Saturday, August 28, 2010

Is America Headed Toward Social Democracy?

by Michael Kaplan

Jacksonian political unrest in 2010 is driven by bread-and-butter economic issues as much as by issues of culture and politics. Sociologist and prognosticator Joel Kotkin makes the case that this is part of a worldwide resurgence of economic inequality and class conflict as globalization moves into fast forward. Middle- and working-class Americans are being displaced by technology and the outsourcing of jobs to low wage countries in the developing world, even as the same process boosts productivity and creates new wealth. President Obama and liberal Democrats have been unable to harness this economic discontent. Indeed, the administration and its big spending liberal policies are seen as the problem. The president and his elite liberal supporters don’t connect with Jacksonian economic concerns—tax relief, private-sector job creation, and fostering small business—anymore that they do with Jacksonian cultural and political passions. Kotkin argues that this again has to do with the nature of the liberal Democratic base of elite professionals and urban poor for whom these issues simply don’t resonate. The Tea Party movement, by focusing on fiscal responsibility and putting less emphasis on divisive social issues, can strengthen the Republicans’ populist appeal for middle income Jacksonian voters, which would be the key to victory in the 2010 midterm elections.

This leads me to the issue of capitalism and social democracy. Americans now face a choice as to what values they want our society to foster: Jacksonian values of rugged individualism, liberty, small government, risk-taking and the pursuit of happiness, or European social democratic values of extensive social safety nets, big government, social/economic entitlements, safety and security. There are trade offs with either path. American laissez-faire capitalism and Jacksonian rugged individualism have always had a hard-edged streak, perhaps one could even call it social cruelty. Individuals had to measure up to the demands of pursuing happiness in a competitive society or risk falling behind. General Patton famously said that America loves a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Ronald Reagan expected (and Rush Limbaugh expects), Americans to live up to the heroic deeds of their frontier-conquering forbearers. This is especially true for American men who have been losing the most ground in the post-2008 economic downturn.

Rush Limbaugh insists that liberals are attracted to social-democratic statism, and are actually afraid of freedom because they are afraid of failure. Now Rush does have a tendency to exaggerate and use colorful allegories to make his points, but he does offer a valuable insight. A system based on political and economic liberty allows individuals to succeed, sometimes beyond their wildest dreams. It also allows individuals to fail, sometimes catastrophically. It is the responsibility of you, the individual, to take advantage of the opportunities provided by a free society to succeed. This means getting yourself trained and educated to develop marketable skills and build the psychological fortitude and determination to work hard and do what it takes to achieve one’s life ambitions. It helps to have something you’re passionate about doing to motivate you to work your hardest, be creative, and be the best you can be. You always need to pursue excellence. Individuals engaged in the capitalist creation of wealth not only enrich themselves but others around them as well. They also put competing individuals and companies out of business. Capitalism is not a zero-sum game; often, though not always, it is a win-win. But if you can’t or won’t do what is needed to compete in the pursuit of wealth and happiness, then the failure is your responsibility and you’ll get thrown under the bus.

American liberals and European social democrats, in contrast, reject the idea that some people will succeed and some will fail when allowed to pursue happiness. They want much greater government control and management of society; the control and management to be provided by the technocratic elites. Such a system, its supporters believe, will do away with winners and losers in society by putting a cap on success, cushioning failure, and providing a basic level of social services and support for all. Such a society, liberals and social democrats believe, will be more just, fair, and equitable. Rush, on the contrary, argues that a social democratic society would be nothing less than an assault on both the individual’s pursuit of excellence and liberty. Only the mediocre and the lazy would benefit from social democracy. And again this will come with a trade off in a loss of decision making, self determination, and liberty for the individual.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Anti-intellectualism and American Populism: Why Academics and Jacksonians Distrust Each Other

by Michael Kaplan

In an earlier post I posed the question: what is the proper role of the intellectual and the life of the mind in a populist democracy? I suggested that there is a real and genuine tension between Jacksonian populism and intellectualism in American life and politics. Anti-intellectualism has been a persistent problem in Jacksonian populism while arro-gant condescension toward the American people has too often been part of academic elite culture. Michael Barone discussed this tension in the context of the 2008 election campaign, presenting a sharp political and cultural divide between Jacksonians and those he labeled “Academics.” Differing views of patriotism and military virtue are at the heart of the conflict. Jacksonians are fighters while intellectuals are writers. Jacksonians believe that elite intellectuals are cowards who lack the courage to fight and defend American liberty. Academics “live the arts of peace and hate the demands of war.” For Jacksonians this means that the intellectual elites are willing to sacrifice liberty and sell out their country to preserve peace at any price. “Most important,” Barone adds, “warriors are competitors for the honor that academics and public employees think rightfully belongs to them.” This is in sharp contrast to Jacksonians who “place a high value on the virtues of the warrior and little value on the work of academics and public employees.”

