The continuing strength of the Tea Party has startled scholars and pundits enamored of some comforting myths about American politics. Our system of government, according to certain classic models, demands that political actors build diverse coalitions through compromise that can contain sharp swings to the right or left. According to the conventional moderate wisdom—call it David Broderism, after the late Washington Post columnist—politics driven by dogmatic ideologies are alien to the pragmatic, tempered, anti-ideological, and eternal American consensus, which will prevail in the end.
The Tea Party eruption has utterly confounded these bland assumptions. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and the House Republican suicide caucus provide rude reminders that, historically, compromise and comity have not always been the rule—not in the slaveholders’ secessionism that led to the Civil War, not in the paranoid politics of Senator Joseph McCarthy, not in the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964 with its open appeal to extremism, and not in George Wallace’s campaigns against civil rights.
Where does the Tea Party fit in this conflicted American political tradition? Several commentators have linked modern right-wing populism, including, most recently, the Tea Party right, with the political traditions of Andrew Jackson and the Jacksonian Democrats of the 1830s. It is as if Cruz were the incarnation of Old Hickory and the assault on Obamacare akin to Jackson’s assault on the Second Bank of the United States.
“The tea party is Jacksonian America,” William Galston of the Brookings Institution recently observed in The Wall Street Journal, “aroused, angry and above all fearful, in full revolt against a new elite—backed by the new American demography—that threatens its interests and scorns its values.” Galston based his argument on an essay written by Walter Russell Mead in The National Interest more than a decade ago, which drew a straight line from the Jacksonians—imbued with what Mead described as a folkish anti-intellectualism and an anti-elitist mistrust of big government—to the Silent Majority of disillusioned New Deal Democrats who turned to Richard Nixon and later to Ronald Reagan to save them from civil rights reformers and arrogant, secular Eastern intellectuals.
Historical analogies are never exact and often dangerous, but some are more inexact and dangerous than others. On some specific policy issues, above all eliminating the federal debt, there are some historical similarities between the Jacksonians’ views and those of Cruz and the Tea Party. But these are more misleading than enlightening. Jackson and the Jacksonians were hardly the political forebears of modern right-wing populism; their actual legacy stands as a reproach to the Tea Party subversives. The Jacksonian Democratic Party—a polyglot, majority national party and not an ideological or sectional faction—believed supremely in the importance of party unity and discipline as secured by political patronage. “To the victor belong the spoils” was its code—precisely the sort of “politics as usual” that the Tea Party hotspurs despise.
President Jackson favored a limited central government (except when he didn’t) and an end to federal debt. Yet he did so not in order to scale back social welfare and permit big business to avoid government regulation, but rather to prevent what he saw as the incipient alliance of federal power with the interests of the well-born and the rich, which his supporters denounced as the “Money Power,” the crony capitalism of his time. The men of great wealth, including many of the richest slaveholders as well as Eastern plutocrats, generally supported Jackson’s adversaries in the Whig Party. His titanic battle with them resulted in his removal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, a de facto central bank, though private. The latter-day versions of those who opposed Jackson appear either as the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party or, like the Koch brothers, as the backers of outfits like the Club for Growth, FreedomWorks, and the Heritage Foundation that are at the core of the Tea Party.
Nor did Jackson’s idea of limited government countenance the kind of radical states’ rights politics that propel much of the Tea Party’s fervor, including loose rhetoric about nullification, the supposed right of individual states to declare null and void within their borders any federal law they find offensive. Some darlings of the Tea Party right, including Texas Governor Rick Perry, have even flirted with the idea of secession. Jackson would not have tolerated any of this. He was the nation’s foremost opponent of anti-federal localism until the arrival of Abraham Lincoln. Jackson not only declared the doctrine of nullification unconstitutional, he attacked the entire theory. “If this doctrine had been established at an earlier day, the Union would have been dissolved in its infancy,” Jackson stated in his Proclamation on Nullification. “Let me tell you, my countrymen, that you are deluded by men who are either deceived themselves or wish to deceive you. Mark under what pretenses you have been led on to the brink of insurrection and treason on which you stand!” To crush the states’ rights radicals in the 1830s, Jackson at one point vowed to travel to their bastion in South Carolina and personally hang the miscreants. Short of that, he authorized the mobilization of troops to ensure constitutional order should the hotheads continue to threaten the Union.
Thirty years later, when another even more decisive attack on the Union arose in South Carolina and the rest of the Deep South, President Lincoln turned to Jackson’s proclamation to draw the line against Confederate secession. As John B. Judis of The New Republic has suggested, today’s radical Republican right has more in common with the politics of Jackson’s first vice president, who became his Southern nemesis—the reactionary slaveholder John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. Calhoun feared that a rising demographic majority in the North would tilt power in Congress and, in time, the presidency away from the South. Feverishly, he devised strategies and tactics to protect slavery in the name of minority sectional and states’ rights. In 1828, he concocted the theory of nullification that led to the critical confrontation between South Carolina states’ rights radicals and President Jackson four years later. Calhoun also wanted to make himself President.
Calhoun believed that the major political parties were engines of corruption that could not be relied upon to protect a numerical minority. He also believed the conservative classes of the North and South, capitalist and planter, shared essential interests in securing property and a stable social order, and that these far outweighed sectional differences over issues like the tariff. For a time he even aspired to build a new national coalition of conservatives that would crush their Jacksonian and Whig Party adversaries. When those hopes came to nothing, he reimagined his conservative party as a party of the united South, and he developed the notion of a concurrent majority, which would tear up the Constitution and permit a single state to veto any federal law.
Disdainful of the bargaining and compromise of party politics, Calhoun pushed his pro-slavery localist views far enough inside the Democratic Party in the 1840s to subordinate the Democrats to what anti-slavery Northerners of both parties decried as the Slave Power. Calhoun died in 1850, but his protégés and successors, notably Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, ensured that any party member who ran afoul of the Slave Power would be promptly punished and, if need be, purged.
Of course, slavery is not the issue today. But some observers, including Seth Ackerman writing in Jacobin, have been much too quick to dismiss any likening of today’s right-wing politics to the distant antebellum era. A strong nullifying political current connects the Calhounites to the secessionists of the 1860s, then to the anti-Reconstruction Southern Democrats, then to the Dixiecrats of the late 1940s, then to the post-civil rights white Southerners who have made the “Solid South” solidly Republican—and now to the Tea Party insurgents.
Those are their historical sources. The chief difference is that the growth of industrial and financial interests in the South, especially after World War II, has helped advance a conservative convergence mightier than anything Calhoun imagined. A persistent nullifying ideology, initiated long ago to protect Southern agrarian slave interests and white supremacy, has now merged with the reactionary big business Republicanism that has spent the last 80 years trying to overthrow the “socialist” reforms of first the New Deal and then the Great Society. The result has been a new extremist anti-government insurgency that, although based in the South, has bastions in historic areas of the right in the Rocky Mountain states and the Midwest.
The Andrew Jackson of the Proclamation on Nullification belongs to precisely the opposite tradition, the nationalist tradition that developed into the politics of Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson—Presidents who did not shrink from calling the traducers of the Constitution exactly what they were, and who were willing to go to the limit, including mobilizing military force and deploying it in the South, to uphold their oath of office. It is that forceful tradition, not a fanciful Jacksonian tradition, that we need to draw on, as Lincoln did, in order to prepare for the next phase in the continuing eruption of the right. It is a tradition that the Tea Party re-enactors with their tricornered hats cannot rightly claim for themselves. The Jacksonian legacy of crushing nullification, upholding the federal Union, and fighting plutocratic control should be the property of those battling today’s extremist rebels.
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