November
24th 2009
Up from Jacksonianism?

Posted under: American history, Gender, GLBTQ, race

Jackson 1857

Portrait of Andrew Jackson by Thomas Sully (1857)

Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Michael Lind is one of the most interesting political writers around.  Of course, this may be my opinion because he has a good command of the last 200 years of American history and he isn’t afraid to use it in making his political arguments.  I’ve been a fan of his work ever since Up From Conservativism (1996), in which he argued that the Republican party’s marriage of convenience between Wall Street bankers and right-wing cultural warriors would guarantee its marginalization and its ultimate defeat. 

This is why Dems would do well to listen to what Lind has to say in “Can Populism Be Liberal?” in which he wonders, “[i]s a Jackson revival under way? . . Jacksonian populism spells producerism. For generations, Jacksonian populists have believed that the hardworking majority of small producers is threatened from above and below by two classes of drones: unproductive capitalists and unproductive paupers.”  He notes further that “[r]eform movements have succeeded in the United States only when their programs resonated with populist and producerist values. Lincoln’s antislavery Republicans succeeded where the earlier Whigs had failed because the Republicans persuaded Jacksonian farmers that snobbish, parasitic Southern Democratic slave owners were a greater threat to white farmers and white workers in the Midwest than rich Republican bankers and industrialists in the Northeast.”  Are any Democrats paying attention, in these years of economic uncertainty, rising populist anger, and anti-incumbency in the electorate?

Here, one might think, would be an opening for the center-left. And yet the Obama Democrats, unlike the Roosevelt Democrats, cannot take advantage of the popular backlash against Wall Street. Why?

One reason is that the attempt of the “New Democrats” like Clinton, Al Gore and Obama to win Wall Street campaign donations has been all too successful. As Clinton’s Treasury secretary, Robert Rubin helped complete the conversion of the Democrats from a party of unions and populists into a party of financial elites and college-educated professionals. Subsequently Obama raised more money from Wall Street than his Democratic primary rivals and John McCain. On becoming president, he turned over economic policymaking to Rubin’s protégé Larry Summers and others like Timothy Geithner from the Wall Street Democratic network.

The financial industry is now to the Obama Democrats what the AFL-CIO was to the Roosevelt-to-Johnson Democrats. It is touching to watch progressives lament that “their” president has the wrong advisors. “We trust the czar, we simply dislike his ministers.” Obama owed his meteoric rise from obscurity to the presidency not to any bold progressive ideas — he didn’t have any — but rather to a combination of his appealing life story with the big money that allowed him to abandon campaign finance limits. According to one Obama supporter I know, the Obama campaign pressured its Wall Street donors to make their contributions in the form of many small checks, in order to create the illusion that the campaign was more dependent on small contributors than it was in fact. Even now President Obama continues to raise money on Wall Street, while his administration says no to every progressive proposal for significant structural reform of the financial industry.

I like Lind, although I don’t agree with him entirely.  (What’s with the fetishization of “Scots-Irish blood,” a la David Hackett Fisher’s ponderous and long-since discredited Albion’s Seed?)  More concerning to me is the presumption that commitments to social justice (feminism, the Civil Rights movement) and to environmentalism are necessarily at war with populism.  (Ain’t we the people, too?)  The major problem with so-called “Jacksonian Democracy” was its full-blooded commitment to racism, patriarchy, and imperial expansion.  When states changed their laws to expand the franchise to all free, white men, they used specifically racialized and gendered language in their new laws defining the rights of citizenship.  So, Lind’s analysis of the body politic appears sometimes to be just as exclusive as Jackson’s, and his political advice (“we need to bring back socially conservative white menz!”) sounds a lot like Pat Buchanan’s.  (For another version of this kind of argument, see the fatuous Peter Beinart, who says that the majority of the Democratic party should shut the frack up.  What a tool.)

