The Age of Jackson (Again)

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The Age of Jackson

by Daniel McCarthy by Daniel McCarthy

The ides of March don’t always bring bad news for Caesar. The Roman Gaius Julius might have been assassinated on that day in 44 B.C., but here in the United States some 1,800 years later another conquering general and paladin of executive power later accused of seeking to establish a "military monarchy" was born. And this year, somewhere in hell the shade of Andrew Jackson had more to celebrate more than just his birthday.

As Fred Barnes of the Weekly Standard would have it, we are in the midst of a paleo moment — "paleo" as in paleoconservative, that is. Grassroots Republicans have taken to arms against the party’s leadership over illegal immigration, the Dubai ports deal, untrammeled federal spending, and the morass in Iraq. Barnes frets that this could cost the GOP dearly come November. Not that he thinks the Bush administration should amend its course; no, Barnes just fears that paleo-pessimism — "gloomy, negative, defeatist, isolationist, nativist, and protectionist" — will scare away all the Republican-voting Hispanics.

National Review’s Rich Lowry has his own feelings of unease. In the magazine’s March 27 issue he admonishes the fair-weather warmongers he calls "to hell with them" hawks, whose sin is a lack of faith in the prospect of making good democrats out of the Iraqi people or Muslims in general. Lowry calls them "to hell with them" hawks, but there’s a simpler, more elegant term for these Americans who favor an interventionist foreign policy but doubt the wisdom of Wilsonian crusades for democracy: for fifty years now, they’ve been plain-vanilla, no-prefix-needed conservatives.

They are also, as Lowry acknowledges, Jacksonians. This is not a paleo moment, it’s a new Age of Jackson. Citing Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Walter Russell Mead’s division of American foreign-policy thought into four schools — Jacksonian, Wilsonian, Jeffersonian, Hamiltonian — Lowry places the "to hell with them" hawks firmly in the Jacksonian camp. But he understates just how important this bloc is to the Bush coalition and the extent to which these are the same people who reject Bush’s immigration policies. Fred Barnes is right to be worried. Unfortunately, the rest of us have cause for alarm as well.

Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World is the work in which Mead sets out the four strands of American thinking on war and diplomacy. It deserves to be as widely read as Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and is a much better book than Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. But Mead’s volume doesn’t have as sexy a title as Huntington’s or Fukuyama’s — and it had the misfortune of being published in October 2001. With 80 percent of the public rallying to President Bush, the divisions examined by Mead might have seemed obsolete. In fact, as subsequent events have shown, Mead’s work was prescient, and his discussion of the Jacksonians accounts better for the course of the Iraq War in the court of public opinion than most later analyses do.

(Mead’s title, by the way, comes from a quip attributed to Bismarck: "God has special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America." For a more memorable hook, perhaps Mead should have called the book Fools, Drunks, and Americans.)

The Jacksonian American, as Mead describes him both in Special Providence and in his 1999 essay "The Jacksonian Tradition and American Foreign Policy," fits the profile of the conservative Bush voter — and now Bush critic — to a proverbial tee. By their own lights, Jacksonians are populists (and "profoundly suspicious of elites," according to Mead); unselfconsciously patriotic or nationalistic; and deeply religious, with a tendency toward fundamentalism and its emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God. Country music is their quintessential cultural expression.

They admire self-sufficiency, but unlike Jeffersonian libertarians, Jacksonians are not averse to finding a positive role for government as long as it fights on the right side of the cultural divide. "Jacksonians believe that government should do everything in its power to promote the well-being — political, moral, economic — of the folk community," Mead writes. The military is part of that community: "When it comes to Big Government, Jeffersonians worry more about the military than about anything else. But for Jacksonians, spending money on the military is one of the best things governments do."

Moreover, "while Jeffersonians espouse a minimalist realism under which the United States seeks to define its interests as narrowly as possible and defend those interests with an absolute minimum of force, Jacksonians approach foreign policy in a very different spirit — one in which honor, concern for reputation, and faith in military institutions play a much greater role." This honor, Mead notes, "in the Jacksonian imagination is not simply what one feels oneself to be on the inside; it is also a question of the respect and dignity one commands in the world at large."

The trait that most sets Jacksonians apart is their attitude toward war. They are fierce, brave, and, all too often, bloodthirsty. As they see it, "Our diplomacy must be cunning, forceful and no more scrupulous than anybody else’s. At times, we must fight pre-emptive wars. [Mead wrote this in 1999.] There is absolutely nothing wrong with subverting foreign governments or assassinating foreign leaders whose bad intentions are clear. Thus, Jacksonians are more likely to tax political leaders with a failure to employ vigorous measures than to worry about the niceties of international law."

Jacksonians made Bush’s administration — providing both his hawkish national-security voters and his fundamentalist values-voters, as well as much of the country-music loving Republican base — and they can break it. Jacksonians helped turn out of office Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and arguably George H.W. Bush for failing to fight hard enough; in any conflict, Mead warns, "once engaged, politicians cannot safely end the war except on Jacksonian terms." John Moser of Ashland University reiterated the point two years ago — "Having been convinced that the occupation of Iraq was a necessary component of the War on Terror, [Jacksonians] will hold Bush accountable if they feel the war is not being fought in earnest." That’s just what they’re doing.

Jacksonians have little patience with the rules of war; to them, as Mead writes, "the use of limited force is deeply repugnant." Up to a point, their nationalistic zeal and military prowess are of great use to Wilsonians. But Jacksonians want total war — their heroes are men like Curtis LeMay and William Tecumseh Sherman, though the fact that so many Jacksonians are Southerners suppresses their enthusiasm for him somewhat.

Wilsonians fear that too much demonization of the enemy becomes a barrier to democratization. Thus Rich Lowry says of "the contention that Islam is a religion of peace" that "[e]ven if this seems a polite fiction, it is an important one." He upbraids Jacksonian conservatives for wanting "to write off reforming Islam." And if liberal democracy has yet to show any glimmer of taking hold in Middle East, well, "there are no shortcuts, or guarantees of victory."

But Jacksonians believe that there is a guarantee of defeat — failure to fight with all the of nation’s resources, as ruthlessly as necessary. Wilsonians like Lowry cite the post-World War II reconstruction of Germany and Japan as examples of successful nation-building, but the Jacksonians have a comeback to that: before Germany and Japan could be rebuilt, they had to be destroyed — Tokyo and Dresden firebombed, Nagasaki and Hiroshima nuked, hundreds of thousands of civilians incinerated. Mead describes their philosophy:

Jacksonian opinion takes a broad view of the permissible targets in war. Again reflecting a very old cultural heritage, Jacksonians believe that the enemy’s will to fight is a legitimate target of war, even if this involves American forces in attacks on civilian lives, establishments and property.

Probably as a result of frontier warfare, Jacksonian opinion came to believe that it was breaking the spirit of the enemy nation, rather than the fighting power of the enemy’s armies, that was the chief object of warfare. It was not enough to defeat a tribe in battle; one had to u2018pacify’ the tribe, to convince it utterly that resistance was and always would be futile and destructive. For this to happen, the war had to go to the enemy’s home. The villages had to be burned, food supplies destroyed, civilians had to be killed. From the tiniest child to the most revered of the elderly sages, everyone in the enemy nation had to understand that further armed resistance to the will of the American people — whatever that might be — was simply not an option.

The Wilsonian leadership of the conservative movement would rather not admit just how Jacksonian its grassroots really are. So Lowry says that "Sotto voce, conservatives have said among themselves of Islam, after some horrific terror attack, u2018This is a religion of peace?’ And a small group of vocal right-wing experts have knocked Bush for his u2018Islam is peace’ rhetoric from the beginning." On the contrary, there is nothing either sotto voce or small about conservative criticisms of Islam — at least at the popular level. Think of all the loyal readers of Ann Coulter and the anti-Muslim blogosphere.

Neoconservative pundits have sometimes asked paleoconservatives just how it was that supposed ex-Trotskyites came to hijack the Right. The answer is simply that ordinary Middle American conservatives are neither neo (Wilsonian) nor paleo (Jeffersonian or Adamsian), but Jacksonian. Since 9/11, they have found common cause with the Wilsonians in fighting real wars abroad and a different kind of "war on terror" — or a war on civil liberties, anyway — here at home.

But the Wilsonian-Jacksonian axis has always been wobbly. The "to hell with them" hawks have defied National Review before. A measure of their strength among the activists of the Right can be seen in the career of Ann Coulter, whose popularity with attendees at the conservative movement’s annual CPAC gathering has flourished. She’s a rare Jacksonian pundit: after 9/11, she called for unlimited warfare against Arab Muslims, demanding that the U.S. "should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity. We weren’t punctilious about locating and punishing only Hitler and his top officers. We carpet-bombed German cities; we killed civilians. That’s war. And this is war." NR anathematized her after that column and its follow-up. But the magazine that had earlier purged Old Right Jeffersonians like Murray Rothbard failed this time; at CPAC this year, Coulter’s Muslim-baiting remarks brought down the house. She, much more than Lowry, speaks for the movement’s rank-and-file.

The Dubai ports flap was another clear example of Jacksonian rebellion. National Review and neoconservatives like Charles Krauthammer — the man who gave Rich Lowry his start in journalism — called for calm in the early stages of that teapot tempest. But the Republican Congress, sensitive to the Jacksonian disposition of its constituents, preferred hysteria — as evidence, see Rep. Sue Myrick’s astonishingly puerile letter to the president protesting the deal.

And immigration has long been a source of dissension between Hamiltonians and Wilsonians on the one hand — believers, respectively, that immigration should be a question of economic utility or a matter of ideological assent to democratic humbug — and Jacksonians on the other. The latter, as Mead describes them, "are … skeptical, on both cultural and economic grounds, of the benefits of immigration, which is seen as endangering the cohesion of the folk community and introducing new, low-wage competition for jobs." Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo — staunchly supportive of the 2nd Amendment, anti-immigration, pro-war, and prone to the occasional overheated remark that the U.S. might bomb Mecca — is a model Jacksonian.

The Jacksonian character begins with the Scots-Irish, including Jackson himself, whose family came from Ulster. But today one doesn’t need Scots-Irish blood to be a Jacksonian; the Scots-Irish ethos is highly assimilationist. James Webb, in Born Fighting, his history of the Scots-Irish, provides an illustration of this when he relates a suggestion he once made to a former member of the Irish Republican Army (the bracketed remarks are Webb’s own):

Half facetiously, I commented that perhaps [then prime minister] Maggie Thatcher could alleviate the problem in Hong Kong and help resolve the Troubles in Northern Ireland by allowing a hundred thousand Hong Kong Chinese to emigrate to Ulster.

He laughed, then grew deadly serious. u2018You’re wrong, you see, because you underestimate the power of the Celtic culture. We’d absorb them,’ he said. u2018Within ten years we’d have the IRA [Catholic-supporting] Chinese and the Orange [Protestant-supporting] Chinese.’

In matters of immigration and assimilation, Jacksonians differ from Jeffersonians as well as Hamiltonians and Wilsonians. Jeffersonians don’t necessarily want to assimilate anyone else — they tend to be believers in real cultural and geographic diversity, what Russell Kirk, an Adamsian, called "affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence" — but don’t want to be assimilated themselves, either. (Think of Jefferson, who took religious tolerance seriously, but who removed his daughter from a French convent school after she told him she was thinking of becoming a nun. He didn’t hate Catholics, but neither did he want his daughter becoming alienated from him by abandoning his beliefs — or non-beliefs — and joining the Catholic Church.) Something like the discrete patchwork cultures of Switzerland, rather than any sort of homogenized national melting pot, is the Jeffersonian ideal.

Jacksonians, on the other hand, are strong believers in a national culture and community. In the words of Anatol Lieven:

Like Jackson, the numerous descendants of this tradition have had a strong sense that this community is threatened by alien and savage u2018others.’ They have also had a sense that they constitute in some way the authentic American people, or folk; the backbone of the nation, possessing a form of what German nationalists called the gesunder Volkssinn (u2018healthy sense of belonging to the people’), embracing correct national forms of religion, social behavior and patriotism. With time, they have come to accept people first of different ethnicities, then of different races, as members of the American community — but only so long as they conform to American norms and become u2018part of the team.’

And what happens to the non-conformists and outsiders? "The freedom of aliens and deviants, who do not share the folk culture," Lieven writes, "can therefore legitimately be circumscribed by authoritarian and even savage means, as long as this is to defend the community and reflects the will of the sound members of the community." Andrew Jackson’s treatment of the Cherokee — setting in motion the "Trail of Tears" — is emblematic, all the more so because the Cherokee were civilized, Christianized Indians who sought recourse to the Supreme Court rather than taking to arms. But fine distinctions between "good" Indians and "bad" Indians didn’t interest Jackson or the Georgians who expelled the Cherokee from their homelands, in an act of what would today be called ethnic cleansing. (Many latter-day Jacksonians have just as much trouble distinguishing between different kinds of Muslims and Arabs — hence the conflation of Iraq with al-Qaeda and the knee-jerk hostility to Dubai.)

And of course, when the Supreme Court decided in favor of the Cherokee, Jackson’s response — possibly apocryphal — was to say, "John Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it." Something like that attitude toward the rule of law still exists among many Jacksonians, who can see their way clear to circumscribing the liberties of suspected terrorists and other enemies. A poll from late 2004 found that 44 percent of Americans "favored at least some restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslim Americans" and "27 percent of respondents supported requiring all Muslim Americans to register where they live with the federal government." Where civil liberties are concerned, Jacksonians all too often live down to the description Thomas Jefferson gave of his fellow Southerners in a letter to the Marquis de Chastellux of Sept. 2, 1785: "In the South they are … zealous for their own liberties, but trampling on those of others."

Jacksonians are not always so indifferent or hostile to the rights of outsiders, even in times of war, but there remains a sharp distinction between their notions of freedom and those of the Jeffersonians, who tend to believe, according to Mead, that "Liberty is infinitely precious, and almost as infinitely fragile." "When the U.S. government rounded up an undisclosed number of aliens and held them for months without disclosing their names," he writes in the paperback edition of Special Providence, "Jeffersonians saw violations of precisely the values that made the United States worth fighting for."

On the other side of the ledger, "Jeffersonian squeamishness about American power and the use of force strikes Jacksonian sensibilities as weak and muddleheaded, while the Jeffersonian critiques of the motives and morals of American foreign policy seem almost anti-American." Wilsonians effectively exploited this division between Jacksonians and Jeffersonians in the months after 9/11 — David Frum’s "Unpatriotic Conservatives" stands as a good example — even though, as Mead notes, "Jacksonians are smart enough to know that the children of Wilsonian war hawks will generally stay far, far away from the slaughterhouses of our future wars."

Now, with the Iraq War looking more like tar pit every day, is a rapprochement between Jacksonians and Jeffersonians in the offing? They have found common ground before. Both in the 1990s were opposed to the Bush-Clinton New World Order and skeptical of Hamiltonian free (or, really, managed) trade agreements like NAFTA, and now CAFTA. And, more importantly, there are some Jacksonians who have pronounced Jeffersonian tendencies. Mead never intended his categories to be mutually exclusive or scientifically precise.

One Jacksonian with Jeffersonian leanings is James Webb, historian of the American Scots-Irish and a former Reagan administration secretary of the Navy, who is running as an outspokenly antiwar — at least, anti-Iraq War — Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Virginia, opposing Republican Sen. George Allen, a Bush stalwart and ’08 presidential prospect. As well as having been against the Iraq War from the start and calling for a reduction of U.S. forces abroad ("…this relocation out of Europe needed to take place. What I worry about is the smaller set of bases going into other countries, and (most importantly) the logic of this Administration that we should be a permanent occupying power in the Middle East"), Webb, in an interview on the Daily Kos blog, sounds a Jeffersonian note in his comments about Bush’s warrantless wiretapping of Americans:

My strong feeling is that we need to keep talking about these abuses, and bring people into the Congress who will stand up to them. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a Congress that was willing to subpoena the right officials, and that demanded to see what the administration was really doing, and who, exactly, was being listened to during those NSA sessions?

