Jacksonians and 2012

In Foreign Affairs, Walter Russell Mead penned an essay that is a must read for anyone involved in 2012 and who seeks to understand Jacksonian America, which I believe has always represented the heart and soul of this country and was the backbone of the Reagan coalition. Others writers have gotten Jacksonians Americans right too. Salena Zito writes wonderfully perceptive pieces on Jacksonians, such as this piece here. And Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s book Born Fighting is well worth a read.

In this piece, though, Mead touches on a variety of things that are relevant for this election cycle and decade. He distills the promise and perils associated with the Tea Party movement and how that populist force will not go away, contrary to what other less-informed elites such as Harry Reid may think. He notes the difference between Palin-ites and Paul-ites and discusses how today’s Jacksonians are different from Jacksonians of the past, which, though he does not discuss this, may correlate with a South that is changing. Mead also rightfully nails the point that Jacksonians are nationalist above all else. And his observations about the relationship between Jacksonians and elitist institutions is well worth a read. The full article can be read here. I have highlighted the paragraphs that I found to be relevant for the 2012 cycle below:

On Antiestablishment Populism:

Antiestablishment populism has been responsible for some of the brightest, as well as some of the darkest, moments in U.S. history. The populists who rallied to Jackson established universal white male suffrage in the United States — and saddled the country with a crash-prone financial system for 80 years by destroying the Second Bank of the United States. Later generations of populists would rein in monopolistic corporations and legislate basic protections for workers while opposing federal protection of minorities threatened with lynching. The demand of Jacksonian America for cheap or, better, free land in the nineteenth century led to the Homestead Act, which allowed millions of immigrants and urban workers to start family farms. It also led to the systematic and sometimes genocidal removal of Native Americans from their traditional hunting grounds and a massively subsidized “farm bubble” that helped bring about the Great Depression. Populist hunger for land in the twentieth century paved the way for an era of federally subsidized home mortgages and the devastating burst of the housing bubble.

On the Jacksonians and The Scottish Enlightenment:

Intellectually, Jacksonian ideas are rooted in the commonsense tradition of the Scottish Enlightenment. This philosophy — that moral, scientific, political, and religious truths can be ascertained by the average person — is more than an intellectual conviction in the United States; it is a cultural force. Jacksonians regard supposed experts with suspicion, believing that the credentialed and the connected are trying to advance their own class agenda. These political, economic, scientific, or cultural elites often want to assert truths that run counter to the commonsense reasoning of Jacksonian America. That federal deficits produce economic growth and that free trade with low-wage countries raises Americans’ living standards are the kind of propositions that clash with the common sense of many Americans. In the not too distant past, so did the assertion that people of different races deserved equal treatment before the law.

Jacksonians and Nationalism:

In foreign policy, Jacksonians embrace a set of strongly nationalist ideas. They combine a firm belief in American exceptionalism and an American world mission with deep skepticism about the United States’ ability to create a liberal world order. They draw a sharp contrast between the Lockean political order that prevails at home with what they see as a Hobbesian international system: in a competitive world, each sovereign state must place its own interests first. They intuitively accept a Westphalian view of international relations: what states do domestically may earn one’s contempt, but a country should only react when states violate their international obligations or attack it. When the United States is attacked, they believe in total war leading to the unconditional surrender of the enemy. They are prepared to support wholesale violence against enemy civilians in the interest of victory; they do not like limited wars for limited goals. Although they value allies and believe that the United States must honor its word, they do not believe in institutional constraints on the United States’ freedom to act, unilaterally if necessary, in self-defense. Historically, Jacksonians have never liked international economic agreements or systems that limit the U.S. government’s ability to pursue loose credit policies at home.

Obama Does Not Get Jacksonian America:

The Obama administration came into office believing that the Bush administration had been too Jacksonian and that its resulting policy choices were chaotic, incoherent, and self-defeating. Uncritically pro-Israel, unilateralist, indifferent to the requirements of international law, too quick to respond with force, contemptuous of international institutions and norms, blind to the importance of non-terrorism-related threats such as climate change, and addicted to polarizing, us-against-them rhetoric, the Bush administration was, the incoming Democrats believed, a textbook case of Jacksonianism run wild. Recognizing the enduring power of Jacksonians in U.S. politics but convinced that their ideas were wrong-headed and outdated, the Obama administration decided that it would make what it believed were the minimum necessary concessions to Jacksonian sentiments while committing itself to a set of policies intended to build a world order on a largely Wilsonian basis. Rather than embracing the “global war on terror” as an overarching strategic umbrella under which it could position a range of aid, trade, and institution-building initiatives, it has repositioned the terrorism threat as one among many threats the United States faces and has separated its world-order-building activities from its vigorous work to combat terrorism.

