Populists vs. liberals in American history

One of the main things I’ve learned from reading American history is that political alignments in the past were very different from what they are now, and that, prior to the New Deal, “populists” and “liberals” were rarely found in the same party.

By “populist,” I mean someone who defends the interests of the majority of the population against a ruling elite.  By “liberal,” I mean someone who takes up for downtrodden and unpopular minorities.

3080664-president-andrew-jackson--20--twenty-dollar-billAndrew Jackson, the founder of the Democratic Party, was a populist.  He gained fame as the leader of a well-regulated militia, composed of citizens with the right to keep and bear arms, who defeated the British in the Battle of New Orleans and who fought for white settlers against Indians in what later became the states of Alabama, Mississippi and Florida.

He was regarded as a champion of poor workers, farmers and frontier settlers.  In an epic struggle, he broke the stranglehold of the financial elite, as represented by the Second Bank of the United States, on the U.S. economy.   Jacksonians fought for the enfranchisement of property-less white people.

In standing up for the common people, Jackson denied any claims to superiority by reason of education and training.  He defended the spoils system—rewarding his political supporters with government jobs—on the grounds that any American citizen was capable of performing any public function.

Jackson was a slave-owner and a breaker of Indian treaties.  He killed enemies in duels.  He was responsible for the expulsion of Indians in the southeast U.S. in the Trail of Tears.   He was not a respecter of individual rights.   He was not a liberal.

This was opposed by almost all the great New England humanitarian reformers of Jackson’s time and later.  They were educated white people who tried to help African Americans, American Indians, the deaf, the blind, prison inmates and inmates of insane asylums.  Almost of all them were Whigs, and almost all their successors were Republicans.

They were liberals, but not populists.  Like Theodore Parker, the great abolitionist and opponent of the Fugitive Slave Law,  they despised illiterate Irish Catholic immigrants in his midst.  Poor Irish people had to look for help to the Jacksonian Democratic political machines.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Democrats favored a weak central government, low taxes, low tariffs and state’s rights and opposed government support for big business.

Whigs and their successors, the Republicans, favored a strong central government in order to promote industrialization.  Their program included high protective tariffs, subsidies for railroad and canal companies and public investment in infrastructure.   It is due partly to them that the United States became the world’s leading industrial power.,

The Republican Party was founded by opponents of the spread of slavery, and, under Lincoln and Grant, actually tried to protect the rights of African Americans in the South.

This tradition faded but never completely died out.  President Theodore Roosevelt created a national uproar by inviting Booker T. Washington, the great conservative African-American educator, to dinner at the White House.   In 1966, Edward Brooke, a New England Republican, became the first African-American U.S. Senator to be elected by popular vote.

In contrast, Democrats not only enacted Jim Crow segregation laws in the South, but were the prime supporters of the simultaneous ethnic cleansing of black people from small towns in the North and West.  As recently as 1924, the Democratic National Convention voted down a resolution to condemn the Ku Klux Klan by name.

Both Democrats and Republicans were part of the corrupt Gilded Age, although the corrupt urban Democratic machines actually provided help to poor people in return for their votes.  This is an oversimplification, but Republicans can be said to have stood for macro-corruption and Democrats for micro-corruption.

Both Democrats and Republicans took part in the Progressive reform movement just prior to World War One, although with different emphasis.  Woodrow Wilson’s New Freedom sought to break up monopolies to give equal opportunity to small-business owners.  Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism accepted monopoly as inevitable and sought to regulate it in the public interest.

Franklin.RooseveltThe New Deal realigned the parties.  Prior to 1932, neither Democrats nor Republicans had been pro-labor.  President Franklin Roosevelt made organized labor part of his governing coalition.  Liberal reformers became part of the New Deal coalition.  African-Americans joined the party of the Solid South.

FDR, Harry Truman, Adlai Stevenson and John F. Kennedy tried to strike a balance between labor union members, African Americans and college-educated liberals  on the one hand and the white Solid South.  This was just barely possible so long as the Republicans continued to be a civil rights party, and Southern segregationists had to choose the lesser evil (from their standpoint).

But the Solid South went Republican after President Lyndon Johnson pushed through national laws banning racial discrimination, and Barry Goldwater ran for President on a platform of state’s rights.  African Americans became as dependable a vote for the Democrats as white Southerners had been 30 years before.

Democrats could have continued to be a populist party, both pro-labor and pro-civil rights.  But their leaders chose not to do so.  Instead they became a version of the 19th century Whigs and Republicans.  This has been viable so far because  Republican leaders, although anti-liberal, have not become really populist.  Instead populists are offered a choice of evils (from their standpoint).

I think a new American populist movement is bound to gain power sooner or later.  The economic plight of the American majority cannot be ignored forever.  The big question is whether the future populist movement will be liberal or anti-liberal.  Another question is whether it will be within the Democratic or Republican parties.


Here are some books that helped me understand the history of political alignments.

THE LIFE OF ANDREW JACKSON: The Border Captain – Portrait of a President by Marquis James (1933, 1937).  A readable, old-fashioned biography that shows why Jackson was admired, but which does not omit unfavorable facts.

WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 by Daniel Walker Howe (2007)

BATTLE CRY OF FREEDOM: The Civil War Era by James McPherson (1988)

RENDEZVOUS WITH DESTINY: A History of Modern American Reform by Eric Goldman (1952)  If you have time to read only three of these books, make this one of them.

THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POLITICS by Samuel Lubell (1951).  An analysis of voting blocs.  If you have time to read only two of these books, this this one of them.

THE EMERGING REPUBLICAN MAJORITY by Kevin P. Phillips (1969).   A history and analysis of voting blocs.  If you have time to read only one of these books, read this one.   Phillips is a true populist, but not a liberal.  All of his recent books about politics and economics are worth reading.

CHAIN REACTION: The Impact of Race, Rights and Taxes on American Politics by Thomas B. Edsall with Mary D. Edsall  (1991).  All of Edsall’s writings, including his column in the New York Times, are worth reading.

GOLDEN RULE: The Investment Theory of Party Competition and the Logic of Money-Driven Political Systems by Thomas Ferguson (1995).  All of Ferguson’s writings are also worth reading.


I didn’t include foreign policy as a basis for party alignment and realignment.  Populists are unabashed American nationalists, while liberals talk about universal human rights and international treaties.  Democratic presidents starting with Woodrow Wilson have been liberals in this sense.  Republicans for many years were isolationists, meaning that they didn’t want the U.S. to take sides in European wars.

But Democrats, Whigs and Republicans, and liberals and conservatives, have all sought to increase American power, first on the North American continent and then world-wide.  I can’t see any great difference, in practice, between the liberal foreign policy of Barack Obama and the nationalist populist foreign policy of George W. Bush.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: