Friday, March 4, 2011

Jefferson and Jackson and American Politics

In my presidency course, we are considering both T. Jefferson and A. Jackson as presidents and as politicians. Now, they were, I argue, "radical" for the rather simple reason that they did not subordinate politics to economics or that they did not let economic concerns trump their political/social concerns. They had two concerns: To preserve a "republican form of government" and to preserve a "republican form of society." Republican government meant to them a responsive government, that is, a government that responds to, without trying to "filter" or "refine" public opinion. In a sense, their understanding distinguishes between "responsive" government and "representative" government because the latter is controlled, by and large, by the "representatives" of the people who view themselves as a filter through which and by means of which the popular will would be "cleansed." For Jefferson, such a preservation required moving the focal point of power within the national government into the Congress and away from the presidency. For Jackson, such a preservation required moving the focal point of power into "national" political parties, parties which controlled the nominations for the presidency among other tasks. Different means but the same goal, the preservation of a republican form of government.

A republican society was for these men meant a relatively equal society, a society in which the largest class was the middle class but, even more importantly, a society in which people aspired to be middle class, even at the expense of aspiring to be upper class. For these men, a middle class "lifestyle", as we would say, is superior to an upper class lifestyle. It is better for human beings to live in the middle than in the upper reaches of society. The reasons for this are not that important here but let me leave it at the thought that middle class people are more aware of the necessity for limits or the desirability for human beings to live within limits, recognizing the foolishness of "dreaming the impossible dream."

To preserve such a society, Jefferson and Jackson thought it necessary to limit, sharply and severely, the power and scope of the national government: "Honey, I shrunk the [national] government." For Jackson, this meant killing the national bank, an act if copied today might lead to the death of the Fed, ala' Ron Paul. But the point here is that to preserve a republican society, it is necessary to limit the pursuit of wealth or to limit the existence of great concentrations of wealth. And this is necessary because both men thought that the production of great wealth requires and results in, willy nilly, great economic and, hence, social disparities. For them, we have a choice: We can have an immensely wealthy society or we can have a republican society. They chose the latter, whereas we today tend to choose the former because we tend to look at political questions as economic questions.

For example, today arguments are aplenty about how it is necessary, economically necessary, to discipline state workers, like teachers, to reduce their pay and, more importantly, to disempower them by limiting their right to unionize and bargain as a union. From the Jefferson/Jackson perspective, such a policy undermines the foundation of a republican society because it undermines the power of segments of the middle class, which almost all teachers are part of. This is done at the same time that those in upper class are "bailed out," at times it would seem almost rewarded despite their responsibility for one of the largest economic fiascoes in American history. Of course, the arguments for the bailout are almost always economic, viz., we had to do it to "save the economy." Similarly, now we have to discipline, say, teachers for the same reasons. Political and social questions are displaced by economic questions or political and social concerns are displaced by economic concerns. This has gone so far that Senator Harry Reid of Nevada wants to end legalized prostitution in his state because, he says, it hurts Nevada economically as businesses won't locate there! Prostitution is economically unsound!

Of course, privatizing government services also impacts, by and large, the middle class more than the upper class but, again, it is all the rage for economic reasons. The same can be said for globalization, an economic boon, we are told, and therefore to be embraced while its social and political implications are, for the most part, ignored.

We could learn some things from Jefferson and Jackson and one thing we could learn is how to think about politics or, rather, how to think about politics without subordinating politics to economics. Will this happen? Given the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties, I must say that the outlook is not favorable.

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