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Jacksonians in white hats tap the populist zeitgeist

By David Martin Jones - posted Tuesday, 29 November 2016

Visiting Berlin to hand over the mantle of international good citizenship to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, departing US President Barack Obama hoped his successor, Donald Trump, would not embrace a "realpolitik approach" to Russia. It was something of a shock to hear Obama, utter the word realpolitik, given its associations with a realist understanding of power and statecraft.

International lawyers and progressive university schools of international relations throughout the Anglosphere eschew its use, preferring a vocabulary of international norms and values that laud global justice and human rights. It is these values Merkel champions and the EU, which Obama considers, "one of the greatest achievements in the world", upholds.

Unfortunately, for the West's progressive elites long schooled in these verities, they are no longer shared by most American and European voters. The revolt of the masses that Brexit heralded and Trump's election confirmed has shaken faith in regional and international institutions progressively transforming the world in a more equal, just, diversity-aware, border-free and environmentally conscious way.


Trump's victory based on a rejection of such virtue signalling unleashed a reaction that demonstrated an elite contempt for the "illiterate peasants" who had apparently fallen for post-truth politics. The liberal inability to accept the democratically expressed will of the people fails to understand the US tradition that Trump articulated so effectively.

Central to Trump's triumph is his ability to channel what Walter Russell Mead has identified as the Jacksonian school of thought in US politics. In his seminal Special Providence, Mead outlined how four schools of thought, identified with American statesmen Woodrow Wilson, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, shaped US foreign policy, and changed the modern world.

Of these traditions the Jack­sonian is most decried abroad and denounced at home. It is also the most potent. It is an aspect of the US political psyche least represented in the media and professoriate, which deplore rather than comprehend it, hence the hysterical overreaction to Trumpism. What does this tradition involve and how will it affect US foreign and trade policy and its commitment to international institutions?

Jackson, the seventh US president (1829-37), like his near contemporary, Jefferson, understood the authority of the president derived from the will of the free people. A southern outsider, Jackson emphasised popular accountability and feared the unaccountable east coast banking and business olig­archs. In contrast with the internationalist Wilson­ian tradition that informed the thinking of Clinton and Obama Democrats, Jacksonians are patriotic, Republican and populist. Like Trump, they put "America first".

Jackson founded the Democratic Party, yet across time Jacksonianism shaped the Republican presidencies of Dwight D. Eisen­hower, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. By the latter half of the 20th century the tradition had assumed a republican character. It is ignored at peril, as it has a habit of throwing up transformational leaders that reflect its prejudices.

Jacksonianism is not so much an ideology or a political movement as the expression of the social and cultural values of a large sector of the US public, a community of political feeling that, in the right hands, can be wielded as an instrument of power. Mead contends this community remains the most important in US politics. It originated in the values of the 18th-century settler Scotch-Irish folk community, but the mentality spread to later migrant cultures and in the process created a unique American myth, based on robust individualism, honour and equality. Its code emphasises self-reliance, self-improvement, hard work, respect for family, equality of dignity and right among those who pull their weight, courage and a maverick disregard for risk and fiscal probity in business matters.


This political community, held together by a social compact founded on this American settler myth, defines itself against a hostile world. Jacksonians draw a Manichean distinction between their folk community and the dark outside world prone to anarchy and chaos. The New Hampshire state motto "Live free or die" captures a key feature of this myth, as do innumerable John Ford western movies. More recently, Clint Eastwood expressed the contempt Jacksonians feel for the "pussifed generation" that abandoned its core understandings.

Government is a necessary evil. Consequently Jacksonians are profoundly suspicious of big government and the Beltway culture that they suspect pervert American interests in favour of progressive abstractions and alien values. It is a community, partial, as American historian Richard Hofstadter observed in the 1960s, to the "paranoid style" in politics. Such angry minds require an outsider popular hero such as Old Hick­ory or The Donald to restore government to its proper function. From this perspective, problems of foreign or domestic policy may be complex, but Jacksonian solutions are often simple. Gordian knots are made to be cut. Government should reflect the will of the majority, promote the economic and political wellbeing of the folk community and not be hedged about with administrative safeguards.

In economic terms, policy should look after the folk community, not banks too big to fail. Originally a party formed from small farmers, Jacksonian Democrats are instinctively protectionist. They may be persuaded into trade agreements but they have to be assured they are in the interests of mainstream America not transnational conglomerates.

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This article was first published in The Australian.

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About the Author

Dr David Martin Jones is a Senior Lecturer at the School of Government, University of Tasmania.

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