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Every Man a King
A Short, Colorful History of American Populists
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Whatever the ideological fad of the moment, American populism has always been home to a fascinating assortment of charismatic leaders, characters, kooks, cranks, and sometimes charlatans who have – with widely varying degrees of success – led the charge of ordinary folks who have gotten wise to the ways of the swamp. This attitude of skeptical resentment also makes populism a fertile field for the work of conspiracy theorists and other enthusiastic apostates from civic convention. After all, if the people in power are found to be rigging one part of the system, why not the rest? Every Man a King tells the stories of America’s populist leaders, from an elderly Andrew Jackson brutally caning his would-be-assassin, to William Jennings Bryan’s pre-speech routine that combined equally prodigious quantities of prayer and food, to Ross Perot’s military-style campaign that made even volunteers wear badges with stars to show rank. It is a rollicking history of an American attitude that has shaped not only our current moment, but also the long struggle over who gets to define the truths we hold to be self evident.
There is something absolutely American about the notion that you, my friends, are getting screwed.
The fix was in even before you got here, so at least it’s not your fault. In fact, you should count yourself lucky that you are one of the discerning few who understand how things really are.
And there’s probably nothing you can do about it.
The political idea that we now know as American populism is older than the republic itself, and certainly greeted that same republic with suspicion.
Merchants and planters and elites conspired against you even before they gathered in Philadelphia to draft the charter for these United States. Out in that same twilight space where legitimate concern still brushes past conspiracy theory, the proto-populists were already nodding knowingly.
As Bertrand Russell put it, “From the time of Jefferson onward, the doctrine that all men are equal applies only upwards, not downwards.”
Or as one of populism’s most vivid apostles, Huey Long, would more succinctly say, “Every man a king.”
This energy has manifested itself in both parties and in various political ideologies over the centuries: conservatism, liberalism, nationalism, socialism, and even out-and-out bigotry.
But one constant has always been the fascinating assortment of charismatic leaders, characters, crooks, cranks, and sometimes charlatans who have—with widely varying degrees of success—led the charge of ordinary folks who have gotten wise to the ways of the swamp.
The depths of despair and heights of exhilaration with which Americans greeted the ascendance and presidency of Donald Trump were partly rooted in the idea that it was something altogether new. We’ve never seen anything like it before, they said.
But if you tug on one golden thread of Trump’s presidential seal, you will find a cord running all the way back to the beginning of us.
Populist politicians have sometimes bedeviled us and sometimes saved us, but always fascinated us. And to understand our moment and what is likely to descend from it, we would do well to know some of those who have stormed the parapet before our current president made it over the top.
And as we come to understand these men, we also see that their successes and failures spring from some common traits and relied on some common circumstances in the republic and its people.
Every successful American politician has been some blend of democratic zeal and republican restraint. Our first partisan split—a clash between the factions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton—wasn’t a struggle between opposing views as much as it was a conflict over emphasis (and always, always, always personalities).
Jefferson’s idea of holding regular constitutional conventions might rightly be described as a perfectly republican idea. It’s certainly a more populist concept than the permanent but amendable charter we ended up with, but Jefferson’s automatic conventions would have most certainly made clear the primacy of the Constitution.
There’s a reason why the party he founded once held both “Democratic” and “Republicans” in its name, you know.
Similarly, Hamilton owes his twenty-first-century vogue not to his sometimes breathtakingly elitist attitudes, like a nonhereditary kingship, but to his embrace of a culture of upward mobility and his vision of an activist, technocratic federal government.
(That and Lin-Manuel Miranda’s ability to rhyme with “Rochambeau.”)
Conservatives now mainly see the Constitution as a means to constrain the federal leviathan, while today’s liberals tend to focus on the charter’s guarantees of individual rights.
So it’s understandable that modern Americans are prone to forget that the purpose of the document was to create a central government more powerful than all but a few of the revolutionary generation would have initially envisioned.
We believe now—as they did in the summer of 1787—that rightful government aims to produce the proper balance between freedom and order so that people are free to achieve their fullest potential. The tyranny of a despot and the tyranny of the mob are different in style but commensurate in their power to oppress and destroy.
In excess, both freedom and order can produce oppression. In equipoise, they produce miracles.
America’s prosperity and progress toward equal freedom under the law probably owes more to our culture than to our government. We are not free because the government says so, but rather because we the people have been (mostly) able stewards of these historically unprecedented blessings. But even the strongest culture needs guardrails to provide predictability and keep us from veering too far from our objective of maximizing freedom and opportunity. When our culture and government are both healthy, their traits are complementary. But when either proves deficient, they can help prop each other up and help correct the maladies in one another.
James Madison was the Founding Father who would ultimately strike the balance between the young Jefferson’s belief in the sovereignty of the commoners and Hamilton’s desire for a federal government of real sovereign power. He was the one who best explained the way a government could be powerful enough to provide adequate security and protect individual liberty without becoming tyrannical itself: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”
By balancing powers between democratic institutions (such as the House) with republican ones (like the Supreme Court), the Founders created the governmental equivalent of a self-cleaning oven. There would be the rule of law to counteract popular excesses and popular sentiment to act against the abuses of the law.
The opponents of the Constitution, the Anti-Federalists, considered the argument a betrayal of the revolutionary spirit. At the debate in Richmond over ratifying the charter, Patrick Henry, the same man who had goaded his reluctant fellow Virginians into rebellion, led the charge against a strong central government. “Will the abandonment of your most sacred rights tend the security of your liberty?” he asked. “Liberty, the greatest of all earthly blessings—give us that precious jewel and you may take everything else.”
Give him liberty or give him…
But in Federalist No. 45, Madison argues convincingly for a Constitution that would expand the reach of the federal government at the expense of the powers and autonomy of state governments. Madison explains that the rights, well-being, and happiness of the people supersede the more abstract rights the Anti-Federalists said they meant to protect.
“We have heard of the impious doctrine in the Old World, that the people were made for kings, not kings for the people,” he wrote. “Is the same doctrine to be revived in the New, in another shape that the solid happiness of the people is to be sacrificed to the views of political institutions of a different form?”
Simply put, the purpose of the republic is not to maintain republicanism. Rather, a republican system is what history and our own experiences have shown to best temper the impulses of the electorate while still keeping the government accountable to the electorate’s demands. The people can have what they want, but the process moves slowly because no branch of government can rule alone. If republicanism did not obtain the greatest portion of contentment for the greatest number of our people, we would long ago have scrapped it.
You have probably heard the old saw about thanking God for unanswered prayers. I certainly count as a blessing having not obtained many of the things that I, as a boy and young man, desperately wanted. And for other things, having to work and want for seeming eternities made me more grateful and better prepared to enjoy, steward, and exploit them.
Just as it’s good that we as individuals don’t get everything that we want, when we want it, it has proven to be overwhelmingly good that the American people’s demands have sometimes been denied and are almost always delayed.
America didn’t need petty fascism in the 1930s any more than I needed a brand-new car and the loan to go with it when I was fresh out of college.
That doesn’t always wash with voters, though. In troubled and transformative times, especially, people have always and will always try to exceed what constitutional constraints will allow.
As the same fellow who wanted to make every man a king put it, “A perfect democracy can come pretty close to looking like a dictatorship, a democracy in which the people are so satisfied that they have no complaint.”
Philosophers will always debate whether Plato was being ironic when he described the ideal system of government as essentially rule by a benevolent dictator. But Huey Long was most certainly not kidding when he imagined a perfectly contented people with—who else?—him as the supreme leader.
We venerate the idea that the people reign and broadly agree the rightful object of the government is the happiness of the people. But what do we do when what the people—or a number large and loud enough of them—want things that diminish the republican safeguards that keep us free?
And, conversely, what do we do when those republican safeguards help facilitate the abuses that cause the people to suffer? Consider this: The pro-slavery southerners who would found the same kind of decentralized confederacy rejected by the Founders in 1787 were masters of using delay and divided powers to protect slavery for decades prior to the Civil War. The ideological descendants of the people who opposed the Constitution because it favored the rule of law over the rule of the people were among the very best at using the law to maintain and expand slavery even when popular sentiment nationally had come to be harshly against the practice.
And at its best, American populism is about testing the idea that small-r republicanism is still in good working order. If we have a central government wholly beholden to the voting public and dedicated to preserving our natural liberties, it would be hard to get much momentum for a popular revolt. But when freedom and order are out of balance, watch out.
Some populist movements, like those of the Gilded Age and the Great Depression, have tended toward the more radical suggestion that the system itself ought to be scrapped. Those who today call themselves democratic socialists or economic nationalists are part of a long bloodline that stretches to the first colonies—those who say republicanism doesn’t do the job.