Considering the fact that women are the majority of Democratic voters, and that there are fewer white people proportionately in the Democratic party than in the other party, this appears to me to be a strategic flaw.  Ignoring the ways in which feminism, Civil Rights, and gay rights have changed the party is another surefire path to electoral failure.  That’s my two cents, anyway–go read the whole thing and tell me what you think.

13 Comments »

13 Responses to “Up from Jacksonianism?”

  1. GayProf on 24 Nov 2009 at 10:32 am #

    Why listen to the people who vote for you when you can listen to the people who pay for those votes?

  2. human on 24 Nov 2009 at 11:24 am #

    Heh. GayProf wins.

  3. Paul on 24 Nov 2009 at 12:23 pm #

    More concerning to me is the presumption that commitments to social justice (feminism, the Civil Rights movement) and to environmentalism are necessarily at war with populism. (Ain’t we the people, too?)

    I think that the problem isn’t that they necessarily are at war with populism, but that they are widely seen as being at war with populism – for reasons that Lind outlines. A lot of conservatives and moderates sincerely believe that environmentalism and social justice movements are actually driven by elites who want an excuse to tell other people how to live their lives, and that the stated goals of those movements are just excuses for this.

  4. Indyanna on 24 Nov 2009 at 12:42 pm #

    Moderates sincerely believe that? How to live their lives, as in, “don’t dump that stuff into the rivers,” or “don’t take ALL of the available public resources for just your own school districts?” Excuses for things like that?

  5. Historiann on 24 Nov 2009 at 12:43 pm #

    Paul, I can (sort of) understand the resentment of environmentalism. I would argue that there are “real people” living in dense urban areas who want public transportation and would benefit from it–the postwar suburban landscape was just as much a product of “social engineering” as would be any neo-urban, low-CO2 emissions landscape of utopian fantasy.

    But: how do feminism and Civil Rights force anyone to live their lives differently? Except for outlawing the segregation of public schools and accomodations, how do they bother anyone who doesn’t agree? My diagnosis of the problems of Jacksonianism is that it’s always a zero-sum game in the minds of traditional Jacksonians like Lind: if I win, then someone else must be losing. Whereas I think that more equality and more opportunities are better for everyone.

  6. Feminist Avatar on 24 Nov 2009 at 2:47 pm #

    Well, you could argue due to legislative change feminism has forced men to stop sexually harrassing women in the workplace, it has forced men to accept women as colleagues, and it has forced employers to at least pretend to pay women equally to men, and so on?

    Or, I suppose you could argue that it has just created consequences for people when they choose not to do those things, so they’re not FORCED to change.

  7. Historiann on 24 Nov 2009 at 2:56 pm #

    Feminist Avatar–good points. I forget what an imposition feminism has been on men!

    This is why I don’t fully understand Lind’s apparent nostalgia for the New Deal or Jacksonian coalitions. I think he offers trenchant critiques of the party intertwining itself with Wall Street. But populism doesn’t have to be racist or patriarchal. (Unfortunately, Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck will disagree, and there’s a danger that they’ll make the case more effectively than any Dems currently in office.)

  8. Paul on 24 Nov 2009 at 3:49 pm #

    But: how do feminism and Civil Rights force anyone to live their lives differently? Except for outlawing the segregation of public schools and accomodations, how do they bother anyone who doesn’t agree? My diagnosis of the problems of Jacksonianism is that it’s always a zero-sum game in the minds of traditional Jacksonians like Lind: if I win, then someone else must be losing. Whereas I think that more equality and more opportunities are better for everyone.

    I think that there definitely is a lot of zero-sum thinking involved – that one group of people can only gain at the expense of others. Zero-sum thinking may be more prevalent among traditional Jacksonians or conservatives in general, although I think that it shows up among people of all political persuasions.

