It occurred to me that I have been approaching Walter Russell Mead’s characterisation of the “Jacksonians” the wrong way around. Perhaps, I thought to myself, he does not mean the label quite so literally as I have insisted on taking it. Maybe the modern-day “Jacksonians” aren’t supposed to have anything to do with the original Jacksonian politics or Andrew Jackson himself. But it would be a mistake to think this. Far from serving as a generic symbol, Jackson the man is the wellspring of this entire style of politics.
Mead’s Jacksonians are “new” Jacksonians in the sense that this Jacksonianism has expanded beyond its original Anglo-Celtic Democratic base and its “code” has been adopted by Americans from various ethnicities. The modern Jacksonians make up a community of shared values: honour, equality, individualism (and associated “self-fulfillment”) balanced with a certain social and moral conservatism, courage, and, rather bizarrely, a free-spending, status-seeking “financial esprit.” Except for the last point (on which more in a moment), there is some connection here with historic Jacksonians in that these people did resent hierarchies and authorities, except that the language of self-fulfillment would have little to do with the values of the hardy Scots-Irish Protestants Mead refers to (these were folk for whom self-fulfillment, had the phrase then existed, would have been a sin).
On “financial esprit,” Mead says this:
While the Jacksonian believes in hard work, he or she also believes that credit is a right and that money, especially borrowed money, is less a sacred trust than a means for self-discovery and expression. Although previous generations lacked the faculties for consumer credit that Americans enjoy at the end of the twentieth century, many Americans have always assumed that they have a right to spend money on their appearance, on purchases that affirm their status. The strict Jacksonian code of honor does not enjoin what others see as financial probity. What it demands, rather, is a daring and entrepreneurial spirit. Credit is seen less as an obligation than as an opportunity. Jacksonians have always supported loose monetary policy and looser bankruptcy laws.
Credit is a right? Borrowed money as a means for self-discovery and expression? Do these phrases sound as if they apply to 19th century Democrats? If these sorts of people have supported looser monetary policy at certain times, it was often to get out from under farm debt and their creditors in the financial institutions. That is not self-discovery and expression, but a matter of avoiding going broke. I suspect that if Jacksonians of that sort exist today, they are the sort of people who do not like debt and avoid it whenever possible. It is certainly not something they would seek to acquire status symbols.
It is difficult to overestimate how wrong this identification of the credit-happy, overspending middle-class Americans of today with Jacksonian sentiments is. One point on which Jeffersonians and Jacksonians agreed, and one on which the Jacksonians were even more intense and polemical than their forebears, was the hostility to credit, banks and “stock-jobbers” and all forms of exchange connected to speculation, paper and interest. Jackson’s attack on the Second Bank was a major symbol of this hostility, but it is one that re-emerges throughout nineteenth and early twentieth century history: the Populists, the Grange, the silverites and their spokesman in William Jennings Bryan were all, in their different ways, continuing this resistance to “bank-rule” and the rule of financial elites. In this they shared much with the socially conservative rural populists of Europe, who viewed city folk and their equivalent of “bank-rule” with the same distrust. Prodigality through easy credit is as far removed from these sorts of people as anything can be.
In the end, Mead is describing a very real phenomenon in American politics, but I don’t think the name works at all on any number of points. Yes, you can find certain similarities between Jacksonians then and Mead’s “Jacksonians” (but then honour and courage are values that could be shared by people of various persuasions), but much of what you can identify in historic Jacksonians is lacking in Mead’s modern equivalent. This is why I would reiterate that the people Mead seems to be describing are Middle Americans and many of them fall under the category of Francis’ Middle American Radicals. If these terms are more vague, they have the advantage of not reading the interests of modern middle-class Americans into those of 19th century Jacksonians and concluding that the two groups are essentially the same after having imposed the values of the modern group on the group in the past.