Most populist outpourings, though, are aimed at either improving or restoring republican balance.
American populism emerges with the greatest vigor when those concepts are the most out of balance. Sometimes, the popular demand is for law and order imposed by a strong government. Sometimes, the demand is to tear down centralized authority. Sometimes, it’s both at once.
This contradiction will be obvious to any Californian. In the Golden State, voters are given the most authority through direct democracy of any state in the union. You can get a referendum on the ballot more easily in America’s largest state than in almost any other.
And what have voters done with their power? Proceeded to use it to repeatedly change even the most basic freedoms and institutions, often in antithetical directions.
Do you want more spending or lower taxes? Yes.
A democratic republic is not like Marshall Field’s. The customers are not always right. You can’t sustain high spending with low taxes or maintain reliable security with scanty government power. But offered as separate propositions, all of those things would be overwhelmingly popular, and not just in California.
That’s why our system slows down the rate at which the demands of the people can be met. When I hear individuals complain about the speed with which Congress works, I am always tempted to remind them that the world has seen plenty of legislatures so efficient that they voted themselves right into oblivion.
It may take two years to get a post office renamed here, but it only took the Russian Duma a matter of months to make itself the vassal of Vladimir Putin. When it comes to government, speed kills liberty. A popular idea has to persist for long enough to defeat the barriers to change remaining in our system, and by then people tend to have either lost interest, modified the original aim, or are darned sure they really want it.
You might take a free sample of sauerkraut ice cream, but you probably wouldn’t churn up a hand-cranked batch of it yourself on a whim. To do that, you’d have to be pretty sure that was exactly what you wanted.
The challenges placed before those who would enact the will of the people are intended to protect the rights of persons.
The primary objective of the Revolution was to end the oppression imposed by the British crown, but the urgent aim of the founding was to make sure that the aloof tyranny of George III was not replaced by the more intimate, more dangerous tyranny of the mob.
We would not need a Bill of Rights, or really any Constitution at all, if liberty were always preferable to the people.
It is common to hear about the rights Americans enjoy, but in truth, what we enjoy are the limitations on the power of the government, even when such exercise would be popular.
As we have witnessed over and over again, popular sentiment sometimes runs in favor of limiting certain kinds of speech or the practice of certain faiths, or otherwise abridging personal rights. Lots of things protected by the Constitution are unpopular. Which is exactly why we need it. You don’t need rules to protect what’s nice, easy, and popular.
That’s why the Framers were so anxious about demagoguery. Their concern was that, like in Old World experiments with self-governance, politicians would succeed too well in inciting popular sentiment—using untruths and preying on emotionality instead of reason.
And hoo boy, they were right to worry. We’ve skated back from the brink a bunch of times in our history when the people demanded action beyond what our system and society allow.
That’s why to tell you the story of what Americans are today, we’re not going to focus on the men who crafted our system to balance republican restraint and democratic responsiveness. We’re going to spend our time with those whose careers illuminate the power of individuals to harness popular sentiment to shift the balance between the two concepts.
The Framers were almost preternaturally prescient about how these opposing impulses and needs would play out. But ultimately, it was the people who have lived it—fighting savagely over how to best secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their prosperity—who made American politics the house of horrors we all know and mostly all hate.
No, watching American politics melt down in the past decade like two scoops of sauerkraut sherbet on a July afternoon has not been fun.
But maybe it would feel a little bit better if you knew that not only have we melted down before, but that we drained all the way out of the cup and evaporated down to a sticky little spot on the sidewalk.
One of the things that most disturbs us about our moment is that, like every generation that has ever trod the sod, we are arrogant enough to believe we are always the culmination of history, rather than just one more stretch of a road that goes on forever.
Ozymandias had nothing on Americans when it comes to overstating the significance and permanency of our own accomplishments, even when the accomplishments are political dysfunction and civic misery.
Don’t get me wrong: We’re certainly not handling our new populist moment with aplomb, but neither has anyone else before us. And, blessedly, each similar spasm in our past has been a growing pain rather than a death throe—even when that was far less obvious in the moment than it is today.
Populism is both the symptom of and remedy to an imbalance between freedom and order in our society. The sentiments are always with us, but only certain circumstances allow for the rise of leaders who carry that message forward.
