Home / General / The Jacksonian Democratic Party Could not be Revived Even if it was Desirable, Which it Most Certainly Isn’t

The Jacksonian Democratic Party Could not be Revived Even if it was Desirable, Which it Most Certainly Isn’t

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Ed Kilgore has a smart intervention on the question of the Jacksonian tradition in the Democratic Party.  Let us acknowledge the one major progressive achievement of Jackson’s presidency — staring down Calhoun on nullification — before moving on to this point:

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.

There’s no question that trying to map partisan disputes and coalitions from the antebellum era onto 21st century ones is inherently problematic, and whether it has much value at all is questionable. But I would say that if we have to pick one contemporary party that’s the heir of the Jacksonian tradition, it would certainly be the Republicans, although such an answer is unnecessarily simplified.

This conclusion is beautifully put:

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.

Both the “quixotic” and “offensive” points are crucial. Evidently, Wilentz’s version of the argument puts the matter in the most offensive way possible. It’s one thing to say that it’s in the strategic interests of the Democratic Party to pursue culturally conservative border state whites; it’s another thing to say that the Democratic Party belongs to this faction, and a different Democratic coalition represents a usurpation. But particularly with Obama having established that a Democratic victory doesn’t need West Virginia or Kentucky, even more superficially benign forms of the argument carry the same implication. To be obsessed with Scots-Irish white men retaining their permanent place in the Democratic fold implies that they are primus inter pares. They aren’t, and prettifying Jacksonianism to make this argument is intellectually bankrupt on every level.

But even if it was desirable to restore this element of the 19th century Democratic Party, it’s not something that can just be done by running the right candidate or making some marginal changes. Coalitions drive leaders, not vice versa. There’s nothing Hillary Clinton could do to make Kentucky or West Virginia competitive, any more than running Mitt Romney could make Massachusetts competitive for the Republican Party. (Dana Houle is very good on this point starting here.)

Jacksonian nostalgia is as much a dead end electorally as it is intellectually. If you don’t believe me, look at how Jim Webb does in the Democratic primaries.

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