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Today's Jacksonians

Today's Jacksonians

By Salena Zito - September 26, 2010

The landscape along the old Lincoln Highway to this "pottery capital" maintains mountain vistas as the Ohio River curls through Columbiana County's hills and hollows.

A museum is dedicated to the area's once-robust ceramic plants. The 300 factories of old are down to one that produces popular, colorful Fiestaware.

"We are pretty much devastated," says Mayor James Swoger of his town's economy and general condition.

He describes East Liverpool as a Democrat stronghold: "I am a Democrat but largely because I was born a Democrat. It was passed down by my father."

The two-term mayor doesn't like what Democrats have done with their majority in Washington. "Plain and simple, we are left out."

All you need to know about Swoger's character is that he and his wife Amy pulled money out of their own pockets to keep budget constraints from closing the town swimming pool. Now, he's the lifeguard and she runs the concession stand.

"It was the right thing to do," he says matter-of-factly.

Swoger is unhappy with Democrats as a whole and has no problem voting against his party, at least for governor, in November. "I don't believe I can vote for him," he says without hesitation when asked about Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland, a friend of his.

Swoger is a key link in Democrats' potential chain-reaction collapse -- party dissatisfaction with present administrations, locally and nationally, refuting the narrative that it's just the conservative tea party movement that is unhappy.

Swoger and numerous disgruntled Democrats here are picture-perfect examples of the 21st-century Jacksonian Democrat. Skeptical of Eastern elites and big government, they embrace a populism and distrust of the powerful that are parts of our national DNA.

Named for the "scrabble" who ushered Andrew Jackson into the White House, Jacksonians originally were farmers and small-town merchants in the Appalachians and points west who did not trust Eastern Seaboard merchants, bankers and industrialists or their backers in state capitals and Washington.

"From our beginning until Jackson ran for president in 1824, the founding generation of rich planters and business folks from the coast ran the government," explains Robert Maranto, a University of Arkansas political scientist.

He points to a sense that those elites too often favored friends and family through such means as a national bank or government patronage. "And that they thought they were better than everyone else."

Sound familiar?

"The Jacksonian Democrats of today are represented in the more highly frustrated elements of the electorate," says Jeff Brauer, a Keystone College history professor.

In the past, Jacksonian Democrats could be found among Reagan Democrats and Ross Perot independents. Today, Jacksonian elements are found in the dissatisfaction of blue-collar Democrats and the disenchantment of independents; both believed they voted for change in 2008.

"While it is not a perfect correlation, it is in the tea party movement where the strongest connections to Jacksonian democracy are seen," Brauer says.

Nothing could be more Jacksonian than the tea party movement's charge against political and economic elites, Washington and Wall Street insiders.

Along Washington Road in downtown East Liverpool, a handful of antique shops sit in the shadow of the majestic Potters Savings & Loan, now a PNC branch. People wandering in and out of stores are eager to share their thoughts about how Washington has treated them but reluctant to share their names.

Their bottom line: They are far from satisfied with their own political party.

"The Washington Democratic narrative is that the populists are a bunch of hate-filled, ignorant yahoos clinging to their God and guns in tough times," says Maranto. "That is not accurate, nor is it helpful."

All along Rust Belt "blue highways," from Pennsylvania to Ohio, West Virginia, Indiana, Illinois and Missouri, many Democrats say they are looking for a better approach to smarter, more responsible, accountable government than they have seen from the Obama administration.

The Jim Swogers, who work hard and play by the rules, may not be tea party members, but their votes will have just as potent an effect -- perhaps more so -- on Democrats in November.

Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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