These cultural values come out of the Scots-Irish tradition of natural liberty outlined by David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed. This liberty is not absolute. It is embeded in and must conform to a culture committed to the claims of traditional values, honor and community. Jacksonians believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit without interference from government, or meddling liberal elites, so long as those lives are lived within the bounds of the traditions of the folk community and the Jacksonian code of honor. And if “someone infringes on that liberty beware: The Jacksonian attitude is, ‘If you attack my family or my country, I’ll kill you.’” This is the bedrock of Jacksonian patriotism. And Jacksonians have lived it over and over again, as they fought wars against the Indians on the western frontiers and fought each other during the Civil War. Liberty, tradition, honor, and community are intertwined and inseparable. On the other side of the coin, Jacksonians believe they have the right and duty to curtail the liberty of those who do not or will not honor the traditons of the Jacksonian folk community.

This is anathema to academics who believe it is their right and duty to critique and challenge traditional values, faith, and community sentiment in the name of tolerance and progress. Indeed this is the bedrock of the academic conception of liberty. Tradition, honor, community, and faith have little resonance for most academics. Academics, Barack Obama and those who support him among them, also prefer “the language of diplomacy and negotiation” to “the words of war.” This infuriates Jacksonians to no end, leading them to question the academics’ courage and patriotism. While academics want to understand what motivates America’s enemies, Jacksonians only want to defeat them. In other words, academics prefer multilateral cooperation while Jacksonians prefer unilateral military action.

This is a point that another of my favorite pundits, Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Peters, Fox News strategic analyst and Jacksonian nationalist, forcefully makes. Peters charges that academics and intellectuals deceive themselves into thinking that the measured words of diplomacy can take the place of the hard hand of war. Diplomats and intellectuals mistakenly believe that all conflicts can be resolved peacefully through negotiations. “But those who rule by the sword (or the fist, or engineered famines or outright genocide) don’t want to hash things out! They want to win. No elegant phrase has ever stopped a bullet in midflight.” Nor have Quakers ever stopped a war or genocide. “A pen wielded by a talented writer may wound a target's ego, but a sword will cut off the writer's head.”

Peters shares Jacksonian pessimism about human nature—that part of human nature that has not benefitted from American exceptionalism. History is a bloodbath and the world is filled with very bad actors. “All decent men want peace. But wise men know that not all men are decent.” All liberty, including intellectual freedom, is a precious gift that can only survive if defended by those willing to fight and die for it. Liberty can never be taken for granted. “The use of the pen is an indulgence we can afford only because better men and women grip the sword on our behalf.” 

Given all this, Jacksonians respect leaders who exude a sense of command. Ronald Reagan is the model of the Jacksonian style of leadership in our time. One of Reagan’s great strengths was his ability to combine fluid, graceful maneuver, and eloquent speaking, which he learned from the movies, with “the sense of command and an understanding that he must always be in charge.” This was illustrated, Barone points out, by the iconic moment after Reagan was shot on March 30, 1981:
[he] then walked out of the ambulance into George Washington University hospital, when he got out of the car, stood up and (for me, the greatest gesture) buttoned his suit coat, and walked into the building and then, when out of camera range, collapsed on the floor. Would Obama be capable of doing that, while in great pain and in mortal danger? Maybe. The academic doesn't think about it. The Jacksonian thinks it's very unlikely.
Reagan’s gesture reaches back to Andrew Jackson who killed his opponent, Charles Dickinson, in a duel after he was already shot and as president would use his cane to subdue a would-be assassin who had shot at him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jacksonian Nationalism and American Empire: Review Essay

by Michael Kaplan

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way, by Emanuel Leutze, 1862.  A classic allegory of Jacksonian America and one of the most ambitious statements of Jacksonian nationalism and empire building in the nineteenth century.  Architect of the Capitol.

Leutze’s mural study for the Capitol in Washington celebrated the idea of Manifest Destiny just when the Civil War threatened the republic. The surging crowd of figures records the births, deaths, and battles fought as European Americans settled the continent to the edge of the Pacific. Like Moses and the Israelites who appear in the ornate borders of the painting, these pioneers stand at the threshold of the Promised Land, ready to fulfill what many nineteenth-century Americans believed was God’s plan for the nation.

—Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006.

I originally wrote this essay for Chronos: The Journal of the Yeshiva University Historical Society, 2004-2005, produced by Shaya Lerner and the students of Yeshiva University.

Review of:

Walter Russell Mead, Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World (New York: Routledge, 2002).

Anatol Lieven, America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (New York: Viking Penguin, 2005).

It was not the best of times for the United States Army. American soldiers had come overseas to uplift a downtrodden people and bring them the blessings of democracy and good government. Now, much to their surprise, the Americans found themselves struggling to suppress an insurgency among the people they were supposed to liberate. One soldier wrote that despite “frequent drubbings” at the hands of his comrades, the insurgents “‘bob up serenely’ at different points and it seems to be quite a job to subdue them.” Many of the soldiers were National Guardsmen without training for a mission they poorly understood and whose morale was undermined by unanticipated terrorist attacks. Army units were hobbled by a lack reliable intelligence and no knowledge of an alien culture and language. The Americans soon found that despite harsh, even savage, counterinsurgency measures—torture and abuse of prisoners, destruction of property and towns, confinement of civilians, leading to the deaths of thousands—the insurgency would not be suppressed. Iraq 2005? No, the Philippines 1899.[1]

Largely forgotten today as an epilogue to the triumphant Spanish-American War, the Philippine War remains an example of how the best of American intentions can go awry in the quest for empire. The United States took control of the Philippines largely for Hamiltonian motives of projecting America’s economic power in east Asia, but also for the Wilsonian ideal of spreading democracy. The war to suppress the Philippine insurgency soon fell into the pattern of Jacksonian wars against the Indians. American generals had spent their early careers fighting the Sioux and the Apache. Theodore Roosevelt and other boosters of empire, insisting that national honor was at stake, urged the use of Jacksonian measures of total war to “subdue the savages.”[2] 

But this was not a war that Jacksonians wanted to fight. The rank-and-file soldiers, Jacksonian nationalists all, had serious doubts about their mission and wanted nothing more than to go home. They looked with contempt on the Filipinos as “niggers,” and did not believe that the United States had any business taking on the burden of responsibility for nonwhite peoples who showed little capacity for self-government. “To use state power to reform and reconstruct societies inhabited by people whose skin colors and religions made white Americans distinctly uncomfortable was to go to the heart of the American dilemma about the appeals of liberty and empire, choice and coercion, freedom and power, whether the location was Alabama, Manhattan, or Luzon.”[3] While Jacksonian nationalists were the traditional supporters of America’s continental expansion, they had no desire to rule an overseas empire.

Equestrian Statue of Andrew Jackson in Lafayette Square, Washington, DC

Jacksonian nationalism has started to get the attention it deserves as a major force in shaping American culture and foreign policy. In large part this is due to the debate over the meaning of American empire that has taken on great urgency since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The question of whether America is a republic or an empire is an old one. While the Founding Fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, frequently described the new republic as a rising empire, critics of American foreign policy from the opponents of the Mexican War in the 1840s to the opponents of the current war in Iraq have insisted that the United States betrayed its republican ideals and institutions in pursuit of world power. In their recent works, Walter Russell Mead, Anatol Lieven, and Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton examine the historical roots of America’s impulse to empire.

Jacksonian populist nationalism is central to understanding American empire in all three of these works. The authors also place Jacksonian nationalism alongside other streams of thought in American culture: Mead contrasts Jacksonianism with the Hamiltonian, Wilsonian, and Jeffersonian “schools” of foreign policy; Lieven conceives of the Jacksonian “tradition,” which incorporates Frontier, Nativist, White South, and Protestant Fundamentalist traditions, as an antithesis to the American Creed of civic nationalism; Anderson and Cayton look at Jackson’s “vision” of a populist empire in light of the imperial visions of William Penn, George Washington, Ulysses Grant, and Douglas MacArthur. Lieven in particular finds the role of Jacksonianism in shaping American culture and foreign policy most problematic and disturbing. But all of these authors trace those aspects of American foreign policy and the American character that confound Europeans these days to Andrew Jackson and the Scots-Irish frontier settlers he represented.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Jacksonian Honor Among Pundits: Walter Russell Mead Challenges Rush Limbaugh to a Duel