    There is also, at least in my very limited experience, sometimes an exaggeration or misunderstanding of the potential consequences of certain laws and policies. Years ago, when I was going through college and my first round of graduate school, I worried that affirmative action would make it much more difficult for me as a white male to get educational, scholarship, and employment opportunities. (White male) friends and relatives had warned me repeatedly about this, how affirmative action meant that I would have to work harder, that it stacked the deck against me, etc., etc. In practice, I found that this did not seem to be true. I had other obstacles to succeeding, but none of them had to do with the fact that I was a white male. I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the people who warned me, even if they were incorrect. This, among other experiences, has led me to conclude that a substantial number of white men simply have very inaccurate ideas about what policies and rules like affirmative action and no sexual harassment in the workplace actually mean and entail for both them and other people. These mistaken ideas often are connected to a fear that the actual effect of these policies is to take away their own autonomy and treat them as inferiors, regardless of what anybody says. Bizarre though this may sound, I know that I sincerely believed it and I suspect that I was not that unusual.

  9. Wayne on 24 Nov 2009 at 4:42 pm #

    There are producers, looters, and moochers. Two out of three, are not necessary.

  10. Emma on 24 Nov 2009 at 10:04 pm #

    When only men went to Yale, more men got in. When only men worked on the factory floor, more men worked there. Making the rules of competition fairer means you have to compete against more people. It’s difficult to overestimate how angry and resentful people get when their space – be it work, their neighborhood, or their local diner – has to accept people who “don’t belong” there. It wasn’t really all that long ago that Black persons were legally segregated, the NY Times’ help wanted ads were segregated by gender, and there were official limits on the number of women allowed into grad schools.

    Of course, all the feelings caused by the changes wrought by the civil rights movements are only exacerbated by the incredibly complex and increasingly classist society we live in today.

    But I really think it’s true that more equality for some really does mean less privilege for others in certain areas.

  11. Hotshot Harry on 24 Nov 2009 at 10:28 pm #

    “Lincoln’s antislavery Republicans succeeded where the earlier Whigs had failed because the Republicans persuaded Jacksonian farmers that snobbish, parasitic Southern Democratic slave owners were a greater threat to white farmers and white workers in the Midwest than rich Republican bankers and industrialists in the Northeast.”

    Not to nit pick, but he’s just plain wrong here. The true “Jacksonian farmers” (the kind Historiann describes as racist and patriarchal) in the northern states in 1860 tended to vote Breckinridge or Douglas (or that great invention, the “fusion” ticket) precisely because they didn’t trust the Republican power brokers. The Republicans succeeded where the Whigs failed for two reasons: first, they were able to hold together a coalition that didn’t really see eye to eye on certain things in the past (nativists, temperance advocates, industrialists, antislavery folks) due largely to the common threat of disunion. In past elections, these groups had wandered around the political barnyard, supporting the American Party, the Free Soil Party, and even Democrats. Rare was the election where they found compromise. Second, and more important, the Democratic opposition was in a tailspin in 1860. The north/south Democratic marriage, which had begun to crack over a decade earlier, resulted in three Democratic candidates on the ballot in 1860.

    I’m not sure what this all means for our contemporary situation, except that I’ve always been weary of drawing comparison with the sectional crisis of 1860. Tough to draw comparisons with the American slaveocracy.

  12. KoshemBos on 25 Nov 2009 at 6:27 am #

    The steep conversion of the Democrats from a labor-rich party happened solely under Obama whose winning coalition included the rich down to to the well off middle class. In the primaries when the leadership of the labor unions started to tend Obama, the rank and file went overwhelmingly to Hillary in part due to their affinity to Bill.

    There is no doubt that once money started to dominate elections, an element totally missing from the article, the Democrats started to tend to Wall Street. Interestingly, Clinton has gone to Hollywood, which is highly liberal, for a lot of his money.

  13. Comrade PhysioProf on 25 Nov 2009 at 3:43 pm #

    This shit is too complicated for me. I’d rather just hammer on sick-fuck right-wing assholes.