A Jacksonian Republican Party

Democrats in the United States frequently lay claim to the heritage of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. They present the two as tribunes of the revolutionary people, and Jefferson-Jackson dinners are often occasions at which aspiring candidates can strut their demotic stuff, as it were.

Both Presidents were opposed to coalitions made up of those they saw as 'elitists' and federal empire-builders, in the Federalist or Whig Parties. J-J (to employ a short and composite form, a bit like the creators of San Trovaso in Venice) were nationalists, tough on foreign crime, sure of their often violent support, and ferocious in the support of presidents who protected the republic. They upheld gun rights and, those of the traditional holders of property, emphasised the rights of States, and an armed citzenry, and in general thought all opposed to them belonged to some conspiracy, probably associated with Europe, to take away their Scots-Irish and democratic rights.

It should be obvious to all and sundry by now that the modern Jacksonians are in fact the Republican Party. A wave of quite serious anger, rooted in economic dislocation and an unfolding credit crisis, has been co-opted by Republican mobs. Some of these have taken to decrying 'town hall meetings', in which representatives attempt to meet and lie to citizens, and others have joined the 'birther' or incipient secession movements on the right. Some desire a vast, populist democratisation, either through referendum or constitutional reform, to re-create the American republic; and almost all will now believe anything told to them by the Republican party and by lobby groups about the proposed, and as yet unfinalised, healthcare reforms currently on the table in Congress.

We've had eight years, under George Bush, of a fairly Jacksonian presidency, defined against lawyers, socialists, foreigners, and the righteous terror of a violent foreign zealotry. It was striking to me how much the imagery of these years--the average Maureen Dowd column, say--paralelled Jacksonian stories. At the Battle of New Orleans, for instance, most serious historians would suggest that traditional infantry and artillery won the day, but most people at the time remembered armed citizens, organised loosely, as critical, and the latter were celebrated as such.

When Jackson executed British agents, or authorised the vast theft of land from indians that resulted in a massive 'bubble and crash' during and after his time in office (albeit to protect them from total annihilation), or decried one regulated bank, he was supported by crowds who believed him to be ushering in a new American era.

Elites may well have tut-tutted about the populism, and saw in it the fall of the republic; but King Andrew knew he was right.

Well, so today with Republicans. My problem with them is twofold. Firstly, a more cynical coalition, dependent on wedge-issues, division and populism, would be difficult to find. I am no fan of the American Democrat party, and understand (but in this post am ignoring) the view of them as a mixture of new Whigs and Social Democrats, with a great deal of corruption and incompetence thrown in. Yet they are not the ones dwelling on anger, oversimplifying crisis, spreading fear, and hyperventilating at every act of their opponents, are they?

And what did Republicans actually do to stop abortion, or war, or lower taxes, or cut the debt, or keep the republic and its traditions safe in the last twenty years? Was it the deals with Iran, the vast deficit and debt, the creation of a permanently wealthy elite, the great immigration to lower wages, the neglect of pensions, or the corporate socialism? Or the wars of choice provoked by not listening to terrorism experts or the 'electronic chatter' of 2000-1? Or the Clinton impeachment?

Of course, it may be that I'm just some European Catholic, who lives in a broadly, and rapidly, decaying collectivist environment and who just doesn't appreciate the very real fears of those whom Sarah Palin called 'real Americans'.

The thing is, I've studied America for nearly two decades; I've lived there; I have many friends there. The long history of the republic is dotted with big pots marked 'stupidity' and 'badness' which a great many have made a career out of stirring and pouring over its nobler self, and I don't see why I shouldn't point that out now.

The second problem which I have with Jacksonians is that the original was arguably a disaster for the internal development of the United States, for slaves, for natives, and for anyone in cities who wished to escape political manipulation. A few did, by forming their own communities around charismatic Bishops, or by heading west, but generally, Jackson led to the crash of 1837, the attitudes that produced the Mexican war ten years after he left office, the filibusters, and ultimately to the crisis of the civil war.

J-J, and particularly Jackson, set back the development of American infrastructure. They both fed a violent populism, though Jefferson (whom I admire for other reasons) at least had the sense to be frightened of what he had done. The fact that that populism probably orginated in the psychological derangement of immigrants and insecurity of place, in expansion, and in the boom-and-bust economy of the United States doesn't explain it away.

Andrew Jackson led the United States to a temporarily inflated state and the exhaustion of political goodwill, and then left it to the deluge. It took the creation of a new party to rescue the country, but at the cost of a civil war.

I find myself looking at the modern Jacksonians--the Republicans--and wondering how long it will be until their campaigns lead exactly where they lead in the 1990s; to derangement, loss, and the waste of time, just when American needs it least.

I also wonder how long Democrats can get away with being almost exactly wrong on a multiplying number of issues. Does America have the resources, cultuurally and politically, to renew itself, avoid economic disaster, and build or regnerate a New party?

Let's see what October, after the September bond crisis that may well be coming, brings. Don't hold your breath; the ultimate outcome of the next few months may well be a Palin presidency.....

Comments

Martin

"Yet they are not the ones dwelling on anger, oversimplifying crisis, spreading fear, and hyperventilating at every act of their opponents, are they?"

So the Democrats aren't sending SEIU thugs in to break up town halls, aren't demagoguing on swastikas at meetings, aren't dismissing the American people as astro-turfers, didn't use Bushitler to describe Bush, didn't organise rallies in which people could throw shoes at a Bush mannequin, didn't make a film in which Bush was assasinated whilst he was still in office.....

I could go on. Let's not fall into the trap that liberals are great whilst conservatives stink. Both sides have much to be ashamed of here. The difference is, that one side is currently representing the people whilst the other side is sneering at the people. This is still a democracy and ultimately, it is the people who are most important whether the technocrats like it or not.
Martin Meenagh said…
Hi CC

I don't doubt that some of the Democrats would do that--and you can't say that the post said Democrats are great. I deliberately made that point.

The truth is that the sort of thing the Republican Party in particular is now engaged in is going to encourage crazies, and lead to riots. It is, in the proper sense, Jacksonian, since it purports to represent the people in true Sam Adams style.

And as you know, I think that the people there as well as here are angry as sin at the minute.

But deliberately avoiding common ground; giving in to anger, which is a destructive, vicious passion; and identifying sides when, as you point out, everyone is culpable of something is going to get the republic nowhere.

The United States is a republic for a good reason. Democracy is about shouting and majorities and, for many, pig-ignorant behaviour; a republic is about the rule of law, debate, and proper representation. The crisis in America is that the worst ambitions, passions and behaviours of elites and of mobs seem to be taking over everything.

I agree with you that both Democrats and Republicans have a great deal to be ashamed of. I just wish people would rediscover some courtesy and self-control. I know what anger does. It is almost never good.
Martin Meenagh said…
My comment, of course, does beg the question--what happens when Congress and Parties are so alienated from the people that the rule of law is the rule of lobbies?
PJMULVEY said…
Martin: Very good and thought out post. I couldn't do justice to the many points you make in a short comment space. The rise of Jackson parallel's the conflict between centralized government and Scots/Irish populations in the British Isles in previous centuries. However, the major difference between today's conservatives (not a very homogeneous group) and the Democratic left, is that (in theory!) the conservatives have as an ideal - a somewhat romanticized view of a past American republic of virtuous citizens and government - while the Democrats have an idealized view - a corporate-socialist system with large centralized government. One note, however, many people confuse the neo-conservatism of the past 30 years as representing USA conservatism. This movement of ex-Trotsky and lib democrats is recognized as a heresy within 'real' conservatism of small government, isolationism, sound money and individual liberty. Unfortunately, Palin has become captive of the ideology of the neo-conservatives in foreign policy while at the same time representing the values of small town America. While admirable as a person in many respects, she is better suited as a talk show host rather than President. However, despite her weaknesses, she would be a preferable candidate over a second term Obama.

Keep up the great posting
Martin

I was taken with your comment about "the crisis in America" so I nashamedly pinched it for a post. Hope you don't mind.

"My comment, of course, does beg the question--what happens when Congress and Parties are so alienated from the people that the rule of law is the rule of lobbies?"

And yet when there is a movement to bring politis back to the people, you criticise it. They are a voice that need to be encouraged and helped to a level of reasonable discourse, not dismissed. And they are led by a voice who scorns lobbies and has a track record of fighting the pervasive forces of corrupt Republicanism and oil in her state. She has her faults, but she is one of the few politicians who actually does what she says about cutting costs and fighting corruption.

The technocrat in you is bubbling under the surface isn't it. Go on admit it :-)
Martin Meenagh said…
PJ--many thanks for the comment. I've wondered before about the utility of the term neoconservative; it seemed to me to be a congeries of corporate socialist, warmonger, mad Straussian idealist, and, well, fascist--which would suit ex-trots down to the ground, really.

I was very taken with Palin last year. I'm not now.

CC--many thanks for the comment. You may be onto something about me, though whether it's because I spent a good deal of my childhood above the rough pubs we got sent to run in the midlands, or just a natural and embarassing snobbery, I don't know.

I don't like mobs, but I realise that from some points of view the history of liberty is bound up with them. Have you read Dan Jones' book, Summer of Blood about the Peasant's revolt in 1381? You can have a taste of it at www.summerofblood.com, and may enjoy it.

Sometimes, crowds have a sort of wisdom. Sometimes they are a mob given over to unreason because those who purport to authority behave stupidly, selfishly or destructively. Often, they can be just as bad. Why is it that you can see the French revolution for the horrible mess it was, but not this modern Jacksonianism?
Martin Meenagh said…
By the way, CC--pinch away. If I had photoshop, I'd stick a picture of Ron Paul dressed as a Cardinal above it....
Martin Meenagh said…
oops, I meant to write 'peasants' revolt', by the way. Mea maxima culpa.
Martin

"Why is it that you can see the French revolution for the horrible mess it was, but not this modern Jacksonianism?"

Well the lack of guillotines for one :-)

To be less flippant, this 'mob' aren't trying to change the type of government, they're just trying to hold it to account. They could be politer about it and actually wait for answer from time to time, that would be nice, but they ARE operating within the democratic system.

BTW - I never think of you as a snob, but I suppose as a lawyer you are a little closer to the technocrats than a mere unwashed cabbie like myself. I won't hold that against you and come the revolution, I'll try and make sure you don't go to the wall :-)
Martin Meenagh said…
haha. I might hold you to that CC, there's a queue of people already lining up to get me!

By the way, my dad, amongst other things, drove a cab in Corby once. It was a rough town--some of the cabbies had, well, weapons, in the front seat, just in case. Corby had the higherst black cab per head count after London, but unlike London there were people around (including a cousin of mine) who had a tendency to stop them on some estates by lying on the road.

I'm a barrister, by the way, though I don't practise. 'Lawyer' sounds too much like I spend my time adding to the sum of human unhappiness.

Seriously--how long do you think it will be in the present climate before people end up in hospital or worse? I worry about that. The necessary corollary of anger is violence. You and I love the states--well, remember, the thing that made the Virginians swing behind New England wasn't Sam Adams, it was John, defending those redcoats because of the law. Otherwise, Virginia would have gone with London against the backwater--and I apologise to any Southern readers for saying it.
"well, remember, the thing that made the Virginians swing behind New England wasn't Sam Adams, it was John, defending those redcoats because of the law."

That's a great point. John Adams gave the mob repectability and a more finely tuned focus on their anger. But without the Sam Adams inspired mob, there wouldn't have been revolution either.

That's my point. that the strength of anger out there needs a leader to fine tune and organise it, and give it some respectability.

You should write about John and sam Adams, very relevant at the moment. And if you want to cross-post it, feel entirely free :-)

Now if only there was a Republican leader out there who would say something like this:

"There are many disturbing details in the current bill that Washington is trying to rush through Congress, but we must stick to a discussion of the issues and not get sidetracked by tactics that can be accused of leading to intimidation or harassment. Such tactics diminish our nation’s civil discourse which we need now more than ever because the fine print in this outrageous health care proposal must be understood clearly and not get lost in conscientious voters’ passion to want to make elected officials hear what we are saying. Let’s not give the proponents of nationalized health care any reason to criticize us."

But wait, there is! Go on have a guess. Fanning the flames or directing the heat?
Martin Meenagh said…
OK, I'll read her speech properly...:)