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Who are the Jacksonians?

So much attention has been paid to these false determinants of administration policy that a different political dynamic has been underappreciated. Within the Republican Party, the Bush administration got support for the Iraq war from the neoconservatives (who lack a political base of their own but who provide considerable intellectual firepower) and from what Walter Russell Mead calls "Jacksonian America" - American nationalists whose instincts lead them toward a pugnacious isolationism.

Happenstance then magnified this unlikely alliance. Failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and the inability to prove relevant connections between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda left the president, by the time of his second inaugural address, justifying the war exclusively in neoconservative terms: that is, as part of an idealistic policy of political transformation of the broader Middle East. The president's Jacksonian base, which provides the bulk of the troops serving and dying in Iraq, has no natural affinity for such a policy but would not abandon the commander in chief in the middle of a war, particularly if there is clear hope of success.

This war coalition is fragile, however, and vulnerable to mishap. If Jacksonians begin to perceive the war as unwinnable or a failure, there will be little future support for an expansive foreign policy that focuses on promoting democracy. That in turn could drive the 2008 Republican presidential primaries in ways likely to affect the future of American foreign policy as a whole. ~Francis Fukuyama, The New York Times (registration required)

As a category of political thought or foreign policy alignment, Jacksonian is perhaps one of the few less meaningful and intelligible than "isolationist." Even more useless is the attribution of "isolationism" to Jacksonians by someone who obviously has no sympathies for either. What needs to be understood straightaway is that whoever the Jacksonians are supposed to be (here they apparently refer to 'pro-military', Midwestern and Southern Republicans), I cannot see how they have much, if anything, in common with the politics or foreign policy attitudes of Andrew Jackson.

It is conventional to depict Jackson as a 'nationalist', but the genuine nationalists of his time and the proponents of the associated American System were his political enemies among the Whigs. Three things above all characterise Jacksonian politics: vigorous exercise of executive power, privileging federal legislative power vis-a-vis the states with respect to nullification and hostility to urban, mercantile and Northeastern interests represented by the Bank, the latter being informed by a lifelong hostility to England and those whom he deemed friendly to her interests. As disagreeable as we find his attitudes towards the Cherokee, his foreign policy towards other states was largely irenic or, put another way, diffident.

His sympathy for his fellow Tennesseans making their stand in Texas is hardly surprising, but in practical terms nothing in his record as President would suggest anything other than an endorsement of the studied, pragmatic neutrality of his predecessors and his successor in Martin Van Buren. If he was personally pugnacious, as he undoubtedly was, this did not actually translate into a proclivity for armed conflict as a matter of policy. Young Hickory, that is James Polk, might provide a better template for the so-called 'Jacksonians' in his readiness to go to war against Mexico, but generally he represents an attitude toward the desirability of continental expansion that is scarcely any different than that of Jefferson. Properly speaking, however, the nationalists of his time remained on the other side of the political divide and would continue to do so.

As I understood Fukuyama's use of the term, he takes Jacksonian in the sense that it implies what the British called a 'forward' policy in relation to other states, a preference for military solutions to international conflicts but a general disinterest in foreign affairs except for how they more or less directly affect America. His Jacksonians are the sort of people who somehow imagine that the existence of small, hostile states on the other side of the globe constitute imminent danger to their neighbourhoods. They are the last to acknowledge that a war is unwinnable or pointless, because they cannot conceive of a war that America is ultimately unable and unwilling to fight to the finish (however the finish may be defined), as this would imply national weakness.

They would probably be happy to endorse this silly idea: "Slavery anywhere is a threat to freedom everywhere." In this way ideological causes overseas appear to be legitimate issues of national defense. They are therefore probably much more appropriately called Lincolnians (which is not very euphonious)--they are responsive to Lincoln's sort of pseudo-religious language, messianic fervour and nationalist-cum-egalitarian claptrap. Perhaps even more accurately they are fans of Teddy Roosevelt's style of presidential leadership, TR's activism and vitalistic doctrines of conflict mixed with his generic Americanism.

Because of this, I think Fukuyama underestimates their capacity to remain loyal to ludicrous ideological causes and grossly overestimates their tendency towards "isolationism." It a sort of nationalism that prizes independent action that can often be mistaken, especially by 'experts' such as Fukuyama, for something called "isolationism," which is to say armed neutrality. TR devotees might welcome Joseph Chamberlain's sort of "splendid isolation," in which America does whatever it pleases to advance its interests in the most mercenary and amoral fashion and gives no thought to international consequences. These are the sorts of people who would laugh off allegations of torture by the government just as they might make callous justifications of the British concentration camps in South Africa. Imperialism overseas would not embarrass a TR lover the way it might a real Jacksonian. If the war in Iraq is perceived by them as an exercise in dominance, rather than "liberation," it would simply redouble their commitment to supporting it.

Viewed in that way the "TR crowd" might be more liable to remain supportive of the war if it continued to be framed, however implausibly, in terms of national defense, American virtue and hegemony rather than falling back to the no more plausible humanitarian and democratising excuses of the administration. The war might be completely pointless, but so long as it was prosecuted with a sort of vigour and full-throated affirmation of American supremacy it would be acceptable to these sorts of people. Nonetheless, I suspect that no matter what happens with the war the "TR crowd" will continue to support Mr. Bush long after the foreign policy elites have jumped ship (since that is what such elites are best at doing), if only to express for their own sake their understanding of what it means to be patriotic.

The only thing that will scandalise and dishearten a TR lover is a show of weakness or dilatoriness when 'action' and 'strength' are required. Here they find common ground with the neocons and their obsession with demonstrating 'resolve'. In that sense, Mr. Bush's handling of Katrina may embarrass his TR-loving supporters and the neocons more than his incompetent war leadership. The TR lovers can still have solidarity with a war leader, however bad he is, provided that he is not going to give up the fight and humiliate the country too much (minor humiliations can be rationalised as inevitable 'setbacks'), but they could never tolerate the appearance of helplessness. As Mr. Bush continues to thrash around in political confusion after Hurricane Katrina, he is revealing to his TR-loving followers that he is not the 'tough' and vigorous sort of president they like. That, and not anything that could happen in Iraq, is what will undo his presidency and alienate the political base supporting the war even now.

Daniel Larison | September 14, 2005


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