TCS Daily


Revolt of the Jacksonians

By James Pinkerton - November 5, 2004 12:00 AM

In the 1828 presidential election, Andrew Jackson led a new coalition of Southerners and Westerners to victory. Old Hickory's populist movement was called the "revolt of the rustics." In 2004, George W. Bush led his own coalition of Southerners and Westerners to victory. Someday, it will be called the "revolt of the Jacksonians." The Jacksonian-Bushian spirit -- blunt, vivid, and bold -- was summed up in the new movie, "Team America: World Police": "America, Fuck Yeah!"

OK, maybe we should back up a little. After all, an understanding of "Jacksonianism" will be essential to understanding American politics for a long time to come.

In 1824, Jackson of Tennessee ran for the presidency against John Quincy Adams of Massachusetts. Jackson won the popular vote by more than 10 points, but failed to win a majority in the Electoral College; the man from the Volunteer State ultimately lost the White House in a vote of the US House of Representatives. Vowing revenge, Jackson and his followers, for the next four years, barnstormed the 22 states, seeking to expand the popular franchise by eliminating property requirements, so that all white men could vote. And in 1828, in the Adams-Jackson rematch, turnout more than tripled as the empowered "rustics" flocked to the polls. This time, Jackson won a huge victory, the first of his two terms at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

America's sixth president -- fiercely determined duelist, Indian fighter, victor over the British in the Battle of New Orleans -- eventually gave his name to the constituency he led, as well as its mindset. In an essay appearing in the Winter 1999-2000 issue of The National Interest, political scientist Walter Russell Mead coined the eponym "Jacksonian," referring to those Americans, mostly from the South and Mountain West, who are perpetually inclined to rural rusticity and sometimes to raucous rebellion against elites.

As Mead described them five years ago,

"Suspicious of untrammeled federal power (Waco), skeptical about the prospects for domestic and foreign do-gooding (welfare at home, foreign aid abroad), opposed to federal taxes but obstinately fond of federal programs seen as primarily helping the middle class (Social Security and Medicare, mortgage interest subsidies), Jacksonians constitute a large political interest."

But their general populism aside, a great preoccupation of the Jacksonians, Mead explained, has been war. In their honor-bound, disrespect-conscious worldview, they showed a "warlike disposition." Indeed, as anyone who has traveled through Jacksonian America, especially the Old Confederacy, can attest, way down thar in Dixie is a land of war memorials, well-tended gravesites, and Civil War re-enactors -- most of whom wish to play Gray.

Mead continued, "Those who like to cast American foreign policy as an unhealthy mix of ignorance, isolationism and trigger-happy cowboy diplomacy are often thinking about the Jacksonian populist tradition."

Yet for the Jacksonians, style, even swagger, was just as important as deeds:

"The profoundly populist world-view of Jacksonian Americans contributes to one of the most important elements in their politics: the belief that while problems are complicated, solutions are simple. False idols are many; the True God is One. Jacksonians believe that Gordian Knots are there to be cut. In public controversies, the side that is always giving you reasons why something can't be done, and is endlessly telling you that the popular view isn't sufficiently "sophisticated" or "nuanced"-that is the side that doesn't want you to know what it is doing, and it is not to be trusted. If politicians have honest intentions, they will tell you straight up what they plan to do. If it's a good idea, you will like it as soon as they explain the whole package. For most of the other schools, "complex" is a positive term when applied either to policies or to situations; for Jacksonians it is a negative. Ronald Reagan brilliantly exploited this."

And so has George W. Bush brilliantly exploited the Jacksonian tradition. Nearly two years after Mead's essay appeared, on September 17, 2001, the 43rd president was asked about Osama bin Laden, mastermind of the 9-11 attacks just six days before: "Do you want bin Laden dead?" To which Bush answered: "I want justice. And there's an old poster out west, that I recall, that said, 'Wanted, Dead or Alive.'" After that, Bush had a lock on the hearts of Jacksonians, also known as Red Staters.

