EAST LIVERPOOL, Ohio – Travel west along the old Lincoln Highway to this one-time “pottery capitol,” and the landscape maintains Allegheny mountain vistas as the Ohio River curls through the hills and hollows of Columbiana County.
In the place of a once-robust pottery industry, a museum is dedicated to the area’s ceramic plants. The 300 factories of old are now down to one that produces popular, colorful Fiestaware.
“We are pretty much devastated,” says Mayor James Swoger of his town’s economy and the state in general.
He describes East Liverpool as a stronghold of Democrats, including himself: “I am a Democrat but largely because I was born a Democrat. It was passed down by my father.”
So far, the two-term mayor doesn’t like what Democrats have done with their majority in Washington. “Plain and simple, we are left out,” he says.
All you need to know about Swoger’s character is how he handled the proposed closing of the town swimming pool because of budget constraints. He and his wife, Amy, pulled the money out of their own pockets to keep it open; 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 incumbent Ohio governor and friend Ted Strickland.
Swoger is a key link in Democrats’ potential chain-reaction collapse – party dissatisfaction with its present administrations, locally and nationally, refuting the narrative that it’s just the conservative Tea Party movement that is unhappy.
Swoger, along with numerous disgruntled Democrats here, are a picture-perfect example of the 21st century Jacksonian Democrat. Born of skepticism with Eastern elites and big government, they embrace a populism and a distrust of the powerful that are part of our national DNA.
Named for the “scrabble” that 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 capitols and in 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.”
“The Jacksonian Democrats of today are represented in the more highly frustrated elements of the electorate,” says Keystone College history professor Jeff Brauer.
In the past, Jacksonian Democrats could be found among Reagan Democrats and Ross Perot independents. Today, elements of Jacksonian democracy are found in the dissatisfaction of blue-collar Democrats and in the disenchantment of independents, both of whom 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.
What bonds the Tea Party movement with Jacksonian Democrats is the charge against political and economic elites, Washington and Wall Street insiders; nothing could be more Jacksonian than that.
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 bank branch. People wandering in and out of stores are eager to share their thoughts about how Washington has treated them but are 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 the “blue highways” of the Rust Belt 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 of America, who work hard and play by the rules, may not be Tea Partiers, but their votes will be just as potent – perhaps more so – for Democrats in November.