Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Obama vs. Jacksonian Populist Conservatives: Disconnect and Conflict

by Michael Kaplan

In this, the inaugural post of The New Jacksonian Blog, I’ll work through some ideas on the conflict between the liberal elite thrust of the Obama administration and Jacksonian America.

Much of the criticism of the Tea Party movement from Obama supporters and the mainstream media, and now the NAACP, sounds like the classic elite liberal stereotype of Jacksonian populist conservatives as ignorant, unwashed, know-nothings, racists and bigots—“boobus americanus” as H. L Mencken famously put it back in the 1920s.

Andrew Jackson, "Old Hickory"

The point made by liberal commentators like Michael Lind on the tension between conservative economics and Jacksonian populism is well taken. Jacksonian populism is neither completely of the right nor the left, and at different times has switched its allegiances between the Democrats and the Republicans. Jacksonians lean left populist on economic issues: they hate collusion between big government and big business—think of Andrew Jackson’s war on the Second Bank of the United States and William Jennings Bryan’s Cross of Gold—while they lean right populist on social and cultural issues such as gay rights or abortion. Here’s Old Hickory’s statement on the specter of crony capitalism from his 1832 Bank Veto Message:

It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes. Distinctions in society will always exist under every just government. Equality of talents, of education, or of wealth can not be produced by human institutions. In the full enjoyment of the gifts of Heaven and the fruits of superior industry, economy, and virtue, every man is equally entitled to protection by law; but when the laws undertake to add to these natural and just advantages artificial distinctions, to grant titles, gratuities, and exclusive privileges, to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society--the farmers, mechanics, and laborers--who have neither the time nor the means of securing like favors to themselves, have a right to complain of the injustice of their Government. There are no necessary evils in government. Its evils exist only in its abuses. If it would confine itself to equal protection, and, as Heaven does its rains, shower its favors alike on the high and the low, the rich and the poor, it would be an unqualified blessing. In the act before me there seems to be a wide and unnecessary departure from these just principles.

General Jackson Slaying the Monster Bank.  Library of Congress.

Old Hickory was not a demagogue out to confiscate the property of the Bank’s wealthy shareholders and redistribute it. Like the Founding Fathers, Jackson accepted that natural inequality—that people had differing talents and abilities and would achieve different outcomes in life—was part of human nature. Jacksonian populism, unlike its European counterparts, was never about despoiling the haves and giving to the have nots. But Jackson was absolutely opposed to artificial inequality; or as we would say today, to the government using its power to pick winners and losers in the economy and in life. Henry Olsen of the American Enterprise Institute writes in National Affairs that Jacksonian populism is as exceptional as America, and that “far from threatening to destroy the republic, has at crucial moments helped to balance and rejuvenate it.” Jackson did not proclaim Nicholas Biddle and the partisans of the “Monster Bank” traitors to the nation who had forfeited their rights as American citizens. His goal, whether in opposing federal funding of internal improvements or abolishing the Bank, “was to end the purported depredation of the people by the wealthy, not to enrich his own supporters. In Jackson's morality play, he restored the American heritage to a dispossessed, but fundamentally self-reliant, people—not by taking from the rich, but by ennobling the ordinary.”