by Michael Kaplan

Andrew Jackson kills Charles Dickinson in a duel, 1806

Jacksonian honor is alive and well, and in some unexpected places. Earlier this year two of my favorite pundits, Rush Limbaugh and Walter Russell Mead, engaged in an affair of honor that so far has been kept in the realm of words. Jacksonians (past and present) do not like intellectuals. In fact it’s not an exaggeration to say that Jacksonians loathe and despise the intellectual elites. The feelings are mutual. (This makes it interesting for me as both a Jacksonian and an intellectual). Outspoken contempt for academic intellectuals has long been a staple of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program and political rhetoric. It’s a large part of his appeal for his Jacksonian audience. In a January 7, 2010 segment on his radio show (titled in the transcript at “An Intellectual Analysis of Obama”), Rush attacked Walter Russell Mead for trying to analyze Barack Obama’s seemingly indecisive foreign policy on PBS’s The News Hour with Jim Lehrer instead of just calling him a coward. For Rush this showed that Mead was a head-in-the-clouds intellectual out of touch with reality. Rush, in good Jacksonian fashion, went on to mimic Mead’s ums and ahs while mocking the entire concept of intellectual analysis as mere academic narcissism:

I can do intellectual-speak. I’ve studied these people. I know how to do the affectation. I know the words. I know all this stuff, and one thing I know when you do intellectual-speak is you are not immersed in any kind of reality. You're doing something else. You’re trying to impress yourself. You’re trying to impress everybody else around you with your so-called smarts and so forth, and your ability to, “Analyze things in ways that other people just can’t come up with because, you know (deep breath), they’re just not equipped as we intellectuals are.” But in the meantime these are the last people you want with you in a foxhole. I mean, they don't even know where one is.
A caller from Birmingham, Alabama named Barry could not agree more with Rush’s contempt for the intellectual elites:

CALLER: We’ve got our emerging ruling academic elite like Russia and China, but, you know, we're talking about this intelligent elite, I'd love to see ’em stacked up with Jefferson and Madison, I’d love to see them debate with a real resonance man who can run a farm and handle commercial enterprises and really walk with common sense. These people have never seen the outside of a classroom. And, by the way, who ran the ship into the ground anyway? If Sarah Palin is ineligible because she’s not an intellectual, well, tell me, who ran the ship into the ground? I think it was the intellectuals. I’d love to have a framer, a truck driver, maybe a Sarah Palin, somebody that can kill and skin a moose perhaps.
Barry from Birmingham no doubt speaks for many Jacksonians who believe that the common sense of ordinary Americans is more important for a leader than academic credentials. Rush concluded that the real problem he has with intellectuals is that they are overeducated:

RUSH: So I just got an e-mail out there during the break: “Rush, what is an intellectual? What's so bad about smart people?” It's a good question, folks. The modern iteration of intellectual, when I use it, we’re talking about academics, people who have done nothing but spend time in a library or an office or a classroom and have no hands-on, real-world experience doing or producing anything, including meeting a payroll, pure and simple. Overeducated.
Not being one to let a challenge to his honor go unanswered, Walter Russell Mead responded in his own blog in good Jacksonian fashion, by challenging Rush to a duel:
Call me an Obama apologist, Mr. Limbaugh and I can take it. Call me a pointy headed intellectual and shill for the establishment, and I can weather the storm.
But to reproduce my ums and ahs, sir, is a step too far. Pistols at forty paces; my second will be in touch with yours to designate the time and place of our meeting.
So far there has been no word in any media outlet of this duel taking place—outside the realm of words that is. That’s just as well. After all it’s for the best that pundits pushing sixty fight their Jacksonian duels to the death in the realm of ideas.

Entertainment value aside, this exchange between Rush and Mead raises a serious issue in American history and society: what is the proper place of the intellectual and the life of the mind in a populist democracy? If Jacksonianism has an Achilles heel it is its almost visceral anti-intellectualism. Now Jacksonians do have good cause to mistrust the liberal intellectual elites, many of whom make no secret of their contempt for traditional American virtues and values and those people who uphold them. But Jacksonians, like Rush in this case, do throw out the baby with the bath water when they summarily dismiss the value and legitimacy of the life of the mind and those who dedicate themselves to it. Many intellectuals, scholars and teachers, support Jacksonian values of patriotism, honor and American exceptionalism and greatness while rejecting the anti-Americanism of the left. Historian Victor Davis Hanson is one example, as are Walter Russell Mead, Thomas Sowell, Monica Crowley, and I, your humble blogger. More on this issue in an upcoming post.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan