Right now is a justifiably confusing time for the Democratic Party. Underneath our very noses, resentment smoldered throughout the nation and rose up on election day like a poisonous fume. People across the country were confronted with the prospect of electing either of two of the most unpopular presidential nominees in the history of the country, and they chose the candidate that spoke their language. Donald Trump was elected on the promise of reversing decades of American decay, and his message resounded across the nation with stunning effectiveness. While more people voted for Hillary Clinton, it is easy to say that she represented what many had come to hate in American Society - privilege, elitism, and entitlement. Her campaign ultimately had little to offer voters that were desperate for change.
The eight years of Democratic Party governance had some notable successes, but its overall effectiveness in combating pervasive social and domestic problems was tepid at best. Lately, it has been impossible to ignore the recrudescent surge of racism and bigotry in the United States. Polarization has increased and trust in media institutions is low. Most Americans know someone who struggles with opioid addiction, and no lasting solution to the problem of high healthcare costs has been reached. Democrats have traditionally been the party of the common man, and while Clinton has worked to advance many Democratic party ideals over the course of her long and illustrious career, she could not shake off the image of being out of touch. Many observers have called attention to both sides’ exploitation of social divisions in this country as the reason the Democrats became unelectable. While certain extreme elements of the right wing are indubitably repugnant to the vast majority of Americans, such as the “Unite the Right” protesters in Charlottesville, it was very ill-advised of Clinton to bring attention to these “deplorables” in the midst of a heated presidential contest. The Democratic Party, if it is to continue to be a national party, needs to return to its roots and fight for the interests of all Americans, rather than labeling an entire section of the American population as deplorable. But how did the Democratic Party get started in the first place? The first Democratic President was Andrew Jackson. Andrew Jackson?! You might say indignantly, the trigger happy slave owner who economically ruined the country and ethnically cleansed Native Americans? The president that Donald Trump purports to admire the most? Yes, the very same man. I am not by any means advocating a return to the 1830s, and while Jackson’s populist beliefs and policies would rightfully be considered horrendous and oppressive today, he did lay the foundation for future populist leaders.
To grasp how truly remarkable Jackson was for his time, it helps to look at the Presidents who came before him. All of them were either aristocratic Virginia plantation owners or Harvard educated Yankee lawyers. By contrast, Jackson was a man of the frontier. His parents were recent Ulster Scots immigrants who had settled in the backcountry of the Carolinas. Because of this, Jackson did not have the aristocratic trappings or educational opportunities that his predecessors had. In spite of this, he taught himself law and became a successful attorney in the frontier state of Tennessee. His military record, frontier manner, and attacks on banks made him a hero to many ordinary Americans. In addition, his policies in favor of Indian removal, while obviously wrong and unacceptable today, were very popular in the country at the time. Owning up to his populist credentials, Jackson had a famously rowdy inauguration party that left the White House a total mess. He extended the franchise to all white males, not just the ones who owned property. Although certainly not very egalitarian today, it was very progressive at the time and helped cement his reputation as the President of the common man. Jackson, as president, looked to the ideals of Jeffersonian Democracy, which favored a nation consisting mainly of small independent farmers. He distrusted Northern commercial interests, which he saw as elitist, and this was very much his opinion when he famously vetoed the charter of the Bank of the United States. Fast forward about 180 years and it makes perfect sense that someone like Bernie Sanders, while obviously more fiscally interventionist, would have a distrust of big financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies. The essential attitude of distrust is the same.
Andrew Jackson took what Thomas Jefferson started and created an example for future presidents and Democratic party leaders to follow. I must reiterate that most of Jackson’s views today are certainly extremely racist and abhorrent. He was despotic and wrathful in temperament and he owned numerous slaves. He started the forced removal of Native Americans from the Southern frontier. However, these were acceptable at the time. Jackson’s standing as a U.S. President has understandably fallen in past half century as the Civil Rights movement came to the fore. I am not suggesting that we overlook Jackson’s many flaws, or that a look into the history of the United States through the eyes of its most marginalized and disenfranchised groups is not worthwhile or legitimate; it absolutely is, particularly today, and it always will be. I believe with adamantine conviction in the basic equality of every human being in with respect to their natural rights. Every American has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness regardless their race or income, and this is what the Democratic Party believes in. Social views have changed over time, and will continue to change, but the important thing is that although Jackson believed in the nauseous prevailing opinions of his day, he revolutionized the presidency and reformed the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican party into the Democratic Party, which continues to this day fighting for the interests of ordinary Americans and advancing the cause of equal opportunity.
No President has been infallible, and many have done outright disgraceful things – Democratic Presidents are obviously not immune to this. Woodrow Wilson, an old fashioned Southerner, instituted strict racial segregation in the Federal bureaucracy, and he also signed the Sedition Act into law and broke his promise to the nation to keep America out of World War I. President Franklin D. Roosevelt interned Japanese Americans and tried to pack the Supreme Court with justices friendlier to his agenda. Truman got surprisingly little done during his time in office, while Lyndon B. Johnson got the United States mired in the Vietnam War. However, numerous fixtures of progressive and liberal thought and policy had their origin in these administrations.
Wilson and Roosevelt, for instance, implemented numerous progressive policies to help ordinary Americans, such as child labor laws, the 8 hour workday, the income tax, and social security. Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, while not wholly responsible for alleviating the Great Depression, were responsible for the construction of numerous schools, parks, and infrastructure improvements across America. The G.I. Bill helped veterans afford college. Truman desegregated the military, and Kennedy and Johnson advanced the cause of civil rights like no Presidents before or since. All of these ideas had their basis in the belief that Presidents can use the power of the government to help ordinary people, and this had its start in Andrew Jackson. Jackson, arguably the first “strong” president, was a man of numerous contradictions. Although a professed believer in Jeffersonian ideals such as limited government and states’ rights, he was a staunch believer in national unity and threatened force when South Carolina attempted to nullify a federal tariff law. Although he was the most powerful man in America and although he had a tyrannical character, he made it his mission to make the government more accountable and responsive to the needs of the common people. This is what the Democratic party stood for then and what it stands for now. We live in a time where equality means something completely different than what it meant in the 1830s, but the party has changed over the course of its long history to become the most pluralistic and inclusive party in America. There is no ignoring the appallingly racist history of the party from its start to about the middle of the 20th century, but since then the Democratic Party has brought people of differing backgrounds, races, and beliefs together for the purpose of making a fairer nation, where everybody equally has the opportunity to succeed and where everybody enjoys the freedom to live and prosper. I am not vindicating Jackson for his crimes, but rather giving credit to him where it is due. Populism, done right, can be a wonderful thing, and it would be wise for the Democratic party to know and remember its history if it is to have a better future.