All Commentary
Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Anti-Populists Made America Great?

New York Times neoconservative columnist David Brooks dislikes populism (“The Populist Addiction,” January 25). “Trust your betters and criticize not their deeds,” he says in effect. After all, when you become a billionaire, you’ll expect others to treat you thus. That any one of us might strike it rich stems, apparently, from the wonderfully open, competitive, and dynamic American political economy, when not hamstrung by socialists and pointy-headed intellectuals. Above all, Brooks warns us to avoid simplistic analyses and solutions offered by populists of left or right, who always “lose.” Listen up for your own good.

And, continues Brooks, it was those the earlier populists attacked who made us what we are. We owe America’s greatness to “anti-populists” like Hamilton and Lincoln, who “rejected [populism’s] zero-sum mentality” and fostered “one interlocking system of labor, trade and investment.” Hamilton promoted financial markets and Lincoln banks to “maximize opportunity for poor boys like themselves,” since strong financial institutions could “channel opportunity to new groups and new people. . . .” Their ideals were “development, mobility and work. . . .”

Here a sidelong glance at two comparable Moments of Progress Unleashed may be in order. Let us begin with the Federalist Party’s role model, Great Britain. In Whigs and Hunters, the English historian E. P. Thompson calls eighteenth-century England a “banana republic,” and adds, “The Whigs, in the 1720s, were a curious junta of political speculators and speculative politicians, stock-jobbers, officers grown fat on Marlborough’s wars, time-serving dependants in the law and the Church, and great landed magnates.”

Everything was fundamentally for sale, even if for social reasons not everyone with money could buy certain of them. With the Hanoverian kings, Thompson wrote in “Eighteenth-century English Society,” came “a new set of courtier-brigands . . . [with] real killings . . . made in the distribution, cornering and sale of goods or raw materials . . . manipulation of credit, and in the seizure of the offices of State”(Journal of Social History, May 1978).

Now let us fast-forward to Mexico, 1880-1910. There, the once-Liberal dictator General Porfirio Díaz, advised by “scientific” Positivists, handed over natural resources wholesale to deserving entrepreneurs foreign and domestic in the name of economic development. If this meant overturning peasant and village land titles and water rights dating back to the Spanish viceroyalty, so be it. In the southern state of Morelos, the defense of small-scale property and social relations called forth the famous peasant movement led by Emiliano Zapata. Some people find such outbursts regrettable, but there is no question of who started it. (John Womack, Jr., Zapata and the Mexican Revolution, 1968, chapters 2 and 3.)

These cases provide rough parallels to what Brooks is offering us: Here, too, were labor, capital, and money intertwined in a system, and (no doubt) growth, mobility, and employment, and even (quite possibly) opportunities for poor boys and sundry new groups. With all of this assisted–and indeed imposed–by the State, and with some folks actually getting “zero,” it is hard to render an unequivocal endorsement. Some of us are past believing that growth itself justifies much of anything. As John Taylor of Caroline asserted, Federalists wanted a complete English political economy in the United States. For good reasons, he did not welcome this prospect. The Whig and Republican parties inherited the Federalist outlook, which sheds much light on their ideas. In this light Brooks’s calls to reinvigorate the Republican mercantilism (“How to Reinvent the G.O.P.,” New York Times Magazine, August 29, 2004) do not seem very benign.

Faced serially with the mercantilist policies of Federalists and Whigs, the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian movements provided opposition. They knew in detail what was at stake. Taylor and his successors like William Leggett and Condy Raguet were their organic intellectuals. They did not buy Hamilton’s or Henry Clay’s ideology of balanced development and national growth. Instead, these insurgent Americans saw national debt, national banking, tariffs, excises, and business subsidies largely at their expense–which, taken together, looked a lot like interests working hard to get vested. (In itself the Common Good is a defensible concept, but see William T. Cavanaugh, “Why the Nation-State Is Not the Keeper of the Common Good,” Modern Theology, April 2004.)

The roots of American populism lie in these two mass movements. To the extent that they acted in self-defense, they can be defended without embarrassment. But Brooks doesn’t even acknowledge their existence; it would spoil his claim that populists always lose. And perhaps he finds them unconstructive.

If we could believe certain theorems about income trickling up or down, we might pay more heed to neo-mercantilist arguments. But the theorems are not especially plausible. We are left with Brooks’s warnings about divisiveness and class conflict. Yet it appears to be a fairly consistent lesson of history that class struggle comes from the top. People at the top–the Federalists in 1787-1789, say–have cohesion, a shared vision of a State they control, and the means to network. They use these to dominate the system. Sometimes by moving too quickly and pushing too hard, they create a unified opposition that did not previously exist. Now they invoke the sacred rights of property (theirs), fulfillment of contracts (held by them), order and deference (to them), and the duty to pay debts (to them), and they denounce their opponents as leveling, agrarian radicals. Quite suddenly they have emerged as honest friends of free markets. Of course if mercantilist special pleading really makes the case for “free” markets, then everything is just fine in a country “built” by Hamilton, Lincoln, and those impeccably “sharp” Union war contractors Jay Cook, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Philip Armour, and J. P. Morgan, along with more recent imitators–and precisely because of that building. Skepticism seems warranted.

Brooks has a point, however: Outright demagoguery will likely fail–for example, the Tea Parties now cynically hijacked by Republicans. Those gatherings suggest how unintelligent populism can serve its ostensible enemies. An intelligent populism rooted in real American traditions might be another matter. Whether such a populism exists or can exist is an open question.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg is a Research Fellow at The Independent Institute and has held the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. A columnist for, his research interests include U.S. foreign policy and the "War on Terrorism". He received his B.A. and M.A. from Florida Atlantic University, and his further graduate work was completed at the University of Florida.