Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Lesson of Jefferson, Hamilton, & 1840

Left-wingers will always claim that America is, at heart, a liberal country, while right-wingers will always claim that America is, at heart, a conservative country.

Both sides are right in their assumption that America has a single philosophy which unites virtually all of its citizens, and they are even correct in their implicit understanding that the philosophy in question is the same now as it was back in 1776, and has remained unwaveringly constant from that point to this one. Where they err is in assuming that that philosophy necessarily manifests itself in the complex ideologies of liberalism or conservatism. In fact, Americans are not, by default, either of these things. What Americans believe in today - and what, as we shall soon see, they have always believed in - is populism.

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary
Main Entry: 1 pop·u·list
1 : a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people

What every major political movement in American history has in common is its ability to successfully draw its given ideology - regardless of what that precise ideology entails on economic, social, international, or cultural issues - back to the basic precept of populism. This fact became clear in the early 19th Century, when the new American republic developed its first two major political parties - the Democratic-Republican party, as founded by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalist party, as founded by Alexander Hamilton. The principles for which Jefferson's political organization stood, as articulated by the Sage of Monticello in 1776, were very clearly populist:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

The Federalist Party, meanwhile, did not stand for populism, as indicated by the foundational premise given its most perfect articulation by Alexander Hamilton during an early Constitutional Convention in 1780:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are rich and well-born, the other the mass of the people... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give, therefore, to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second...

If Jefferson thus laid the foundations for American populism, what term could be best used to describe Hamilton's belief system?

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary
Main Entry: elit·ism
1 : leadership or rule by an elite

Our first president, George Washington, refused to affiliate himself with either of these political movements, and so served for eight years as America's only true non-partisan leader. Although his successor, John Adams, did openly associate with the Federalist Party, his election in 1796 was due less to ideology than to his clear status as Washington's heir apparent. It wasn't until 1800 - a year during which the nation's disparate political factions weren't held together by the common leadership of the widely revered Washington, and thus couldn't result in the easy elections of Washington in 1789 and 1792 and his vice president in 1796 - that ideology became front and center in the eyes of the voting public, with Jefferson and his Democratic-Republicans as proud populists opposing Adams, Hamilton, and the openly elitist Federalists.

This didn't work out for the Federalists. After losing five presidential elections in a row, the Federalist Party dissolved completely, inadvertantly ceding to the Democratic-Republicans a decade-long period of unchallenged one-party rule. By the time they rebounded - first as the National Republican Party and then, when that organization also failed, as the Whig Party - an axiom of American politics was beginning to emerge. The only way to win elections was by presenting one's own organization and candidates as being aligned with the interests of the people, while presumably depicting one's adversaries as being in some way elitist or aristocratic.

1840 was when that finally became unavoidably clear, for that was the year in which the Whig Party finally won a presidential election - in 1840, forty-four years since their last legitimate national victory. They pulled off this incredible feat by eschewing any and all discussion of issues, instead focusing solely on how their candidate, William Henry Harrison, had been born in a log cabin while his opponent, Martin Van Buren, was a snob. The fact that Harrison had really been born into a wealthy plantation aristocracy, while Van Buren was the son of a poor family who worked his way up from scratch, proved politically inconsequential; the reality that Harrison supported economic policies which would benefit the wealthy upper class at the expense of America's farmers and laborers, while Van Buren advocated the same Jeffersonian/Jacksonian ideals that average Americans had supported and benefitted from for forty years, was overlooked. Populism in style mattered far more in winning elections than populism in policy substance. It was a lesson that all observers and players of the American political scene, past and present, learned very well. What's more, it is the principle that has fueled the creation of all the major ideo-political coalitions throughout American political history, from the Jeffersonian Era (dominated by the Democratic-Republican Party, 1800-1828), Jacksonian Era (dominated by the Democratic Party, 1828-1860), and Civil War/Gilded Age (dominated by the Republican Party, 1860-1901) of the nineteenth century to the Progressive Era (dominated by liberals in the Republican and Democratic parties, 1901-1920*), FDR Era (dominated by the Democratic Party, 1932-1980), and Reagan Era (dominated by the Republican Party, 1980-2008) of the twentieth.

This brings me to the present. As Barack Obama and the Democratic Party fights against Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the Republican Party for America's political soul, a great deal of attention is placed on the ideological substance behind the positions taken by each party. While I don't deny the importance of this, I feel that politically, its relevance is grossly overstated. Political success or failure in this country has historically been determined by the effectiveness with which each party and its candidates connects its own image and ideas to the populist roots of American democracy. As the 2010 and 2012 elections approach, this is a factor that we all should keep in mind.

* - There was a brief interlude, between the Progressive Era and the FDR Era, in which a Second Gilded Age came about. This came to an abrupt end with the advent of the Great Depression and the first election of Franklin Roosevelt.

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