No, Bernie Sanders Is Not a Jacksonian

Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons

I’ve already made my view known that the Democratic Party ought to stop making its primary identifier the legacy of two early nineteenth century white southern slave-owning Constitutional Conservatives, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. State Democratic parties in Connecticut, Iowa, Missouri, and my own stomping grounds of Georgia have agreed, with others considering a change in the name of their annual fundraising dinners.

I know some people disagree, at least with dropping Jefferson; my WaMo colleague Martin Longman made a passionate case for maintaining a progressive, if not necessarily Democratic, claim to the heritage of the chief author of the Declaration of Independence. And without question, some confusion has been introduced into the discussion by the planted axiom that updating the name of a fundraising dinner by a century or two means “disowning” or “repudiating” Jefferson and Jackson, as though mobs were about to descend on libraries to burn copies of their biographies.

But however you come down on this largely symbolic matter, it’s really going too far to transpose this debate onto the current fissures of the Democratic Party involving white economic “populists” like Bernie Sanders and people of color who want racial justice issues explicitly addressed by the party they have so loyally supported. Unfortunately, that’s what the New York Times‘ Jonathan Martin does in a highly dubious interpretation of the J-J debate. You get a sense of where he’s going right away:

Political candidates and activists across the country have flocked to annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners, where speeches are given, money is raised, and the party celebrates its past and its future.

But these time-honored rituals are colliding with a modern Democratic Party more energized by a desire for racial and gender inclusion than reverence for history. And state by state, Democratic activists are removing the names of Jefferson and Jackson from party gatherings, saying the two men no longer represent what it means to be a Democrat.

He doesn’t quite say this is a “politically correct” bowdlerization of history, but comes close. And he quickly goes on to set this up as a dispute between people who care about economics and well as history, and people obsessed with race and gender:

For all the attention this summer to the fight over the Confederate battle flag, the less noticed moves by Democratic parties to remove Jefferson and Jackson from their official identity underscore one of the most consequential trends of American politics: Democrats’ shift from a union-powered party organized primarily around economic solidarity to one shaped by racial and sexual identity.

It’s just a short step from that claim to suggesting that it’s the true source of the conflict between Bernie Sanders and #BlackLivesMatter:

The shift can be seen as Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a Democratic socialist whose campaign is shaped by class-oriented progressive politics, has been confronted by black activists demanding answers for how he would address inequities they believe are derived entirely from racial discrimination. Mr. Sanders, who is 73, is trying to adjust to a changing party, sometimes uncomfortably. He is now speaking more explicitly about policing, has hired an African-American spokeswoman and has added more diversity on stage at his heavily attended rallies.

And then, of course, Martin gives us the essential Democrats in Disarray ingredient:

The move to erase Jefferson and Jackson is not being welcomed by all Democrats. Some of them fear the party loses what has long been its unifying philosophy by removing the names of founders, whose virtues and flaws illuminated the way forward. And they worry that as the labor movement declines, cultural liberalism is beginning to eclipse a fundamental message of economic equality that brought about some of the party’s most important achievements, from the New Deal to Medicaid.

“What does the Democratic Party stand for?’’ asked Andrei Cherny, a Democratic writer and a former speechwriter for Bill Clinton. “Jefferson and Jackson and the ideas they stood for, spreading economic opportunity and democracy, were the beginnings of what was the Democratic Party. That is what unified the party across regional and other lines for most of the last 200 years. Now what unites everybody from Kim Kardashian to a party activist in Kansas is cultural liberalism and civil rights.”

Now I’d observe that any framing of the divisions in the Democratic Party that puts Bernie Sanders and my former DLC colleague Andrei Cherny in the same boat needs its premises checked. But beyond that, this idea that exquisite race and gender sensitivities are the only possible reason for discontinuing the “J-J” label is just plain wrong.

Was Thomas Jefferson’s basic “idea” actually “spreading economic opportunity and democracy?” Maybe as compared to his neo-aristocratic Federalist opponents it seemed to be so, but it’s a bit hard to forget that Jefferson was also an ardent supporter of states’ rights and absolute constitutional limits on government power, especially at the federal level, and viewed agrarian property-owners as the bedrock of self-government. It’s hard to imagine someone more inherently hostile to the constituent elements and operating principles of today’s Democratic Party. And is there any organic connection between Andrew Jackson and the “New Deal and Medicaid?” Yes, the historian Andrew Schlesinger conducted a heroic effort to make that claim, largely in service to the alliance between New Deal Democracy and the Jim Crow South. But in reality Jackson was a small-government ideologue who supported hard money as avidly as any Gilded Age Republican and viewed most federal activities beyond the bare essentials as unconstitutional.

The idea that Bernie Sanders is the heir to Andrew Jackson simply because both talk about the “common man” and attack elites is really a bit ludicrous–as is the idea that those troublesome blacks and feminists are profaning sacred ground by trying to separate the Donkey Party from its “founders.” I mean, seriously: anyone who doesn’t realize the two parties have largely reversed positions on many issues since the days of Jefferson and Jackson shouldn’t be lecturing the rest of us about “reverence for history.”

So let’s please take a long look at this framing of the actually pretty minor controversy over the name of Democratic dinners before we lurch down the twisted path of lumping together Bernie Sanders and Andrew Jackson–and not just because The Hero was a slave-owner with a genocidal hatred of Native Americans.

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.