Friday, October 1, 2010

New Hickory?

Look to the city of Washington and let the virtuous patriots of the country weep at the spectacle.  There corruption is springing into existence, and fast flourishing…. We are not as we once were; the people are slumbering at their posts; virtue is on the wane; and the republican principles with which we set out, are fast declining.

Sounds like Glenn Beck, doesn't it?  It's not.  It's a plea by John Eaton, a supporter of Andrew Jackson, urging voters to elevate the general to the presidency in 1824.

I've been thinking a lot about the proper historical analogy for the Tea Party, and I've been leaning lately toward the Jacksonian Democrats of the early to mid 19th century. (Though, as I plan to explore in a future post, the candidacy of Christine O'Donnell throws a monkey wrench into the comparison.  Previous posts on the Tea Party are here and here. )

The Tea Party, to the extent that it represents any coherent political philosophy, seems to be about a return to an idealized past, when Americans held to original constitutional principles, government was small, taxes were low, and freedom was unfettered.  They claim the Revolutionary generation as their inspiration.  That's quite similar to the ideology of the Democratic Party from the 1820s through the 1840s.

Compare the Tea Party to one Jacksonian's description of Democratic ideology: "[It] may be summed up in this brief formula.  As little government as possible; that little emanating from, and controlled by, the people."

The Jacksonian Democrats opposed both big government and big business, because they believed that any government action created privilege, and the wealthiest and most powerful would be the beneficiaries of all such government action. Thus, they thought, the government could best serve the cause of equality by doing as little as possible.

The Jacksonians championed, as every student of American history knows, "the common man."  They portrayed themselves as the regular people, rising up to regain control of their government from corrupt elites, and Jackson was their man:

He has drawn the just distinction between those classes of society that labor and those that do not; those that earn their living by the sweat of their brow and constitute the bone and muscle of the country, defending it in war and supporting it in peace, and those who live by interest in their stocks.

Supporters praised Jackson for his "devotion to the cause of liberty," for "stand[ing] aloof from all the contemptible intrigue … of the day."  He was the one who would reverse the "dangerous trends of the modern age" and "restore the cherished values of old."

But that isn't the only similarity to today's Tea Party.  Jackson and his supporters shared the conspiratorial, even paranoid, mindset of today's Tea Partiers.  As Jackson's biographer Robert Remini writes, Jackson spoke "incessantly about intrigue and corruption and fraud … he expressed the conspiracy in terms of an aristocracy seeking power to pursue their own selfish ends."

The irony is that while most Tea Partiers likely share that fear of wealthy elites (the opposition to "bailouts" is evidence enough of that), many of the organizations that are seizing the Tea Party brand are in fact funded by those same wealthy elites, people like the Koch brothers.  Candidates like Rand Paul may speak the libertarian lingo of the early 19th century, but in a modern economy, that 19th century ideology actual serves the economic elite, not the common man.

The late 19th century proved the inadequacy of the Jacksonian approach.  Left unregulated, big business amassed unparalleled, unchecked economic power.  Progressives like Theodore Roosevelt understood that only by using democratic government as a check on that economic power could liberty be preserved.

The New York State Democratic platform in 1844 stated: "It is the aristocracy of wealth we have to fear, and that is the only aristocracy from which danger is to be apprehended." In that pre-industrial age, the economic elites were pikers compared to today's billionaires, but the point remains.

Today it is only the regulatory structure and social safety net that progressives have built over the last century that keeps the aristocracy of wealth in check.  By supporting candidates who would undo that structure, candidates funded secretively by today's aristocracy of wealth, today's Tea Party supporters may well empower the very forces that the Jacksonians so adamantly opposed.

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