The Anti-Jacksonians

tags: Tea Party, Andrew Jackson



Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.

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....

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....



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