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The Party of Lincoln Is Now the Party of Jackson, and Vice Versa



It’s not exactly news that Sean Wilentz’s punditry during the 2008 primaries was an embarrassment. But, via Chait, I somehow missed this definitive example:

Under those pressures, the Barack Obama campaign and its sympathizers have begun to articulate much more clearly what they mean by their vague slogan of “change” – nothing less than usurping the historic Democratic Party, dating back to the age of Andrew Jackson, by rejecting its historic electoral core: white workers and rural dwellers in the Middle Atlantic and border states.


This year’s primary results show no sign that Obama will reverse this trend should he win the nomination. In West Virginia and Kentucky, as well as Ohio and Pennsylvania, blue collar white voters sent him down to defeat by overwhelming margins. A recent Gallup poll report has argued that claims about Obama’s weaknesses among white voters and blue collar voters have been exaggerated – yet its indisputable figures showed Obama running four percentage points below Kerry’s anemic support among whites four years ago.

The idea that a majority coalition isn’t really a majority coalition if it contains too many people of color is appalling on its face. To say that the first major party African-American presidential candidate is “usurping” the Democratic Party in the context of making this argument is…special.

As Chait says, in addition to being offensive the argument is also dumb — Wilentz is confusing cause and effect. As we will see in 2016, Hillary Clinton will not win Kentucky or West Virginia either, and Obama won Pennsylvania and Ohio twice while assembling two majority electoral coalitions. This is because the country’s partisan coalitions have become much more ideologically coherent, with “voted for Eisenhower because Lincoln won the war” voting finally giving way to more rational voting patterns. (Wilentz is actually combining two exceedingly terrible arguments here: “a winning coalition doesn’t really count if it doesn’t have enough culturally conservative whites in it” is married to “who wins states in a Democratic primary is a good indication of who will win them in the general election.”)

And not only is pining for Andrew Jackson’s electoral coalition pointless nostalgia for a ship that’s already reached the other side of the ocean, it’s wishing for a Democratic Party that’s much worse than the current one. Chait:

Jackson is, clearly, the father of the modern Republican Party. As the modern historian Daniel Howe has noted, Jackson’s aggressive policy of Indian-fighting shaped the political landscape of the era. A humanitarian protest movement sprung up to oppose Jackson’s savage aggression, which heavily overlapped with the slowly deepening divide over slavery. In the House, four fifths of slave-state representatives voted for the Indian Removal Act, while only a third of representatives from free states did.

Jackson was a populist, but he directed his populism not at the local elites (of which he was one) but at the federal government. He favored the gold standard, and his opposition to a National Bank served the interests of the local banks that competed against it. He believed the Constitution prevented the government from taking an active role in managing economic affairs. He was instinctively aggressive, poorly educated, anti-intellectual, and suspicious of bureaucrats. (Jackson replaced more qualified federal staffers with partisan hacks.) He resisted any challenge to racial hierarchies. The opposition to Jackson stood for the reverse — a more interventionist federal government, more lenient treatment of racial minorities, a less aggressive foreign policy.

The qualities of the right-wing opposition during the Obama era has made the historic reversal all the more clear. Republicans have revived what they call “Constitutional conservatism,” which reprises the Jacksonian belief that the Constitution prevents economic intervention by the government. Tea-party activists in particular have sounded deeply Jacksonian themes in their populist attacks on TARP, and then Obama’s programs, as giveaways to powerful insiders. As a writer for the right-wing Breitbart News argued several months ago, “Jackson’s views on federalism and economics should be more carefully studied today.”

Oh, and while we’re here can we point out that Arthur Schlesinger Jr. was a hack?

The Age of Jackson, which won the Pulitzer Prize for history, was filled with analytic errors and ghastly omissions. Schlesinger imagined that Jackson had rallied the American proletariat with his populist attacks on wealth. (“The East remained the source of the effective expression of Jacksonian radicalism.”) Actually, Jackson’s strongest support came from the South, which is logical, since that’s where the beneficiaries of his land seizure lived. Schlesinger glossed over Jackson’s veto of legislation to create a national transportation network, which he opposed as unconstitutional. And incredibly, Schlesinger ignored Jackson’s campaigns to seize native lands — his book literally does not mention the Indian Removal Act, the most important policy initiative of Jackson’s presidency.

The “usurpation” of this ugly Jacksonian tradition within the Democratic Party is long overdue.

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