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.

Populist suspicion of intellectuals and other elites can be traced back to the early days of the republic. The Scots-Irish settlers of the backcountry had a particular hatred for the intellectual elites of Old and New England. They were a high spirited and sensual but economically hard pressed people, who had neither opportunity for nor saw much value in book learning. Senator James Webb, one of the small number of Jacksonians still in the Democratic Party, wrote in his book Born Fighting [pp. 88-89], that the Scots-Irish “were not monks and nuns” nor “were they Talmudic scholars. Most of them had little or no schooling, knew no refined trade, and had read no book except perhaps the Bible.” On the Borders of England and Scotland, the marches of Ulster, and the backcountry of the Carolinas, fighting was a far more highly valued skill than writing. And the Scots-Irish were fierce fighters indeed, driven by a love of liberty and equality, their code of honor, and their refusal to submit to any authority they deemed illegitimate. These were not people who took kindly to condescension, nor were they likely to be swayed by the nuanced arguments of intellectual discourse. “And if any man, no matter how highly born, should strike or offend them, it was their credo to strike back twice as hard.” These character traits are very much part of Jacksonian populist culture today.

In contrast, the Founding Fathers who led the American Revolution were a genuine intellectual elite. Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Patrick Henry, John Dickinson, and I could go on, were men of broad and deep learning, products of the European Enlightenment who assimilated the complete body of knowledge of eighteenth-century Western civilization. In their writings and debates they set forth the ideals of life, liberty, self-government, and the pursuit of happiness that would define the American creed. But it was a man of action and character, George Washington, the least educated of the Founders, who provided the unifying leadership that won the Revolution. American liberty means nothing, Ralph Peters reminds us, unless it is backed up and defended by patriots willing to fight and die for it. The Declaration of Independence would only be noble words on a piece of paper without Washington and the soldiers of the Continental Army. Elite intellectuals and ordinary people had to work together to throw off the yoke of King George III and his ministers.
It took courage to affix a signature to the Declaration. But it had taken another kind of courage entirely to stand at Lexington and Concord the year before. Our Founding Fathers would have become hopeless fugitives, had determined soldiers not stood by Gen. Washington—from the disaster on Long Island, through the misery of Valley Forge and on to Yorktown.
Jacksonians do not love war, but they understand that it is sometimes the price of liberty. Even so most Americans, during the Revolution and ever since, have preferred to let a minority of patriots, often from the working classes, fight and die for the nation’s liberty while they pursue happiness and profit. Or as historian Walter McDougall put it in his book Throes of Democracy [p. xxiii]: “As has been the case throughout much of American history, the honor and sacrifice of a few, with George Washington at their head, secured the freedoms of the many.”

Lieutenant Colonel Banastre "Bloody" Tarleton, terror of the Carolina backcountry

And, it must be emphasized, the American Revolution could not have been won without the contribution of the Scots-Irish frontiersmen. The three major blocs of the Patriot alliance that fought for independence were the Yankee Puritans of New England, the planters of the Tidewater South, and the Scots-Irish of the backcountry stretching from Pennsylvania through Georgia. In the critical years of 1780 and 1781 Scots-Irish Patriot guerillas in the Carolina backcountry tied down the British forces of General Lord Cornwallis and his dragoon commander, Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton, and their Loyalist guerilla auxiliaries. The young Andrew Jackson had his baptism of fire in this bloody guerilla warfare which ravaged his native community, the Waxhaws. Jackson always regretted that hadn’t taken the shot to kill “Bloody” Tarleton when he had the chance. For the rest of his life he bore the scars from being struck by the sword of one of Tarleton’s lieutenants. Historians Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton commented in The Dominion of War [p. 211] that Jackson “learned what he knew of moral philosophy from the British soldier Banastre Tarleton, not David Hume, and he was always more comfortable with a pistol than a pen.” Jackson’s experience of the Revolution was very different from that of his contemporary and future rival John Quincy Adams. While the young Jackson was fighting a war for survival in the Carolina backcountry, the young Adams was serving his country by learning the art of diplomacy at the side of his father John Adams in the royal courts Europe. These contrasting experiences of the Revolution would define the careers and life paths of Adams, the intellectual and diplomat, and Jackson, the warrior and man of action. America needed both of these men, passionate and committed patriots, who would end up on a collision course in 1824 and 1828.

The American Revolution unleashed a radical populist energy that in a generation would break the bonds of social hierarchy, already weak in America, and overwhelm the elite politics of the Founders. The Federalist Party of Alexander Hamilton would lose power to Thomas Jefferson’s Republican Party in 1800 because the Federalists, men of wealth, good birth, and higher education, made no secret of their contempt for average Americans. The Federalists saw themselves as the new republic's natural aristocracy—the wise fathers of the people who would provide the guidance a provincial, uneducated, and child-like citizenry needed, and expected in return the social and political deference due to wise fathers of the people. But the Federalists really had no clue of the magnitude of the transformation the Revolution had wrought on the American people. Americans who lived through the crucible of the Revolution, who liberated themselves by force of arms and ideas from the bonds of the British monarchy, did not see themselves as children needing guidance. Freed from the remaining hierarchical restraints of the colonial period, the average white male citizens of the new republic had no intention deferring any longer to their so-called social betters. They would forcefully assert themselves in politics and society, and they would find their hero and champion in Andrew Jackson.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan