Is the Jacksonian Democratic Tradition Republican Now?

In an essay that’s getting a lot of attention, Jonathan Chait has consolidated many decades of arguments against a tottering mythology of the Democratic Party as an uninterrupted tradition that stretches back to Andrew Jackson (and though he’s not the subject of Chait’s attentions, to Thomas Jefferson as well). And in doing so, he tries to kill off the persistent idea that Barack Obama has forfeited the support of white working class “Jacksonian” voters, who may be brought back into the party fold by, say, Hillary Clinton.

I agree with most of Chait’s reasoning, and particularly with his debunking of Arthur Schlesinger’s The Age of Jackson (which was still treated as historical holy writ when I was in college) as a distortion of the Second Party System in the service of the Fifth, the New Deal Era in which southern “Jacksonian” Democrats more or less supported the New Deal in exchange for federal non-interference in Jim Crow.

I certainly have no illusions about Jackson’s reactionary impulses, being from Georgia, the state where rabid and land-hungry support for his policy of Indian Removal was sort of the original sin of the dominant political faction of that era, and also descending from Appalachian Scots-Irish stock (My paternal grandfather was named Andrew Jackson Kilgore, a pretty common name in Georgia to this day), the heart of Jackson’s political base. Without question, as Chait notes, Schlesinger’s white-washing of Indian Removal is telling.

But so, too, is Chait’s odd omission of Jackson’s one authentic claim to the centralizing tendency characteristic of mid-to-late twentieth century liberalism: his behavior during the Nullification Crisis. There’s every reason to believe that had he somehow lived until the Civil War, his position would have been that of his very self-conscious Scots-Irish Jacksonian Democratic successor from his own state of Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. In other words, he would have fought the Confederacy with great bitterness, but would have then gone on to support the “Union as it was and the Constitution as it is,” like Johnson, opposing the Fourteenth Amendment and congressional reconstruction. So Jacksonism represents a tradition that’s a bit different from the untrammeled southern racism Chait attributes to The Hero.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the Second Party System only became purely regional at its end (the 1860 election Chait cites as showing the complete inversion of the parties between the Era of Jackson and today’s party structure). There were plenty of anti-slavery Jacksonian Democrats (the ultimate Jacksonian Democrat, Thomas Hart Benton, came to despise slavery, and even more famously, Jackson’s successor and the architect of the Democratic Party, Martin van Buren, ran for president on the Free Soil Party’s ticket in 1848), and plenty of pro-slavery Whigs (e.g., the future vice president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens). And far from being an early replica of today’s Democratic Party, the Whigs were often self-consciously aristocratic and prone to politicized Protestant Christianity (it wasn’t an accident that Irish-American Catholics formed a bond with the Democratic Party during the Jackson Era that has faint echoes even today).

Aside from his hostility to secession and nullification, there are other limited perspectives from which Jackson did anticipate modern progressive views, notably in his hatred towards what we might now call “corporate welfare.”

So the idea that today’s parties are simply the reverse of those of the Age of Jackson, while useful, isn’t entirely accurate. Just as we pause at Jefferson’s views on church-state separation before labeling him the father of “constitutional conservatism,” there are discontinuities in both the major party traditions after him.

Still, the idea there is some distinctively Jacksonian Democracy out there waiting to be harvested by–let’s face it, this is what some anti-Obama writers implicitly suggest–a national Democratic leader of the right race or the right “populist” ideology is quixotic at best and offensive at worst. You can call it the Party of Obama now as Chait does, if you wish, but it’s really the party formed by Americans who unambiguously view the federal government as the instrument of equality and opportunity and prosperity built on the work and talents of every citizen, who in an old-fashioned Jacksonian sense deserve the full fruits of their labor.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.