24 October 2013

Who are today's Jacksonian democrats?

Ever since the Tea Party emerged as a political phenomenon a few years ago, pundits have tried to fit it into one historical tradition or another. In an attempt to explain a supposedly increasing divide separating Tea Partiers and the Republican party's usual corporate patrons, William Galston recently revived the notion that the TPs are the latest expression of "Jacksonian democracy." Named for Andrew Jackson, one of the founders of the Democratic party as we know it, Jacksonian democracy is characterized above all by an antipathy toward elites, as expressed by Jackson's crusade against the Bank of the United States. Being against elites is one thing, but what your opposition really means depends on what the elites stand for, either in their own mind or in the imagination of their enemies. What Jacksonian democracy means to each generation depends on whom each generation perceives as an elite and what those elites are thought to stand for. For a long time, the best-selling interpretation of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. prevailed. Writing in the 1940s, he saw Jackson and his movement as precursors of the New Deal, defined by their defense of the working class against elites represented by the Bank and the Whig party. But as the Democratic coalition had to take more viewpoints into account, Andrew Jackson became a more politically incorrect figure (slaveholder, Indian killer, duelist, etc.) and his status as an icon for modern Democrats became less tenable. At the same time, a reactionary cultural populism emerged that identified an academic-bureaucratic intelligentsia as the nation's oppressive elite. Is this populism Jacksonian, or is Jacksonianism simply one form of populism? What really distinguishes Jacksonianism to make it a useful alternative to "populist" or "reactionary" for defining movements like the Tea Party? Andrew Jackson's legacy is contradictory.  He was a small-government man opposed to federal spending on many "internal improvements," but he also defended the tariff against the criticism that it benefited one part of the nation only, at the expense of others. When people rush to identify the Tea Party with Jackson, they're probably forgetting his role in the Nullification crisis of 1832-3. His own Vice President (a lame duck following that year's election) had turned against him to support South Carolina's assertion of a right to nullify the federal tariff. While the crisis ultimately was resolved through a compromise, Jackson made it clear that he believed himself to have the power to force the state to bow to the tariff. He declared himself willing to send the military into South Carolina to enforce the import tax, and to hang John C. Calhoun, the renegade veep, as a traitor for preaching nullification. That's the sort of attitude that got him labeled "King Andrew" by his critics. Notions of limited government weren't inconsistent with his firm belief in federal supremacy. Like Lincoln, he believed that the Union was greater than the states. Considering what he thought of nullifiers, one can easily imagine what Jackson would have done with secessionists, even if he didn't share Lincoln's antipathy toward slavery or his opposition to its spread westward. I can't say whether today's Tea Partiers share that reverence for Union, or whether they equate it with "big government." They certainly seem to reject the idea, shared by Jackson and Lincoln, that the Union has a life of its own and is an end unto itself and doesn't merely exist at the sufferance and for the convenience of the states. On a personality level I can see why people want to identify the TPs with Andrew Jackson, since he was known to be quick to anger and driven by personal hatred. Beyond that, however, I wonder what he would think of legislators, whatever their actual rights are, refusing to fund "settled law," whether he personally agreed with the law or not. Transported to the present, Jackson almost certainly would not take President Obama's side in many things, for reasons good or more likely bad, but that doesn't mean he would take the Tea Party's side. Like many of our political ancestors, he would probably survey today's politics and despair -- or take up arms.

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