Sometimes they succeed in changing the system, but sometimes the system itself changes in the face of the threat of popular revolt. But all of the men and the campaigns we are going to be spending our time with in this book effected significant, enduring changes, including some that we have yet to see the full effects of.
We will run a currycomb lightly over seven American populist leaders. They run the gamut from unlikely vessels of popular sentiment to full-blown demagogues, lashing supporters into ecstasies of outrage and threatening to topple the very system itself. Some sought to restore order, while others sought to break it down.
But every one stemmed from that same belief that their supposed betters were trying to pull a fast one on ordinary Americans. And each one of them, quite oddly, can help us to better understand not just our current moment of populist upheaval, but what likely comes next.
First, though, you can’t tell your populists from your plutocrats without a scorecard. So let’s meet our team:
Andrew Jackson (seventh president of the United States)
b. 1767 (Waxhaws, Province of Carolina)
d. 1845 (Nashville, Tennessee)
There’s embracing your outsider status and then there’s horsewhipping a man on your town’s main drag for insulting your wife. Donald Trump’s putative favorite president, present company excluded, was a hard and exacting man. Jackson carried the scars of the American Revolution and fought entrenched interests in Washington with the same abiding hatred he carried for the British whom he defeated at the Battle of New Orleans. But his deep affection for those who, like him, were rejected by the eastern elite made Jackson the first and most successful tribune of the people. Jefferson imagined a day when the common people would choose a leader of their own, and Jackson was surely that. But unlike some who would follow him, Jackson nurtured his fire out of a desire to see the Founders’ vision restored or preserved. Jackson was an innovator. He used new media—the lithograph was the Snapchat story of its day—and perhaps the first political team in the modern sense to sell his vision. By tapping into the unease and dissatisfaction of the members of the same wave of immigrants that carried his parents to the country, Jackson delivered a mostly peaceful revolution. We remember better today the savagery he visited upon other races than how he treated his own, but while Democrats may have taken his name off of the Jefferson-Jackson Day Dinner, they won’t ever erase the way he made their party.
William Jennings Bryan (congressman from Nebraska)
b. 1860 (Salem, Illinois)
d. 1925 (Dayton, Tennessee)
Anybody can run for president three times, but what kind of party would nominate the same guy thrice? It’s easy to say that today, but harder when you think of the stunning power of Bryan’s oratory and his, dare I say, sex appeal. No, really! The Nebraska populist was a gripping, electrifying orator in an age when well-attended speeches and rallies made all the difference. “Crucify me on a cross of gold” was a hot number in 1896. Remember also that Democrats managed to elect only two presidents over the course of the seventy-one years between the start of the Civil War and the beginning of the Great Depression. The party couldn’t find a way to fuse newly reenfranchised Confederates and northeastern immigrants. But Bryan, perhaps better remembered as the special prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial after his political career was done, fused Christian moralism with economic liberalism to make a new, thunderous coalition. The Panic of 1893, the resulting depression, and a deepening chasm between the rich and poor had left a growing number of Americans doubtful of the promises of capitalism. Sound familiar? Before there was Bernie, there was Bryan.
Theodore Roosevelt (twenty-sixth president)
b. 1858 (New York, New York)
d. 1919 (Oyster Bay, New York)
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that “a man’s admiration for absolute government is proportionate to the contempt he feels for those around him.” And boy howdy did the Rough Rider live up to that one. A child of great privilege from a wealthy New York family, TR looked like an unlikely populist. A guy who is said to have ridden horseback in morning clothes up the front steps at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church with his old Army buddies for his son’s wedding doesn’t exactly scream “man of the people.” Roosevelt’s unerring belief that he was right and almost everyone else was not just wrong, but probably stupid, propelled him headlong into the White House. For Roosevelt, populism was a means to an end: his modern, scientific, and progressive approach to government. How convinced was Roosevelt of his rightness? When his Republican successor backed away from TR’s agenda, Roosevelt rode back in, tore the party asunder, and launched a third party in what may be the most damaging fit of pique in American history. And if you are ever tempted to believe that violence is a new addition to our political scene, remember that officials were so worried about violence from Roosevelt’s fanatical delegates in 1912 that they hid barbed wire in the bunting at the GOP’s convention in Chicago in case they rushed the platform when President William Taft was speaking.
Huey Long (governor, senator from Louisiana)
b. 1893 (Winnfield, Louisiana)
- On Sale
- Sep 11, 2018
- Page Count
- 224 pages