America’s true Founding Father was not Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Franklin or Hamilton, but Andrew Jackson. The 18th century Founders were the product of a pre-modern America where politics was conducted by the “better sort,” not the masses. Jackson was the first president to be a true mass politician, as have all the presidents who have followed him since. Unlike the likes of Jefferson and Franklin, he was not a man of the Enlightenment, but a man of action who felt no need to find moral or intellectual justifications for slaughtering Native Americans, removing them from their lands, expanding the borders of slavery, and filling the government’s offices full of party flunkies. This was not politics as virtue in action, but politics as bloodsport.
I see much of Andrew Jackson in conservative politics today. Modern day Jacksonians laugh at the notions of global warming and sustainability, and champion a volatile, extractionary economy where entrepeneurs can “drill baby drill” and have access to as much cheap labor as they want. In their minds, public expenditures on infrastructure are a waste. I see much in the same in Jackson’s day, where he pushed to open up more land in the Southwest (as it was then) for the booming cotton economy, its fields worked by slave labor. As Edward Baptist points out in his new book, the cotton frontier exploded during Jackson’s tenure, helped by his destruction of the Second Bank of the United States, and the reallocation of federal money in “pet banks” happy to speculate wildly on the sale of cotton and the sale of slaves. That same hands off, freewheeling impulse is apparent today in the conservative push to lift regulations on Wall Street banking. Jackson also famously rejected Henry Clay's so-called "American System" of roads and canals. I see that spirit every day when I drive on pothole scarred roads in a nation that refuses to raise its gasoline tax, even when the price is rapidly dropping.
Of course, just as Jackson and modern day conservatives champion "small government" out of one side of their mouth, they just love using the military to expand territory and reward the vested interests backing them. Jackson moved to remove Native Americans against the will of the Supreme Court, just as the "War on Terror" has relied on illegal and extralegal means. Jackson's closest imitator, James K Polk, sparked war with Mexico with terms just as illegitimate as those formulated by George W Bush for his invasion of Iraq. Jacksonians of all era scorn the notion that government can improve people's lives, but have little restraint when using it to further the goals of nationalist expansion.
While the effects of the supposed populism of present and past day Jacksonians on the lower classes tends not to be economically beneficial for them, they have wielded a powerful ideology of anti-elitism. It was hardly a coincidence that Jackson, the first mass president, was by far the least educated of those to hold the office before him, and perhaps the least literate to ever hold the office. He and his supporters denigrated the educated, much as conservatives today scorn climate scientists, academics, and teachers. All three have committed the cardinal sin of having expertise and thinking that means they know more than the average yahoo. One of Jackson's most toxic legacies has been the extremely anti-intellectual tenor of American public life, something routinely exploited by conservatives.
Last, but not least, don't forget white supremacy. Andrew Jackson's America was more "democratic" in that the franchise was no longer limited to the affluent, but was now open to all white men. Women and men of color were aggressively cast out, even in places where they had once been enfranchised. While the poorest, most low-down white man could pass a ballot, African Americans were expected to toil in slavery, and Native Americans faced a fearsome onslaught of war and ethnic cleansing. Modern day Jacksonians are a lot more careful with their rhetoric, but they still love unleashing the full force of the American military on brown people around the world. These are also the same people wearing "I am Darren Wilson" shirts and are highly supportive of the police state that incarcerates people of color at a truly fearsome rate while reenforcing residential segregation. When a black man took the office of the president, they responded by treating him with unprecedented disrespect and contempt. (Just witness the behavior at the last State of the Union address.) The Tea Party, that most Jacksonian of political movements, has been vowing from the beginning of Obama's term to "take our country back." Gee, I wonder what that could mean.
The America of the Founders is a strange and faraway place. The America of Andrew Jackson, the true Founder of our current dominant political mode, doesn't seem all that foreign, despite being almost 200 years ago, because its values so thoroughly permeate our political system today. My only hope is that if there was ever an American president who was the anti-Jackson, it was Lincoln. There are alternative traditions to draw from, and we need them badly.