It is much too early to predict how this will turn out, but it is already clear that the Obama administration faces serious challenges in building support for its foreign policy in a polarized, and to some degree traumatized, domestic environment. The administration is trying to steer U.S. foreign policy away from Jacksonian approaches just as a confluence of foreign and domestic developments are creating a new Jacksonian moment in U.S. politics. The United States faces a continuing threat of terrorism involving domestic as well as foreign extremists, a threat from China that includes both international security challenges in Asia and a type of economic rivalry that Jacksonians associate with the economic woes of the middle class, and a looming federal debt crisis that endangers both the prosperity and the security of the country. The combination of these threats with the perceived cultural and social conflict between “arrogant” elites with counterintuitive ideas and “average” Americans relying on common sense creates the ideal conditions for a major Jacksonian storm in U.S. politics. The importance of the Jacksonian resurgence goes beyond the political problems of the Obama administration; the development of foreign policy strategies that can satisfy Jacksonian requirements at home while also working effectively in the international arena is likely to be the greatest single challenge facing U.S. administrations for some time to come.

Palinites versus Paulites:

Nevertheless, some trends seem clear. The first is that the contest in the Tea Party between what might be called its Palinite and its Paulite wings will likely end in a victory for the Palinites. Ron Paul represents an inward-looking, neo-isolationist approach to foreign policy that has more in common with classic Jeffersonian ideas than with assertive Jacksonian nationalism. Although both wings share, for example, a visceral hostility to anything that smacks of “world government,” Paul and his followers look for ways to avoid contact with the world, whereas such contemporary Jacksonians as Sarah Palin and the Fox News host Bill O’Reilly would rather win than withdraw. “We don’t need to be the world’s policeman,” says Paul. Palin might say something similar, but she would be quick to add that we also do not want to give the bad guys any room.

Similarly, the Palinite wing of the Tea Party wants a vigorous, proactive approach to the problem of terrorism in the Middle East, one that rests on a close alliance between the United States and Israel. The Paulite wing would rather distance the United States from Israel as part of a general reduction of the United States’ profile in a part of the world from which little good can be expected. The Paulites are likely to lose this contest because the commonsense reasoning of the American people now generally takes as axiomatic something that seemed much more controversial in the 1930s: that security at home cannot be protected without substantial engagement overseas. The rise of China and the sullen presence of the threat of terrorism reinforce this perception, and the more dangerous the world feels, the more Jacksonian America sees a need to prepare, to seek reliable allies, and to act. A period like that between 1989 and 2001, when Jacksonian America did not identify any serious threats from abroad, is unlikely to arise anytime soon; the great mass of Tea Party America does not seem headed toward a new isolationism.

On Anti-Elitism:

The new era in U.S. politics could see foreign policy elites struggling to receive a hearing for their ideas from a skeptical public. “The Council on Foreign Relations,” the pundit Beck said in January 2010, “was a progressive idea of, let’s take media and eggheads and figure out what the idea is, what the solution is, then teach it to the media, and they’ll let the masses know what should be done.” Tea Partiers intend to be vigilant to insure that elites with what the movement calls their “One World Government” ideas and bureaucratic agendas of class privilege do not dominate foreign policy debates. The United States may return to a time when prominent political leaders found it helpful to avoid too public an association with institutions and ideas perceived as distant from, and even hostile to, the interests and values of Jacksonian America.


Concern about China has been growing for some time in American opinion, and the Jacksonian surge makes it more likely that the simmering anger and resentment will come to a boil. Free trade is an issue that has historically divided populists in the United States (agrarians have tended to like it; manufacturing workers have not); even though Jacksonians like to buy cheap goods at Walmart, common sense largely leads them to believe that the first job of trade negotiators ought to be to preserve U.S. jobs rather than embrace visionary “win-win” global schemes.

The New Jacksonians:

Compared to the Jacksonians during the Truman administration, today’s are less racist, less antifeminist, less homophobic, and more open to an appreciation of other cultures and worldviews. Their starting point, that national security requires international engagement, is considerably more auspicious than the knee-jerk isolationism that Truman and Acheson faced. Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, there was no public support for the equivalent of the internment of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor, nor has there been anything like the anticommunist hysteria of the McCarthy era. Today’s southern Republican populists are far more sympathetic to core liberal capitalist concepts than were the populist supporters of William Jennings Bryan a century ago. Bobby Jindal is in every way a better governor of Louisiana than Huey Long was — and there is simply no comparison between Senator Jim DeMint, of South Carolina, and “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman.