Summary: Populism’s resurgence has, as always, terrified our ruling elites and their servants. Since most journalists don’t understand it, Campaign 2016 is a series of surprises to them. This excerpt from Walter Russell Mead’s famous essay about Andrew Jackson’s populism is a first step to doing so. First, populism is almost as old as the Republic (2016 is just its latest resurgence). Second, populism is different from conservatism…
From the early stirrings of his campaign, the similarities between Trump and Andrew Jackson were obvious — as seen in these superficial articles by PBS and The New York Post, and this recent one in the NYT. Trump’s isolationist foreign policy (but bellicose towards threats), his hostility to both Wall Street bankers and minorities, his concern for the poor, his appeal to national greatness — these astonished our elites in 1830 and again each time populism arises. They despised Jackson in 1830 as they despise Trump today.
Since the foolish rebuttals have failed to derail Trump’s campaign (e.g., running silly pictures of Trump, mocking his soundbites while ignoring his policies, and authoritarian condemnations), let’s try understanding what’s happening before our now-standard recourse to hysteria (so aptly mocked on South Park). Populism is crude, nativist, — and racist (our original sin that has tainted almost everything from the Founding to the New Deal). But it addresses ills in America that our leaders enjoy, so our political gurus work to keep you from learning about populism and its latest expression via Donald Trump.
The populist resurgence will not end with Trump in November. To better understand it I recommend starting with Walter Russell Mead’s seminal essay explaining the strengths and weakness of populism — as one of the four core Americn political traditions. It’s a must-read to understand the surprising rise of Trump.
Excerpt from “The Jacksonian Tradition“
Walter Russell Mead in The National Interest, Winter 1999/2000
The School of Andrew Jackson
With the ever ready help of the brilliant Martin Van Buren, he took American politics from the era of silk stockings into the smoke-filled room. Every political party since his presidency has drawn on the symbolism, the institutions and the instruments of power that Jackson pioneered.
… His political movement — or, more accurately, the community of political feeling that he wielded into an instrument of power — remains in many ways the most important in American politics. Solidly Democratic through the Truman administration (a tradition commemorated in the annual Jefferson-Jackson Day dinners that are still the high points on Democratic Party calendars in many cities and states), Jacksonian America shifted toward the Republican Party under Richard Nixon — the most important political change in American life since the Second World War. The future of Jacksonian political allegiance will be one of the keys to the politics of the twenty-first century.
Suspicious of untrammeled federal power (Waco), skeptical about the prospects for domestic and foreign do-gooding (welfare at home, foreign aid abroad), opposed to federal taxes but obstinately fond of federal programs seen as primarily helping the middle class (Social Security and Medicare, mortgage interest subsidies), Jacksonians constitute a large political interest.
In some ways Jacksonians resemble the Jeffersonians, with whom their political fortunes were linked for so many decades. Like Jeffersonians, Jacksonians are profoundly suspicious of elites. They generally prefer a loose federal structure with as much power as possible retained by states and local governments. But the differences between the two movements run very deep — so deep that during the Cold War they were on dead opposite sides of most important foreign policy questions. To use the language of the Vietnam era, a time when Jeffersonians and Jacksonians were fighting in the streets over foreign policy, the former were the most dovish current in mainstream political thought during the Cold War, while the latter were the most consistently hawkish.
One way to grasp the difference between the two schools is to see that both Jeffersonians and Jacksonians are civil libertarians, passionately attached to the Constitution and especially to the Bill of Rights, and deeply concerned to preserve the liberties of ordinary Americans. But while the Jeffersonians are most profoundly devoted to the First Amendment, protecting the freedom of speech and prohibiting a federal establishment of religion, Jacksonians see the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, as the citadel of liberty. Jeffersonians join the American Civil Liberties Union; Jacksonians join the National Rifle Association. In so doing, both are convinced that they are standing at the barricades of freedom.
For foreigners and for some Americans, the Jacksonian tradition is the least impressive in American politics. It is the most deplored abroad, the most denounced at home. Jacksonian chairs of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are the despair of high-minded people everywhere, as they hold up adhesion to the Kyoto Protocol, starve the UN and the IMF, cut foreign aid, and ban the use of U.S. funds for population control programs abroad.
When spokesmen for other schools of thought speak about the “problems” of American foreign policy, the persistence and power of the Jacksonian school are high on their list. While some of this fashionable despair may be overdone, and is perhaps a reflection of different class interests and values, it is true that Jacksonians often figure as the most obstructionist of the schools, as the least likely to support Wilsonian initiatives for a better world, to understand Jeffersonian calls for patient diplomacy in difficult situations, or to accept Hamiltonian trade strategies. Yet without Jacksonians, the United States would be a much weaker power.
A principal explanation of why Jacksonian politics are so poorly understood is that Jacksonianism is less an intellectual or political movement than an expression of the social, cultural and religious values of a large portion of the American public. And it is doubly obscure because it happens to be rooted in one of the portions of the public least represented in the media and the professoriat. Jacksonian America is a folk community with a strong sense of common values and common destiny; though periodically led by intellectually brilliant men — like Andrew Jackson himself — it is neither an ideology nor a self-conscious movement with a clear historical direction or political table of organization. Nevertheless, Jacksonian America has produced — and looks set to continue to produce — one political leader and movement after another, and it is likely to continue to enjoy major influence over both foreign and domestic policy in the United States for the foreseeable future.
The Evolution of a Community
It is not fashionable today to think of the American nation as a folk community bound together by deep cultural and ethnic ties. Believers in a multicultural America attack this idea from one direction, but conservatives too have a tendency to talk about the United States as a nation based on ideology rather than ethnicity. Former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, among others, has said that the United States is unlike other nations because it is based on an idea rather than on a community of national experience. The continuing and growing vitality of the Jacksonian tradition is, for better or worse, living proof that she is at least partly wrong.
If Jeffersonianism is the book-ideology of the United States, Jacksonian populism is its folk-ideology. … Like country music, another product of Jacksonian culture, Jacksonian politics and folk feeling has become a basic element in American consciousness that can be found from one end of the country to the other.
… The new Jacksonianism is no longer rural and exclusively nativist. Frontier Jacksonianism may have taken the homesteading farmer and the log cabin as its emblems, but today’s Crabgrass Jacksonianism sees the homeowner on his modest suburban lawn as the hero of the American story. The Crabgrass Jacksonian … knows that she is as good an American as anybody else, that she is entitled to her rights from Church and State, that she pulls her own weight and expects others to do the same. … In both domestic and foreign policy, the twenty-first century will be profoundly influenced by the values and concerns of Jacksonian America.
—————— End excerpt ——————
Even Walter Russell Mead cannot see past his blinders
Professor Walter Russell Mead published “The Nihilistic Populism of Donald Trump” in The National Interest, 11 August 2015. He clearly sees populism in the past, but when looking at the present he can’t see past his ideological blinders: “Trump is an entertaining sham …So it doesn’t matter that Trump’s positions (insofar as he has taken any) are unpopular …Trump’s popularity is the result of harmless good fun…”
US elites’ view of populism
Other posts about the resurgence of populism
- From March 2014: Stand by for political realignment in America!
- From August: The Donald Trump revolution, dismissed as all revolts are in the beginning.
- Four views of America (Left & Right) showing that we’re ripe for realignment.
- Next phase of the Trump revolution: rise of the new populism.
- Why the Left is missing the rising populist movement.
- Donald Trump leads us back to the future, to the dark days of US history.
- Why the Outer Party hates Trump and will waste this opportunity for reform.
- The Right struggles to understand Trump and populism.
For a different perspective see Max Weber explains Trump 2016: we want a charismatic leader to restore America and Hillary’s weakness: traditional & charismatic leaders attack her bureaucratic authority.
For More Information
To see journalists slowly grapple with populism…
- An excellent analysis by Molly Ball at The Atlantic: “What Trump and Sanders Have in Common“, January 2016 — “There’s no getting around the fact that Trump and Sanders have a lot in common. Maybe liberals ought to just embrace it.”
- Contemptuous recognition of the obvious: “Donald Trump Sneaked a Decent General-Election Argument Into His Bizarre Victory Speech” by Eric Levitz at New York Magazine (no, Trump didn’t “sneak” it in).
For more about the origin of populism see “Andrew Jackson’s Shifting Legacy” by Daniel Feller (Prof History at U TENN) at the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. He is the author of The Jacksonian Promise: America, 1815 to 1840 (1995).
To better understand America I recommend using Walter Russell Meade’s four traditions: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Jacksonian, and Wilsonian. Here’s a brief explanation. Better yet, read Meade’s book: Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How It Changed the World (2001).