Managing the Jacksonian Instinct for Revenge

Peter Beinart echoes my analysis of the tough rhetoric coming out of the administration, particularly from Vice-President Joe Biden. I’m constitutionally opposed to the Hegelian fascination with building systems, so I don’t really want to try to understand American foreign policy by breaking it into Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian categories. But, it’s an exercise that can illuminate some things. The primal call for revenge is Jacksonian. And that’s what Biden and Kerry were feeding with their tough talk about how we’re going to deal with the Islamic State.

The question is, in feeding that tradition, do they make it stronger and more demanding (as Ed seems to think) or do they satiate it so that is has less power to coerce (as Peter and I believe)?

You can argue either way, but it’s clear that pandering to the impulse is not the same as following it.

And it’s such a powerful impulse that I don’t think you can ignore it or pretend that it doesn’t exist or behave as if it has no legitimacy.

When an individual is legitimately incensed and wants immediate justice, you can use various strategies to get them to calm down and let cooler heads prevail. You can tear gas and fire rubber bullets at them and blame the victims, as was attempted in Ferguson, Missouri. You can offer to seek justice on their behalf, as the Justice Department promised to do. You can distract them with a shiny object. You can stall and let the passage of time do your work for you.

But you can’t do nothing.

I think people are legitimately incensed that American citizens have been beheaded. The administration has to respond to that. They have to respect that feeling, and they’re entitled to share that feeling.

But foreign policy ultimately cannot be crafted on feelings alone. It must be carefully planned and thought out, and it must be realistic and achievable. When George W. Bush used a bullhorn to promise revenge for the 9/11 attacks, he earned a lot of good will because it was what people wanted to hear. That, in itself, wasn’t the problem. The problem was that they followed the Jacksonian tradition after that and pursued a policy that was driven more by revenge than thoughtfulness.

President Obama cannot ignore people’s desire for revenge, and he must manage that public rage. But, once that rage is managed, he must try to find solutions that will actually work. No, you can’t kill Americans with impunity just because it’s difficult to strike back.

We can figure this out.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.