After the Iraq war in 2003, many Blue Staters peeled away from Bush. Yankees dismissed W. as a unilateralist transgressor of international law. Which, of course, caused the Jacksonians to love their fellow Red Stater all the more; they adored him for the enemies he had made in the stripey-pants world of politesse and haute diplomacy. As Mead noted, "Of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. They prefer the rule of custom to the written law, and that is as true in the international sphere as it is in personal relations at home."

Yet interestingly, Mead was not entirely critical of the Jacksonians. Perhaps that's because he's from South Carolina; the Palmetto State still runs through his veins, even if he's now on Park Avenue -- he is the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. As Mead put it, "Jacksonian patriotism is not a doctrine but an emotion, like love of one's family." Is that so bad? And flowing from such emotion, Mead continued, was effectiveness in fighting: "This mass popular patriotism, and the martial spirit behind it, gives the United States immense advantages in international affairs." Without it, he concluded, "The United States would be hard pressed to maintain the kind of international military presence it now has."

Mead's commentary, later turned into a book, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World, published in 2002, has proven profoundly influential as a tool for analyzing American politics. No fewer than six TCS pieces, for instance, have referred to "Jacksonians" -- always Andy, never Jesse.

But now, only in the wake of the 2004 presidential election, when another Jacksonian beat another Masschusettsian, have we seen the full triumph of Jacksonianism? At first it may seem strange that John Kerry, who volunteered for Vietnam, would be wiped out by George W. Bush, who volunteered for the Texas Air National Guard. But Kerry broke faith with the Jacksonians in 1971, when he accused the US military of "war crimes." And so the pro-Bush Swift Boat Veterans blew Kerry out of the water. That's the Jacksonian Way, to settle matters of honor in the most direct possible manner.

So now, you want to see a "revolt of the rustics"? Look at the presidential election returns. For as long as anyone can remember, the popular wisdom among psephologists -- those who study voting -- has been that a big turnout helps the Democrats. But this year, the turnout surged 15 percent, and yet the Republican president turned his half-million-vote deficit from four years ago into a 3.6 million-vote surplus. In fact, a look at the 2004 electoral map, shows that George, like Andy before him, dominates the Southern and Western states. To put it bluntly, the Jacksonians rule.

That's the message of "Team America," from the creators of "South Park". The anthemic "America, Fuck Yeah!" -- sample lyric "Freedom is the only way, yeah/Terrorist, your game is through 'cause now you have to answer to/America, fuck yeah!" -- captures, ironically yet accurately, the coarse and courageous spirit of Bush America in 2004.

So what happens next?

First, the basic demographics of the country are red and getting redder. As I observed in TCS a few months ago, the problem with the Democrats is that in their celebration of abortion, gay liberation, and overall yuppie fulfillment, they forgot to have children. By contrast, the Jacksonians are more likely to have big families -- they combine making love with making war. And so the Red States are destined, demographically, to gain population-power relative to Blue States. Moreover, if the Blues continue to nominate obvious metrosexuals such as Kerry, the Reds are going to be riding in high cotton for a long time to come. Only if the Democrats nominate a Red Stater, such as Bill Clinton, who can reach into the Republican heartland, do they have much of a chance of winning the next presidential election. Hint to Dems: Mrs. Bill Clinton is not the one to return donkeys to the Oval Office.

Second, shifting from populations to policies, the Republicans will face challenges in keeping their base happy, for reasons both domestic and foreign.

The Jacksonians are inherently "pessimistic," Mead maintained; they believe in conspiracy theories and fear international arrangements, all of which, they believe, are aimed at shafting them. Which is to say, if they dislike the United Nations, they would despise the World Trade Organization, if they knew about it. And while free marketers might cheer for tax-rate reductions and new free-trade agreements, the relatively downscale Jacksonians might see the former as irrelevant to them and the latter as an absolute threat to their jobs. The international market most rewards high-quality value-added knowledge-production; the key variable these days is quality, not quantity. That's why Manhattan (pop. 1.5 million) has done much better in recent decades than Ohio (pop. 9.9 million). The "retro vs. metro" argument might be terribly elitist politics, but it explains today's economic phenomenon; more wealth is being grabbed by boutique producers, not mass producers -- unless, of course, the mass producers are Chinese, or, better yet, machines. Republicans eager to hold on to their Red States will have to demonstrate that they know how to channel the abundant benefits of capitalism for the benefit of the fightin' and votin' Jacksonian masses; one solution is increased spending on job-creating infrastructure, such as broadband, or perhaps through an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit.

The Jacksonians are not libertarians. Instead, as Mead argued, they are "obstinately fond of federal programs seen as primarily helping the middle class." Bush must keep this balky reality in mind as he contemplates the partial privatization of Social Security. The Jacksonians believe in thrift and hard work, but they are suspicious of Wall Street and fear the possible Enronization of their savings. It's easy to see the 109th Congress enacting a partial privatization scheme which allows people to divert some of their payroll taxes into private accounts -- as long as folks don't lose money. That is, any privatization program would resemble a federally insured bank or S&L. If you increase your nest egg -- great. If you lose it -- call Uncle Sam. That was how the New Deal operated, and the ancestors of today's Jacksonians were all once New Dealers. If Bush and the free-market visionaries, scoping out a bold plan for entitlement reform, can demonstrate to the Red Staters that restructuring is safe, as well as needed, that's great. If not, the Jacksonians will be reaching, as they are wont to do, for their shootin' irons.

Speaking of gunplay, the Jacksonians have their own ideas on foreign affairs, too. As Mead put it, the Jacksonians are often so eager for a fight that they constitute a "war lobby." Yet at the same time, they believe "The only world order we are likely to get will be a bad one. No matter how much money we ship overseas, and no matter how cleverly the development bureaucrats spend it, it will not create peace on earth." In other words, they are eager for the war, but not interested in nation-building and the spreading of democracy. And so the idea that America has made a "generational commitment" to making Iraq a kinder and gentler place might be news, even now, to many in the Bush coalition. As Mead essayed, "The Jacksonian philosophy is embraced by many people who know very little about the wider world."

So what will happen if the Iraq war proves to be long and drawn out? What if it seems as if the country isn't giving the fighting its 100 percent support, that the civilians back in DC seem half-hearted about the war effort, as was the case in Vietnam? What if peace in Iraq, assuming it comes at all, proves to be expensive and uneven? Mead made clear that for the Jacksonians, fighting is a spasm -- you fight, you win, you go home to your kinfolk. The Jacksonians aren't Romans, out to preserve an empire; they are Americans out to preserve their way of life in the hills, hollows, suburbs and exurbs. On the other hand, one way to keep the Jacksonian blood boiling would be for Bush to add Iran and Syria to America's "regime change" to-do list. As Mead makes clear, the Jacksonians love to fight.

Finally, although they have a coarse and sometimes even bawdy subculture of sex, drink, and honky tonk, the Jacksonians are virtually 100 percent Christian. And so, after a wild Saturday night, they are often found in church the next morning, hung over or not. And so to the extent that the Jacksonians overlap with the Christian Right, then one must wonder what will happen to the Red State coalition as the Republican Party struggles to govern. Will the GOP follow through on the articulated Christian conservative social agenda? Banning abortion? Banning embryonic stem cell research?

Most likely, some Jacksonians in California were among the 60 percent of Golden Staters who supported Proposition 71 on Tuesday; that was the referendum authorizing $3 billion in state funds to seek stem cell cures. As noted earlier, the Jacksonians might be conservative, but they are not necessarily for limited government. And most Christians, when they are sick, would rather go to a doctor, armed with all the latest possible cures, than a faith healer. So if the government wants to help with health care, that's fine with most Jacksonians.

Furthermore, it's possible to foresee a GOP split in 2008, as the post-Bush Republicans split between the Jacksonians going one way and the libertarians going the other way. After all, big coalitions are inherently harder to keep together than small coalitions. And today, the Republican coalition is larger, measured by total federal offices held, than at any time since the 1920s. We know what happened after that.

So amidst their post-election euphoria, Republicans have cause for concern as they look ahead. On the other hand, the Democrats, as they look around today, have cause for immediate panic.


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