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December 29, 2009

The Limitations of Democracy

  8:31 pm

President Andrew Jackson prided himself on being the first “outsider” to ascend to the White House. From George Washington to John Quincy Adams, America’s first six chief executives were creatures of the Eastern aristocracy. Jackson, however, was not a member of this established order. While the Founding Fathers sought to apply the ideals of the revolution throughout their terms in office, they were ever cautious of the threat of mobocracy. Political giants of the Jacksonian era, men like Senators John C. Calhoun, Henry Clay, and Daniel Webster, worried that the president’s popularity with the “common man” would diminish their congressional powers and foment a monarchy or military dictatorship.

Old Hickory, of course, viewed the situation in a much different light. Furious that an apparent “corrupt bargain” between Clay and Adams had solidified his electoral defeat in 1824 (despite having won the popular vote comfortably), Jackson captured the presidency in 1828 and again in 1832, determined to serve as a steadfast representative of the people. The political battles his White House waged with Congress, most notably on the issue of the recharter of the powerful Second Bank of the United States, focused on Jackson’s desire to play the role of Robin Hood to the nation’s elite—in essence, to weaken the monopoly of power in the hands of the few. At a time when settlers grappled with the thorny issue of Indian removal in places like Florida and Georgia, and South Carolina leaders frustrated by high tariffs threatened secession, Jackson always trusted the will and wisdom of the majority.

American Lion, author Jon Meacham’s seminal examination of Jackson’s life, notes that the president favored the work of the French philosopher François Fénelon in Telemachus. After years of political education under his mentor, Telemachus asserts that the “multitude, though fickle and capricious, does not fail sooner or later to do justice, in some measure, to true virtue.” Such words, no doubt, were akin to Jackson’s own convictions. He was aware that leadership was tragic, roiled by “disappointments and injustices and failures of imagination…” Jackson, Meacham posits, “understood that governing was provincial—no single bill or single election would ever bring about the perfections of all things–but his experience suggested that the American people, if given world enough and time, would come to a right conclusion.”

Speaking in the days after Jackson’s death, historian George Bancroft said “that the whole human mind, and therefore with it the mind of the nation, has a continuous, ever improving existence; that the appeal from the unjust legislation of to-day must be made quietly, earnestly, perseveringly, to the more enlightened collective reason of to-morrow…” As Jackson was known to say, “the people, sir—the people will set things to rights.”

Political scientist John Mueller reminds his audience that democracy is naturally based on apathy, discord, hasty compromise, inequality, and “manipulative scrambling by special interests.” Even if large and controversial solutions to national problems garner enough support, they are likely to be severely compromised compared to their original composition. This dynamic was on display in recent months during the health care debate, as Democrats did battle over the public option plan and other progressive priorities. What happened to the tense days late last year when the electorate appeared ready to back extreme measures in the face of widespread economic distress? What of Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s infamous, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” pronouncement? The reality, though, paints President Obama as a lonely voice of power amid outcries from both his liberal base and the center he struggles to hold.

Like Jackson, Obama came to Washington as a self-proclaimed outsider; he applied lofty rhetoric in his promises to foster bipartisan support for an agenda that would tackle growing concerns in the health care, energy, and financial sectors. Obama spoke often of the necessity of restoring the trust the American people once held for their national government. The current administration was hailed as the next champion for the rights of the struggling masses, those whom were mistreated by greedy Wall Street bankers and nearsighted bureaucrats. In Jackson’s terms, the aristocracy or privileged class. Yet, after a year of rancor and infighting, Obama was left to dump the public option, cater to Democratic legislators opposed to abortion, and shower benefits on key states to produce those 60 critical votes in the Senate chamber. As Mueller made clear, freedom is unfair because it grants access and equal opportunities to all so that they may make themselves politically unequal in influence and power.

No matter what comes of the combined health care bill expected in the months ahead, Obama’s Washington would be wise to remember the words of a forgotten figure from the age of Jackson. Edward Livingston, serving as a senator from Louisiana from 1829 to 1831 and later as Jackson’s secretary of state, warned against zealotry and the “excess of party rage.” He called for calm and common sense at the height of such heated discourse:

It arrogates to itself every virtue, denies every merit to its opponents, secretly entertains the worst designs…mounts the pulpit, and, in the name of a God of mercy and peace, preaches discord and vengeance; invokes the worst scourges of Heaven, war, pestilence, and famine, as preferable alternatives to party defeat…”

Democracy has its limitations. The difficulties of governance produce special interests, political deals, and questionable compromises that, more often than not, lead nowhere. Through it all, the people “will set things to rights.” Progress is slow and incremental; if the health care bill is flawed and ineffective, new legislation will account for previous failures and the social contract will move forward. As it was in Jackson’s America, so it remains in Obama’s.


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