The Role of the Market Revolution in the Elections of Jackson and Trump

In antebellum America, the U.S. underwent what historians call “the market revolution.” This is a movement analogous to the “Great Transformation” Karl Polanyi sketched in England and Europe. (Interestingly, Polanyi himself excepts the American experience from the process he outlines given the availability of land for the taking in the U.S. relative to Europe.) The penetration of the market and market forces into the everyday lives of everyday people separates the period of the market revolution and afterward from the time before it. The rise of wage labor and production for markets, rather than production largely for one’s self and one’s family, created different rhythms and risks in life relative to agrarian life prior to the rise of that system.

Consider the two worlds.

First, take an agrarian yeoman who owns a small freehold in, say Maryland, circa 1800. He and his wife (and children) produce almost entirely by, and for, themselves. “The market” exists only on the outward most periphery of their day-to-day lives. “The market” exists at a distinct place and at a distinct time. They go into town on market day every now and then, when they have excess produce of one thing, and they desire to trade it for something difficult or impossible for them to produce themselves. If they do not have any surplus to trade, then they simply make do with what they have. Planting time, harvest time, and vagaries like weather and injuries can dramatically affect their day-to-day lives, even life itself. But worries about recessions, inflation (and deflation, the greater fear of the 19th Century), unemployment, and bank runs (remember, we assumed this yeoman owns his freehold) don’t impinge upon them directly.

After the market revolution, well, any reader of this column will pretty much know of day-to-day life after the market revolution. While technology has changed our lives relative to the life of a worker in, say, 1880, nonetheless, we share with every worker subsequent to the market revolution that few of us produce much of anything for wages that we use immediately for ourselves. That is the result of, and the power of, the division of labor. Most of us work in highly specialized vocations for which we receive money that we then trade for other goods at the many markets available to us 24 hours a day, every day. These markets exist both physically and virtually. Unless we’re in agriculture, planting and harvest time affect us hardly at all (and then only whether certain heirloom tomatoes are available). What we eat barely changes with drought or rain, and whether we break a leg doesn’t even affect what many of us produce. But recessions, inflation, unemployment, mortgages and more can really affect us, sometimes dramatically.

We don’t need to romanticize agrarian life of yesteryear, or minimize the risk and burdens of that life (which Polyani and some historians do) to recognize people of course respond differently to the vagaries of market society relative to the vagaries of agrarian life. To wit, the risks in agrarian life come largely from without the human world, whether from nature or from providence. Politics does not address causes of those risks because it cannot control those causes. (Consequences might be another matter.)

Risks in market society, however, manifestly derive from human choices and actions, even if people do not understand how those choices and actions create those risks. People who feel threatened will usually invite the government to intervene when the causes of those threats come from the choices and actions of other people.

Widespread beliefs that elites created a system that benefits them at the expense of the common person preceded both the elections of Andrew Jackson and Donald Trump. In both cases development of a market society precipitated those beliefs. (We can discuss whether the respective beliefs are warranted, but that’s distinct from the fact of the beliefs themselves.)

In the case of Jackson, a national market had been birthed in the decades prior to his election. This created prosperity in some places, and pain and dislocations in others. In important markets, workers in one state were now in competition with workers they had never seen, and would never see, in other states. Capital was more mobile than ever, and deployed more anonymously than in the past. Buyers saw the relative prices for competing goods, but of course did not interact directly with the worker who produced those goods.

Workers felt downward pressure on their wages from the competition of the other workers they did not know and would never see. They felt the burden was not shared equally among Americans. As historian John Lauritz Larson writes, people were encouraged by Jacksonian rhetoric to blame the Second Bank of the United States and “market forces” as “tools used by bankers and moneyed ‘aristocrats’ to defraud hardworking people.”

In the case of Trump, a truly international market had been birthed, or at least significantly deepened, in the decades prior to his election. To be sure, there existed a well-developed market system throughout the U.S. and Europe for over a century. And, to be sure, economic pangs developed with the inclusion of Japan in this system as it recovered from World War II. But the (relatively) uniform affluence of these countries prevented too much dislocation.

In the 1980s and 1990s, however, “globalization,” the extension of the market system almost throughout the entire world, represented a significant expansion in the market system. Capital and goods could cross national borders more easily than ever before. Many capital owners never would see the workers their capital employed. And in many markets, workers in one nation now competed with workers they had never seen, and would see, in other nations. U.S. workers felt the competitive pressure on their wages, and sometimes at the cost of the own jobs. Yet they could see most American elites doing better than ever. To many, the game felt rigged. Many demanded a political response, even if they did not quite know the cause of what they were experiencing.

This is no more than the sketch of an hypothesis. Yet in the case of both Jackson and Trump, it seems a plausible case can be made (or, better, that a plausible hypothesis can be posited) that a significant expansion of the market system precipitated populist political sentiments that sent Jackson, and Trump to the White House. In Jackson’s case, the expansion of the market system to the U.S. nation as a whole precipitated the movement that sent him to the White House. In Trump’s case, the expansion of the market system beyond the U.S. and other developed nations precipitated the movement that sent him to the White House.