And he’s likely to please many Jeffersonians and Jacksonians alike with his views on the Second Amendment and the limits of state power: "I support the Second Amendment, for many of the same reasons that I am more u2018liberal’ on social issues. I believe the power of the government should stop at my front door, and that I should have the ability to protect myself and my family."

On the whole, however, despite the Jacksonians of the country turning against the Wilsonian-Hamiltonian leadership of the Republican Party, the constituency for war in this country remains enormous. And whatever happens in 2006, the outlook for 2008 is dire, with the presidential election likely to pit John McCain, a Jacksonian of the worst sort who has said all along that the United States should escalate its prosecution of the Iraq War, against Hillary Clinton, a Democrat eager to prove that a woman can be every inch as manly as Old Hickory himself when it comes to war.

For the Jeffersonian, politics offers no long-term answer. His mission must start, and perhaps end, with education; Jefferson himself believed that only an educated public could preserve its rights. Above all what is needed now is education in the Jeffersonian tradition itself. A year ago I gave a talk to a few students at a conservative organization here in Washington, D.C., in which I commended to them the works of Jefferson and later Jeffersonians. I was surprised to be told by one student afterwards that he had long been told to discount Jefferson for having been a votary of the French Revolution. Well, yes, he was, and he also held slaves. Doctrinaires of the left and right alike have found ample reason to denounce Jefferson. But for all that, he still best represents the ideals of the early republic — and to appreciate that republic, there’s no better course of study than to examine the life and work of the man himself.

(Good places to start: R.B. Bernstein’s short biography Thomas Jefferson; the Viking Portable Library’s Portable Thomas Jefferson, edited by Merrill Peterson; and Albert Jay Nock’s exemplary character study Mr. Jefferson. The University of North Carolina press has also compiled the complete correspondence between Jefferson and John and Abigail Adams in one indispensable volume, the Adams-Jefferson Letters. And one can’t go wrong with the Library of America’s edition of Henry Adams’s classic History of the United States During the Administrations of Jefferson.)

The sage of Monticello, though, is only the beginning of a tradition. The foreign-policy Jeffersonianism that Mead traces is eclectic indeed, ranging from John Quincy Adams1 (ironically, since Jefferson supported Jackson against Adams in the 1824 presidential election) to such disparate figures as Mark Twain, Charles A. Beard, George Kennan, and Gore Vidal. And it should come as no surprise that, as Mead writes, "the libertarian movement is an expression of Jeffersonian thought." Indeed, "Jeffersonian skepticism about the merits of an active foreign policy has libertarian roots, and more than any of the other schools, Jeffersonians have consistently tried to ensure that the same anti-big-government logic that is so often so powerful in domestic politics be extended to the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy."

For 60 years the U.S. has followed a Hamiltonian-Wilsonian line. The ’90s briefly offered the prospect of retrenchment, but somehow the 9/11 attacks were pinned on Jeffersonians — as if keeping bases in the Muslim holy land, toppling Mossadegh, backing Saddam against Iran, and supporting the Mujahideen so as to keep Afghanistan safe for Sharia were Jeffersonian policies. Grand strategies plotted by Hamiltonians and Wilsonians led to disaster, but the Jacksonian public, and especially its right wing, vented its frustrations elsewhere. Now the Jacksonians are beginning to realize their mistake. If they are not to make the same error again, the Jeffersonian tradition in one form or another will have to be revived. An age of Jackson is no substitute for the Jeffersonian republic.

Note

  1. The muted Adamsian tradition, not one discussed in Special Providence, has been largely subsumed by Jeffersonianism. The rapport between John Adams and Jefferson, for all their differences, is plain enough from the correspondence; the two had more in common with each other than either had with Hamilton or Jackson or could have had with Wilson. Moreover, an Adams who has lost his faith in existing institutions can be very difficult to distinguish from a Jefferson who has lost his faith in the people.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is literary editor for the American Conservative. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.

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