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Syria and the So-Called ‘Jacksonians’

Jarrett Stepman offers [1] an odd interpretation of Republican support for Trump’s decision to order an attack on the Syrian government:

According to an ABC poll, 86 percent of Republicans supported the Syrian strike in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, compared to only 22 percent of Republicans supporting Obama’s Syrian intervention in 2013. While James Hohmann of the Washington Post attributed this to sheer partisanship, there is another obvious explanation.

Most of the GOP base’s attitude toward foreign policy is what political scientist Walter Russell Mead has called “Jacksonian,” after America’s seventh president, Andrew Jackson.

They do not believe that the United States should go out in the world seeking monsters to destroy, but instead they view America’s international relations through the prism of what is specifically in our self-interest.

This explanation isn’t persuasive for a few reasons. First, attacking the Syrian government had nothing to do with American security or interests. It was a perfect example of using force for something other than “our self-interest,” so if most Republicans are actually “Jacksonians” as defined here they ought to be opposed to it. Since most Republicans back Trump’s attack but were strongly opposed to Obama’s proposed intervention, it seems much more likely that partisanship is the most significant reason for why so many people reversed their positions. If the “Jacksonian” label means anything in our foreign policy debates, it is supposed to refer to people that have no interest in international norms and institutions and care first and foremost about American security and military strength.

Firing off a few dozen missiles for the sake of enforcing a norm in the middle of a foreign civil war ought to displease “Jacksonians” immensely. Because it was unrelated to national security and because it wasted military resources on something that poses no threat to us, a “Jacksonian” ought to be very unhappy with Trump’s decision to attack Syria. The fact that it doesn’t appear to displease most Republicans tells us that “Jacksonian” is the wrong way to describe their views, unless we water down “Jacksonian” to mean someone who likes it when the president orders attacks on foreigners. For these people, it seems to be enough that it was Republican president who ordered military action against another government, and that was all that it took to get the vast majority of them to fall in line.

Then again, I have long maintained that the “Jacksonian” label is not very useful, and it often seems to be applied to describe positions that don’t match up with the pugnacious nationalism it is supposed to refer to. Explaining Republican support for attacking Syria in terms of “Jacksonianism” is a good example of how easily the label can be misapplied.

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11 Comments To "Syria and the So-Called ‘Jacksonians’"

#1 Comment By CharleyCarp On April 20, 2017 @ 1:12 pm

Daniel, you’ve got the wrong end of the stick here. Jacksonian doesn’t refer to Andrew; it’s a reference to Michael:

Your talk is cheap
You’re not a man
You’re throwin’ stones
To hide your hands

#2 Comment By SteveM On April 20, 2017 @ 1:21 pm


Where are the “George Washingtonians”?

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all…”

How and why is what Andrew Jackson said and believed any more relevant or insightful than what George Washington said and believed?

BTW, Washington as a member of the Continental Congress, General of the Army and first President was well aware of the Founders general intent related to foreign policy.

So why is “Originalism” supposedly relevant to every element of the Constitution except for Article I, Section 8, Clause 11, (The War Powers Clause)?

I take potshots at Mattis, McMaster and the rest because those militarist clowns have not one ounce of introspection related to current affairs, past history and Constitution.

All of those war-mongers who’ve kicked the Constitution (and Washington) to the curb should be fired…

#3 Comment By collin On April 20, 2017 @ 1:55 pm

There was a post by Ed Kilgore that well argued Trump is Jacksonian with his military usage once you understand the dynamics of his Presidency and military experience. To simplify, Jackson was not afraid to use military action against Native Americans to secure increased land for farmers in the 1820s – 1840s. And Jackson lack of foreign wars might have been more about a lack of foreign than his foreign policy. (Although he seemed slow to support Texas independence.)

In ways, I wondering if there is a Trumpian doctrine with Syrian which make a big media statement with no real impact to foreign policy. The Syrian bombing is the second most popular Trump move after his Carrier factory saving, but both Carrier and Syrian moves were great publicity but long term little impact on the political goals.

#4 Comment By Jay C On April 20, 2017 @ 4:27 pm

@ collin:

In ways, I wondering if there is a Trumpian doctrine with [ ] which make[s] a big media statement with no real impact to foreign policy.

Sadly, for the US and the world, that seems to BE the “Trump Doctrine” – maximum ego-boosting publicity with minimal real-world effect. For the “real world” being only the US, of course….

#5 Comment By martin On April 20, 2017 @ 5:01 pm


Monsters to destroy is John Quincy Adams not AJ



#6 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 20, 2017 @ 7:47 pm

“According to an ABC poll, 86 percent of Republicans supported the Syrian strike in response to President Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, compared to only 22 percent of Republicans supporting Obama’s Syrian intervention in 2013 . . .”

Since its very doubtful that there was a chemical weapons attack, let’s start here. Whatever my issues with the last admin., one of its virtues was the willingness to pause before acting to consider the facts.

The reason the poll numbers differ rests on that pause of consideration to assess, fact from fiction. The unwillingness here to weigh the issues explains the numbers. As with Iraq which most republicans supported, considering the facts was outweighed by the need to be and appear decisive even if the decisiveness was premised on falsehood.

#7 Comment By a spencer On April 21, 2017 @ 6:10 am

Scoop Jackson is more like it (former boss of Wolfowitz and Perle, no less).

#8 Comment By collin On April 21, 2017 @ 9:23 am


What I found more amazing about the Syrian poll was the Ds support went from 38% under Obama to 37% under Trump. So both polls are within Margin of Error and Democrats as a whole are against these actions. (Notice Bernie Sanders has progressively gotten louder against Syria action compare to original statements.)

In reality, the D leadership needs to understand that Democrats don’t like these actions.

#9 Comment By Rossbach On April 21, 2017 @ 1:07 pm

The poison gas attack in Syria should rank right up there with the Gulf of Tonkin incident as an existential treat to the US. Of course, we now know what happened (or didn’t happen) back in ’64, but we also know that we got a decade of war out of it.

#10 Comment By Blackhorse On April 22, 2017 @ 8:26 pm

Russell Mead’s argument is misdescribed as an appeal to self-interest. For Meade, it is a desire to strike back and strike hard at perceived enemies. Thus Americans previously ill-dipsoed to helping Britain in 1940 rallied after Pearl Harbor. Or the way Americans clamored for action after 9/11, ISIS beheadings and so forth. It makes these sons of the Scotch-Irish useful to (Hamiltonian) imperialists and (Wilsonian) internationalists.

#11 Comment By Dan Phillips On April 24, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

The difference is clearly partisanship to some degree, but there is more to it than that. The difference is, rightly or wrongly and for better or for worse, Obama was viewed as “weak” and Trump is viewed “strong.” You could clearly hear that when Trump supporters and Republicans defended the strikes. So in their minds Obama would get us into a mess and not get us out of it due to an unwillingness to do what was necessary, vs. Trump who will kick a** and take names and then leave. This is still potentially consistent with Jacksonianism because Jacksonianism is about aggressively neutralizing “threats” but then getting out.

The problem is that Jacksonianism can approach Jeffersonianism if it narrowly defines our interests and narrowly perceives threats, or it can approach Wilsonianism if it broadly defines our interests and broadly perceives threats. I do believe it’s true that the average rank and file Republican voter is not ideologically a Wilsonian, but they do over define our interests and over perceive threats. This is because they have embraced decades of catechization that the US must of necessity play a greatly outsized role on the world stage, so they see view interests and threats from that viewpoint. It’s this view of our role that must be challenged.