One hundred and ninety-five years ago, the Democratic-Republican Party tapped a hot-tempered Tennessean nicknamed “Old Hickory” to headline its presidential ticket. Andrew Jackson, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans — an entirely self-made man who grew up impoverished and orphaned in the Waxhaws region of South Carolina — received more than 45,000 popular votes and 15 more electoral votes than his nearest competitor, National Republican John Quincy Adams, but fell short of the electoral vote majority necessary to secure the Oval Office. In accordance with the Twelfth Amendment, the election was therefore to be decided by the House of Representatives. Through congressional maneuvering — nefarious or adroit, depending on perspective — Adams, the son of Founding Father John Adams, won the House vote in February 1825.
Supporters felt that Jackson, who had received a clear plurality, had been snubbed by Adams and his congressional allies. Four years later, the 1828 election featured a second showdown between Jackson and the incumbent Adams, offering an opportunity to rectify the outcome of 1824. Much of Jackson’s base, rooted in the rural South and western frontier, disdained Adams as a pampered New England aristocrat. In Jackson, a man of the humblest origins, they had found a champion and protector of the common man against the blue-blooded Washington establishment. The populist’s resounding victory, therefore, was the first electoral triumph of the everyday American against the elite class to which the first six occupants of the White House belonged.
The electoral outcome, Jackson beamed, was a “triumph of the great principle of self-government over the intrigues of aristocracy.” The forgotten man, engaged in a perpetual struggle for recognition in a world dominated by elite interests, now had a champion at the highest seat in American government.
Like an ocean tide that advances and recedes, the resurgence of a populist animus against “the elites” to the forefront of American politics is inevitable. The 2016 election witnessed a rebirth of this perennial struggle. With the clinching of Wisconsin’s 10 electoral votes, Donald Trump became president-elect at 2:30 a.m. November 9, 2016. An hour later, the brash New Yorker took to Twitter and acknowledged the populist wave that carried him to victory. “The forgotten man and woman,” Trump promised, “will never be forgotten again.”
The national populism that came to define Trump’s brand resonated with Americans who, like Jackson’s supporters, felt disaffected and disconnected with the world around them. Hillary Clinton, cast by her opponent as a self-serving elitist, was an iteration of John Quincy Adams; Trump, an energetic disrupter, promised due consideration of the common man. In what was evidently perceived as a bold stand against the establishment machine, Trump framed himself as the brusque Jacksonian champion of blue-jeans America.
Feelings of alienation — legitimacy aside — is what makes populist rhetoric so attractive. The fact that right-wing dimensions of populism have surged in the United States in recent years is no accident, because it was conservative populations who felt alienated in the lead up to the 2016 election.
Take immigration, a spotlight issue in the last election cycle. Trump’s antipathies toward illegal immigrants were a rhetorical centerpiece of his presidential campaign; he has even since characterized illegal immigration as an “invasion” that has “violently overrun” America’s southern border. In promising a border wall, Trump seemed to reassure Americans that under his administration, unwelcome outsiders would not overtake Americans in their own country.
The populist, anti-establishment character of Trump’s campaign rhetoric is evident in these statements too. “The fundamental problem with the immigration system in our country,” Trump said at an August 2016 campaign rally in Arizona, “is that it serves the needs of wealthy donors, political activists and powerful politicians. Let me tell you who it doesn’t serve: it doesn’t serve you, the American people.”
Conservatives, however, by no means have a corner on populism. A political narrative that juxtaposes the “common man” with the “elite,” the cornerstone of all populist ideologies, has found refuge in left-leaning rhetoric, too. While conservative populism has devoted much of its energy to immigration, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. — the left’s most prominent populist — has railed against big business, corporate interests and the top one percent.
The progressive emphasis on tackling inequality has found increasing support: 29 percent of Democrats were self-described “progressives” in 2016, a figure that rocketed to 44 percent by last year’s midterms. While none of the presidential candidates are as left-wing as Sanders, several of the presidential hopefuls have championed populist policies, such as sweeping health care reform and antitrust measures.
What has become clear from all this is that populism is in fashion because the theme of the common man against the elites is resonating with Americans of all political stripes. Four years ago, a New York developer observed this reality, built a campaign around it and took the White House through a populist wave.
Three of the most important states in the 2020 election are Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, which together command a potentially decisive 44 electoral votes. With their Midwestern, old-school idealism, voters in these states could very well buy into a liberal brand of populism. While most Democratic candidates fare well in head-to-head polling against Trump, they would still do well to consider why Trump was able to turn these states red in 2016 — a question whose answer is rooted, of course, in populism’s popularity.
Max Steinbaum can be reached at email@example.com.