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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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But is this politically practical? Would today’s Republican party be an appropriate vehicle for this sort of ideology, after generations of promoting precisely the policies that libertarian populists abhor? While there are no doubt structural barriers to reshaping the GOP in this way, there can also be no doubt that, on the grassroots level, the potential is there. After all, the Republican coalition of today looks strangely similar to the old Jeffersonian/Jacksonian alliance. The elite quarters of the country increasingly support Democrats, while Van Buren’s “plain republicans of the north”—in the small towns and middle-income suburbs—support Republicans. Meanwhile, the South has moved substantially from the Democratic to the Republican column, including many areas that were most staunchly populist in the 19th century. Ditto the Mountain West, which was historically quite populist and is now solidly Republican. The votes in the Republican grassroots are most certainly there, even if much of the GOP establishment remains committed to Hamiltonian big government.

But what about building a majority coalition around this system? That is easier said than done, as Americans nowadays expect a certain level of Hamiltonianism from their leaders. The government, so says the public, has a responsibility to grow the economy. Furthermore, it has a responsibility to manage and even expand the social safety net. This is a big reason why the two parties have ignored Jeffersonianism for so long: Both believe it is a loser. 


Nevertheless, there remains an undoubted Jeffersonian current within society that today’s libertarian populists could take advantage of. People are not going to react favorably if a Republican presidential nominee starts talking about eliminating this or that federal department from the U.S. Code, but there is a growing suspicion similar to
the worries of Jefferson and Madison: Many people on the left and the right suspect a sort of “praetorian band” has taken control of the government and high finance, and in so doing compromises the democratic process. We the people can elect whomever we like, but when they go to Washington, they do the bidding of the powers that be.

A practical program for libertarian populism would address this frustration, above all using the word that Jefferson and Madison used: corruption. When somebody serves as a senator for 30 years, then heads over to K Street to lobby his former colleagues, that is a form of corruption, and it should be identified accordingly. Exceedingly tough antilobbying laws would be an obvious place for libertarian populists to start. Similarly, taking a page from Carney’s playbook, there should be more focus on government programs that average Americans have little experience with that funnel resources to the well-connected. The Export-Import Bank is perhaps the best example, but there are countless others. The peculiar form taken by modern campaign finance reform, which empowered the Lois Lerners of Washington to go after groups they dislike, should also be on the list. Tax reform should play an important role, with an emphasis on rooting out special favors and exemptions, making the code treat people similarly, without regard to their political connections. Ditto genuine party reform, wresting control of the nominating process from the donors and campaign consultants back to average people.

In other words, an effective libertarian populist agenda would begin with a focus on power relations above all else, and might punt on questions of top marginal tax rates or federal provisions for broad-based social welfare, at least at the outset. That is not to deny that taxation levels, or food stamps, or the long-term sustainability of Medicare and Social Security are not pressing public policy problems. It is simply to suggest that, by focusing on power relations, libertarian populists can best avoid being captured by the established political centers. Historically speaking, this has been the downfall of populist movements: Entrenched forces capture them and co-opt their energy to secure the status quo. If libertarian populists can find and hold fast to their Jeffersonian roots, and understand that the animating principle has first of all to do with political power, they can have a chance of avoiding that trap.

It’s hard to assess the chances for such a new political force to make headway. Certainly there is growing unhappiness with the level of corruption, broadly defined, in Washington. What we can say is that the broad contours of American politics are remarkably durable. And if there is to be a successful challenge to the entrenched centralizers and progressives, it is most likely to take the shape, at least in part, of a Jeffersonian revival.

Jay Cost is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.

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