Monday, September 19, 2011

Righting American Political Culture and History: The Party of Lincoln Becomes the Party of Jackson

Werner Herzog's Bear, one of my friends and a frequent guest poster here at WARN has a gem of a piece (it is efficient, dense, and nuanced) on his new site Notes from the Ironbound that you should all check out. Yes, that is a poorly parsed sentence as you should 1) both go to his new website and 2) also read and circulate his newest post that I am shilling for here.

I have a few other guest posts forthcoming this week which all lead to my sharing a good to and fro with a colorblind racist. I have teased our exchange for a bit. Events interfered with my posting the dialogue. I will make a remedy soon enough.

Werner's analysis of the Tea Party GOP's place in American political culture and their misunderstanding of their own wellsprings is spot on. More importantly, he is one of the best academics writing about politics and culture in the blogging game right now. I don't promote lazy and raggedy folks so you know that Werner is on point, and he certainly deserves a much wider audience. Werner's only sin is not writing enough...which I hope that he will correct soon enough.

His essay follows:

The Party of Lincoln Becomes the Party of Jackson

I recently read Gore Vidal's Burr, something I'd been meaning to do for years, and now I've got early American history on the brain.

The Tea Party and others on the political right are big on swearing their allegiance to the Constitution and the Founders, but are typically pretty vague when it comes to the details. The main reason, of course, it that when they say "Constitution" and "Founders" they mean faith in a political Bible and its patriarchs. They possess beliefs founded in belief itself, rather than reason or any knowledge of history.

That tendency to reduce politics to religion is why Enlightenment thinkers on the order of Franklin, Madison, and Jefferson would cringe in horror at the Tea Party's illiteracy and wild-eyed evangelicalism. Franklin was famously comsopolitan, and in his later life was more at home in Paris than Philadelphia, unlike today's uber-patriots who seem proud of their provincialism. Madison warned of the dangers of political factions taking over the levers of power, and evinced a strong desire to keep populism at bay.

Although modern day Tea Partiers might appreciate his small government inclinations, Jefferson advocated a wall of separation between church and state. To top it all off, George Washington was a committed Federalist who tried to increase the power of the federal government, especially in his decision, at Alexander Hamilton's prompting, to assume the debts the states incurred during the Revolution. Ron Paul he was not.

Yet the GOPers still claim fealty to the Founders. Perhaps they do, but to the wrong figures. Our contemporary right-wing populism owes little to the founders, who mostly disdained popular participation in politics, and much more to the Jacksonian era. (This is of course highly ironic, since Jackson is one of the founders of the Democratic party!) Unlike the Enlightenment thinkers of the founding generation, Jackson and his ilk cared little for deep thought.

In fact, they disdained it, and saw intellectual pursuits as inherently suspicious. After all, how dare those pointy-headed know it alls tell us what's right and what's wrong? Whenever I hear mainstream candidates for president deny global warming and evolution, I think of Old Hickory in all of his bigoted ignorance, especially his destruction of the Bank of the United States against all evidence of its necessity.

Jackson's decision helped bring on the Panic of 1837, just as the misbegotten economic religion of supply side has left us with an impoverished middle and working class unable to spend the money needed to restart the economy. Like their dark ancestor, modern Republicans replicate Jackson's provincialized nationalism, in which the only people who count are "real Americans."

And last but not least, they recall his bloody-mindedness. Jackson was famous in his day for his willingness to take lives, from those of his own soldiers to a man he shot to death in a duel to the Cherokee who perished in the ethnic cleansing known as The Trail of Tears. Recently modern day Republicans have made headlines by baying for blood at presidential debates, from the cheers for Rick Perry's bloody record of executions (including a man, Cameron Todd Willingham, who was most likely innocent) and urging that those without health insurance be thrown on the dung heap to die.

I'd like to think that the dark spirit of America's historical id could be exorcised, but in a culture where consumer is king and criticizing popular tastes, no matter how idiotic and debased, meets with the strictest condemnation, Jackson's ghost will remain with us. Whenever there are fearful white people who want to maintain their privileged position and beat down on others to do it, he will be there. As long as the Tea Party continues to stoke the flames of racial resentment, he will be there. Truth be told, Old Hickory's bigoted, violent, provincial, illiterate nature will always resonate with more Americans than the reasoned Enlightenment worldview of the Founders.


Shady_Grady said...

I like this. Interesting comparison to Jackson.

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Thanks for the repost.

chaunceydevega said...

@Werner. Be careful of those humans, they can be mean. NP.