Ask anyone reasonably well versed in American history to name our most populist-minded president, and you'll likely hear the name of Andrew Jackson. He was the son of Scots-Irish immigrants, raised on the frontier, and he ran the first democratic (and Democratic) campaign…. But Jackson was not a "spread the wealth" populist. On the contrary, he opposed the American System of John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay to have the government build roads and canals and other public works. He killed the central bank and paid off the national debt.
Jackson argued that government interference in the economy would inevitably favor the well-entrenched and well-connected. It would take money away from the little people and give it to the elites.
That view seems to be shared today in what I have called the Jacksonian belt, the broad swath of America settled by the Scots-Irish from the Appalachian chains in Virginia southwest to Texas. The Obama administration argues that Democratic big government and health-care programs will help the little guys. Jacksonians today, as in the 1830s, don't agree.
Why has the politics of economic redistribution had such limited success in America? One reason is that Americans, unlike Western Europeans, tend to believe that there is a connection between effort and reward and that people can work their way up economically. If people do something to earn their benefits, like paying Social Security taxes, that's fine. But giving money to those who have not in some way earned it is a no-no. Moreover, like Andrew Jackson, most Americans suspect that some of the income that is redistributed will end up in the hands not of the worthy but of the well-connected.
Now the president and his advisers seem to be assuming that populist attacks on the rich will rally the downtrodden masses to their side. History does not provide much hope for this audacity. William Jennings Bryan, whose oratorical skills outshined even Mr. Obama's, got lower percentages of the vote each time he ran.