In conservative circles of late there has been an ongoing conversation about a (seemingly) new approach to governance, “libertarian populism.” Timothy P. Carney, a senior columnist for the Washington Examiner, argues that “conservatives need to turn to the working class as the swing population that can deliver elections,” and to do that he suggests a kind of populism that “mesh[es] with free-market principles.” He envisions an agenda of breaking up the big banks, eliminating the payroll tax, ending corporate welfare, cleaning up the tax code, doing away with political privileges, and more.
This libertarian populism would certainly be a fresh alternative to the decades-old battle between conservatives and liberals, but it nevertheless has deep historical roots in the body politic. An understanding of its (noble) intellectual pedigree would help sharpen and amplify the approach that Carney and others are suggesting.
A good jumping-off point for this investigation is Ross Douthat’s July 28 New York Times column, in which he links libertarian populism to the political battles of 18th-century Britain, in particular the clash between the “country party” and the “court party.” The country party, led by Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, was “both conservative and populist at once: they regarded [their opponents’] centralization of power as a kind of organized conspiracy, in which the realm’s political, business and military interests were colluding against the common good.”
Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and their Democratic-Republican party borrowed heavily from Bolingbroke in their critique of Alexander Hamilton’s financial centralization, a multipronged plan to assume state war debts, charter a private bank, use the tax code to support businesses, and generally establish a sound financial base for the new country’s subsequent economic growth.
What the Jeffersonians feared—and indeed what connects them to the libertarian populists—is the centralization of political power by the ruling class. The British “court party,” they believed, had undermined the public will by using royal prerogatives to buy off members of Parliament in a quest to unite the political and economic powers-that-be. This is precisely what they dreaded Hamilton was doing, especially by facilitating the “stock jobbing” that surrounded the First Bank of the United States. In a letter to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson worried that:
[Hamilton’s system is] calculated to undermine and demolish the republic, by creating an influence of his department over the members of the legislature. I saw this influence actually produced, & its first fruits to be the establishment of the great outlines of his project by the votes of the very persons who, having swallowed his bait were laying themselves out to profit by his plans: & that had these persons withdrawn, as those interested in a question ever should, the vote of the disinterested majority was clearly the reverse of what they made it. These were no longer the votes then of the representatives of the people, but of deserters from the rights & interests of the people: & it was impossible to consider their decisions, which had nothing in view but to enrich themselves, as the measures of the fair majority.
Madison added that the nexus between private wealth and the public good would ultimately lead holders of the bank shares to become “the praetorian band of the Government, at once its tool & its tyrant; bribed by its largesses & overawing it by clamours & combinations.”
Thus a core insight for understanding libertarian populism: The growth of government, when combined with the pursuit of private financial gain, runs the risk of undermining if not destroying the country’s democratic institutions. The moneyed interests whose economic dominance depends upon government rents can purchase legislators, thereby subverting the public interest and giving us what these days we call crony capitalism.
This is why Jeffersonianism was a small-government, localist movement. They feared that the centralization of power would mean inevitably that average people—in that day the yeoman farmer class—would lose out to the commercial and financial elite. Insofar as economic inequality was a concern for the Jeffersonians, it had to do with the extent to which government facilitated it.
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.
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.