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.”

The modern conservative movement has been an uneasy coalition between the Hamiltonian supply side economic conservatives on Wall Street and the Jacksonian cultural conservatives on Main Street. Ronald Reagan joined them together, though for a few years after 2006 they seemed to be coming apart. But what George W. Bush tore asunder, Barack Hussein Obama joined back together. Jacksonian populists define themselves according to a producerist ideology which validates the productive labor of the working and middle classes, but is very suspicious of the unproductive poor at the bottom and the unproductive rich at the top. Jacksonians despise illegal immigration by unskilled Mexican laborers, welfare for the nonworking poor, and bailouts to irresponsible Wall Street banks. But it is more likely—and it has been happening over the past year—that the policies of the Obama administration will drive the Jacksonians back to the conservative Republican side. Renewed Jacksonian engagement with conservatism produced the Tea Party movement. Jacksonian populists are anti-socialist. They believe in capitalism, especially the capitalism of small business and entrepreneurship. They are suspicious of both big government and big business, especially when, as over the past year, the two are seen to be in collusion. This has certainly been true of the Tea Party movement.

Jacksonians deeply resent the Aquarian left’s (what Charles Krauthammer calls “The New Liberalism”) insistence that they are too dumb to know how to live their lives and so need to be “enlightened” by liberal elites. The passion on the left has shifted from fair rewards for labor to lifestyle environmentalism. This accounts for Jacksonian hostility to Al Gore’s climate change crusade, which is seen as just another ploy by the New Liberals to shove their Aquarian values down Jacksonian America's throat. Liberal environmentalists want to engineer a utopian social transformation that will undermine individual liberty and produce the Jacksonian nightmare of arrogant social and cultural elites dictating where and how the average American should live his life.

Post 1960s Aquarian New Liberalism is quite different from the classic 1930s liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt. FDR’s New Deal maintained Jacksonian producerist values which emphasized jobs over benefits (such as health care). Only job creation, whether through the private sector, or if necessary, through public works, could give workers the leverage to obtain higher wages and their share of the nation's wealth. Today's New Liberalism has shifted its emphasis from the empowerment of working- and middle-class Americans through productive work to redistribution of wealth. Contemporary liberal Democrats are an alliance of educated, successful, self-actualized, urban professional elites (the “Bobos” or “Goo-Goos”), ethnic- and race-based, often corrupt, urban political machines (Charles Rangel comes to mind), and the disenfranchised urban poor. Urban historian and Rudolph Giuliani biographer Fred Siegel calls this “the coalition of the overeducated and the undereducated.” Liberal Democrats since the 1960s have transformed themselves from Jacksonian populists to European social democrats. The New Liberalism has redifined liberal progressive politics from self-help on the part of citizens to charity for the disadvantaged “victim” groups performed by affluent liberal elites.  “A homogeneous college-educated overclass,” Michael Lind explains, “which favours diversity in complexion but rigid liberal orthodoxy in opinions, increasingly lords it over a divided and heterogeneous class of high school graduates and drop-outs. Obama is the new face of this emergent establishment.” And so the Jacksonian working and middle classes have been transformed in liberal ideology from the backbone of America, to what Barack Obama called the unenlightened folk who cling to guns, God, and hatred of foreigners.

Here are then-candidate Obama’s remarks from the now infamous 2008 San Francisco fundraiser:

But the truth is, is that, our challenge is to get people persuaded that we can make progress when there's not evidence of that in their daily lives. You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.

Well it looks like Obama’s “bitter clingers” have had enough. Walter Russell Mead, the foreign policy analyst who wrote a seminal work on Jacksonian populism, sees in Republican Scott Brown’s victory in the Massachusetts election to succeed Ted Kennedy in the Senate, more evidence of a Jacksonian rebellion against the upper middle class professional elite “bobos.” Many liberal Democrats, Mead argues, have a paternalistic attitude toward middle and working-class Jacksonians. And Jacksonians will no longer put up with being condescended to as too ignorant and stupid to manage their lives without the guidance of educated liberal elites. The liberal elite, in Mead's analysis, divide the world into three groups:

a large mass of basically good but oppressed and poorly-educated working people (and small farmers) who need guidance, enlightenment and protection; evil and greedy corporations and special interests who seek to grind them down and suck them dry; and honest, competent, well-educated professionals whose job it is to steer society forward in the interests of the ignorant mass. Unfortunately the evil and greedy interests and their sly minions are good at befuddling and confusing the dumbass masses, using such retrograde themes as patriotism, religion and always and everywhere racism.
It seems that whenever Jacksonian conservatives express an opinion on any issue, it's immediately condemned and dismissed by liberal elite commentators as racism and bigotry. This of course relieves these commentators of the need to respond to the substance of the arguments Jacksonian conservatives are making. As Charles Krauthammer writes “promiscuous charges of bigotry are precisely how our current rulers and their vast media auxiliary react to an obstreperous citizenry that insists on incorrect thinking.”

An example of this scenario is presented by Telly Davidson in Frum Forum. President Obama came into office truly desiring to reach out to middle- and working-class Jacksonian whites. But along the way the demagogic leaders of the conservative and Tea Party movements and the right-wing media machine twisted and distorted the new president’s message and intentions. Now Davidson admits that middle- and working-class white Jacksonians have good reasons to be angry and bitter about their declining prospects in life; they rightly fear that the American dream may be forever out of reach. But since they’ve allowed their anger to be exploited by hateful, racist, demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, the poor “dumbass” Jacksonians have lost whatever claim they had on the president’s sympathies. The Tea Party protests and town hall meetings were designed by the right-wing media machine to create a racist, reactionary narrative that successfully demonized Obama in Jacksonian hearts as an illegitimate, anti-American radical, making it impossible for the president to reach out and address their legitimate concerns. “By claiming to represent the issues and concerns of working and middle class whites,” Davidson laments, “the ultra-right-wing media machine has discredited them and sent their issues and concerns, temporarily at least, to the ash heap of history. And Obama has been forced by the grammar of politics to essentially forfeit middle America on his end, as long as the face of middle America remains Glenn Beck’s or Michele Bachmann’s.” This is just old wine in new bottles. With Davidson and the like we’ve come full circle in liberal elite discourse back to Mencken’s boobus americanus.

The Beer Summit, July 30, 2009

The Jacksonian populist revolt against Barack Obama and his administration is a revolt against the world view that legitimizes upper-middle-class privilege. The Jacksonian “dumbass masses” furiously reject the claims of elite liberals that they need guidance to manage their lives. “They hunger and thirst for social and political autonomy—it is the liberal world view that they long to be freed of.” Mead’s analysis, ironically, is very close to Rush Limbaugh’s and other conservative commentators. Professors have replaced bankers as the chief villains of the Jacksonian public. They sense that upper middle class liberal elites are trying to secure and enhance their own social status, wealth, and power under the guise of helping their “inferiors.” “It is insufferable (and will not long be suffered)” writes Tony Blankley of the Jacksonian public, “to be lectured to and imposed upon by a ruling class that loathes our nation's history, values and accomplishments; by those who are not, in fact, our genuine betters. They are neither better educated nor more profoundly morally versed.” “The war on upper-middle class privilege” Mead concludes, “is the cause today that, for better or worse, embodies the spirit of American populism.” Most liberal Democrats won’t get this. Barack Obama’s public support of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his dispute with police Sergeant James Crowley, ending in the famous “beer summit” last year, illustrates just how clueless both the president and elite liberals are when it comes to comprehending the passion for honor and liberty that moves Jacksonian America.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan