We have been recently engaged in a molasses-slow, months-long debate about the role of deficit spending, stimulus packages, and ways to maintain continued voter participation beyond one election cycle. In times such as these I frequently return to the past to see if parallels exist between other times and our own. What I find frequently are not conclusive answers but revealing similarities that at least highlight that we as a people haven't really changed all that much with the passage of years. For example, politicians still voice concern about a swelling national debt, even if it is a view taken for political advantage rather than genuine conviction. A frequently nasty debate over federal government's role in the function and policy of individual states raged this past summer. Next up are upcoming elections in key battleground states that may show some degree of indication as to whether the election of Barack Obama was a either lasting, or an ephemeral re-alignment of the electoral map.
One-hundred and eighty-one years ago, this nation was engaged in similar debate over similar issues. A recently elected Democratic president by the name of Andrew Jackson had won the office by vowing to uphold the rights of the people, not the small circle of well-connected and powerful brokers that had run Capitol Hill for close to a quarter of a century. Had there been highways then, or, for that matter, cars, one might have dubbed these new money, self-proclaimed, unapologetic aristocrats the Beltway elites. Jackson's election was nothing less than an abomination to these sorts, since they placed no faith, nor any trust in what they considered to be the under-educated, ill-informed grumblings of the partisan rabble. Government of the people, by the elites was their governing philosophy, and it had gone unchallenged since the beginning of the Republic.
Though Old Hickory sought to carry the banner of the common person, this didn't necessarily mean he supported progressive reform in all of its incarnations.
...Jackson fretted about what were drily known as internal improvements--projected roads and canals that were to be funded by the federal government. The issue was at the heart of a philosophical argument. Was Washington's role to be a limited one, leaving such matters to the states except in truly national cases, or was the federal government to be a catalyst in what was know as "the American System," in which tariffs and the sales of public land funded federally sponsored internal improvements? As President, Jackson favored the former, John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay the latter. Related, in Jackson's mind, was the issue of the national debt (the money owed by the federal government). To him, debt was dangerous, for debt put money in the hands of creditors--and if money was in the hands of creditors, it could not be in the hands of the people, where Jackson believed it belonged. (Bold mine)
-American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by John Meachum
A true son of the South, Jackson was understandably squeamish to impose too much federal authority upon state government, even if it promised desperately needed infrastructure to industrialize and modernize a country which was still largely agrarian and rural. However, his reluctance to take on debt for any purpose, no matter how worthy, is not the same sort cited by Republican politicians of our day. Perhaps the question we ought to ask ourselves now is "Who holds our debt and do they have our own best interest at heart?" Jackson did not live in an age where globalization had complicated and expanded monetary policy to the degree that foreign investors were heavily involved in the process; he did, however, hold an oversimplified point of view that saw money as belonging either to the moneychangers or the people--with no overlap in between. Today's GOP eagerly sounds the warning regarding our spiraling national debt but certainly has no credible plan, nor plausible solution that would place it firmly in the hands of their primary constituents. If such a thing were proposed by a Democrat, Republicans would surely claim that doing so would "spread the wealth around" in a radical redistribution scheme that, once enacted would destroy the country's economic structure.
Meanwhile, we have now commenced with hand-wringing in response to a less active electorate this time around. The below passage disproves the idea that fickle and transitory voter participation is unique purely to our day.
A Scottish visitor to Albany in the late 1820s noted an American love of what he called "the spirit of electioneering, which seems to enter as an essential ingredient into the composition of everything." But it was a highly personal kind of electioneering: "The Americans, as it appears to me, are infinitely more occupied about bringing in a given candidate, than they are about the advancement of those measures of which he is conceived to be the supporter." (Bold mine.)
We love the chase but then quickly lose interest with the implementation stage. Media saturation, short attention spans, rock star politics, and all the other theories currently proposed that aim to explain why voter participation and interest is down from its height of this time last year might be simply explained as Americans acting like Americans. To be sure, activists never lose their focus or their drive, but most of us are not activists. Jackson was one of the first politicians to whittle down complex issues for the easy digestion of the average citizen. Had there been television in his day, one might have called them sound bytes. This, of course, oversimplified often contentious and complicated policy decisions, but Jackson's belief was that the American worker had no time to devote from his busy day for in-depth political study and contemplation. This assertion is one that frequently frustrates activists of our times---who demand larger participation but recognize too that the time and energy commitment needed to push reform is often more than many people are willing or able to devote.
Regarding Presidential strategy, Jackson was cautious not to box himself in, even though this left him open to charges of playing politics when candor and taking a firm stand might seem to be a better strategy. An immensely popular President upon taking office, he had a knack for strategic positioning and a marked refusal to provide his enemies an easy target, likely due in part to his years as a military man. It was also a response to the well-known fact that the General had more than a few enemies in high places who coveted his office for themselves and would use any means necessary to achieve it.
[Jackson's] first inaugural...was purposely vague. Gazing out on the admirers gathered at the foot of the Capitol steps, Jackson saw that he was the object of wide affection---but he was not yet certain of the depth of that affection. The people hailed him today but might not tomorrow. Better, then, to proceed with care, to be general rather than specific, universal rather than particular---for specificity and particularity would give his foes weapons to use against him. Many leaders would have been seduced by the roar of that crowd, lulled into thinking themselves infallible, or omnipotent, or secure in the love of their followers.
But Jackson knew that politics, like emotion, is not static. There would be times where he would have to tell people what they did not want to hear, press a case they did not want to accept, point them in a direction they would prefer not to go. Best, then, to preserve capital to spend on those speeches and those battles.
President Obama is fortunate that the relative weakness of the Republican party and the still ample approval among those in his own party do not leave him vulnerable to direct challenges to his authority as Chief Executive. Unlike Jackson, he does not relish making enemies and in so doing, challenging them to duels. Some of us would prefer a President cut from that same cloth, though I do note that nothing unifies otherwise disparate elements only tangentially related to each other more than a common enemy. This course of action does not make for theatrical governance or high drama, certainly, but perhaps the boring way is the best way. Any President is compelled to occasionally be the bearer of bad tidings, the purveyor of necessary, but unpopular policy, and the leader pointing the way against a headwind of reluctance and even stubborn refusal. The more change one pushes for, the more one must assume such mantles. Many will feel short-changed, disregarded, and under-represented in the process. Lament it, if you will, but be sure to acknowledge the substantial challenges that face those who attempt its removal. This New American System combined with a still very New American President might not require as much patience as it does a fundamental understanding of the balancing act and slight-of-hand required of any politician. Our response never changes, but what does change is how quickly we forget that these struggles are not exactly unique to our times.