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The TNR Q&A: Walter Russell Mead


Mead argues that Jacksonianism--which developed in the Scots-Irish communities of Appalachia--has spread throughout the United States to become the unwritten code that governs our gut understanding of ideas like honor and patriotism, as well as our sense of who is and isn't a "red-blooded American." In essence, Jacksonianism is the cultural ideology that unites (to use a stereotype or four) the Florida speedboat owner, the Southern good ol' boy, the toothless miner from West Virginia, and white-ethnic Joe Sixpack. And when McCain tries to paint Obama as arrogant, elitist, and somehow exotic, he's playing directly to them.

Key to the New Deal coalition and later central to the rise of Nixon and Reagan, Jacksonians have held disproportionate sway over American politics: During the 1960s and '70s, they participated heavily in the backlash against civil rights; and, in Mead's telling, their honor-based commitment to "staying the course" until a war is "won" has defined America's choices in Japan, Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq--sinking presidents in the process. As Mead once wrote, "The United States cannot wage a major international war without Jacksonian support; once engaged, politicians cannot safely end the war except on Jacksonian terms."

How are these voters feeling today, after eight years of George Bush? How will they swing this election? And how might they complicate Barack Obama's positions on Iraq? I called Mead to find out.

Where do Jacksonians stand in the 2008 race?

I think it's right to say that Jacksonian voters are up for grabs in the election, and that both parties have real problems with Jacksonians. They're not happy about the way the war in Iraq has gone; they're not happy about gasoline prices; and they're not happy about immigration. They're against more things than they are for.

The Jacksonian agenda right now is that they want the government to protect them from bad things outside--like terrorists, illegal immigrants, and unfair competition. That's a big problem for both parties and for the country. What you've got is two parties, each with pieces of a Jacksonian agenda; but neither adds up to a full-fledged Andy-Jackson-we-love-it program. That's why the election is close.

You could argue that Obama is everything Jacksonians hate rolled into one. The Jacksonian defection from the Democratic Party since the 1960s has been fuelled by the sense that there's a conspiracy of the underclass and the überclass against the middle: Harvard-educated, puritanical elites with a vision for reconstructing American life, plus a welfare-hungry underclass of people who want one entitlement after another, or want affirmative action if they're non-white. In that sense, the Obama campaign can look to a lot of Jacksonians like the two blades of the scissors they feel are cutting at the middle class.

Those racial resentments were more prominent during the 1960s and 1970s. Have the Jacksonians changed at all in their preferences?

Race is a less important factor for Jacksonians now than it was in the '60s. There has been a move toward the concept that you don't have to be white to be a "real American." I think that's one of the reasons the Obama candidacy is possible--that, in fact, racial barriers have really fallen.

Then why is John McCain taking such pains to paint himself as the "real American" candidate in this race?

McCain will have to show that his attacks on Obama aren't racial--that they're cultural and ideological. To reach Jacksonians, he'll have to link Obama with the überclass. You know, "The Georgetown glitterati love him. The media loves him. He's the darling of Hollywood. Therefore, you don't like him because you know all of these people are up to no good." McCain's military history will come in as a way for him to capitalize on all of these things, allowing him to draw a contrast between the intrepid POW and a person who has only been a community organizer in Chicago. That is not going to strike a lot of Jacksonians as the same kind of service.

One thing that may be important is Obama's past praise for Father Michael Pfleger, the Catholic priest in Chicago, and the two ex-Weathermen. That kind of connection with far-left figures and unrepentant ex-terrorists could turn into an attack that would be very wounding to Obama in the eyes of Jacksonians. All of the inflammatory quotes would be coming from white people.

His campaign will need to block the cultural attacks--it won't be so much about the war or "tough enough," but a generalized concept of "unacceptable because he's outside of the American folk community."

The economy doesn't overwhelm those negative associations?

Obama will have to counter McCain's narrative by explaining why white, middle-class voters should vote for him. A lot of that will have to be economic, but I haven't yet seen the kind of eye-catching proposals that would excite the Jacksonians. If the American people felt that, whatever else happened, a vote for Obama was a vote for $1.50 a gallon gas, that would be the kind of red meat Jacksonians are looking for.

That's a lot to ask, though. Why shouldn't McCain have to produce $1.50 gas?

Here's where McCain's "maverick" image helps him. He doesn't start out in the deep hole that a more "establishment" figure would. In this election, neither candidate has a solidly pro-Jacksonian economic plan, so it becomes a question of emphasis. Obama has actually been moving away from the more Jacksonian position on trade, even though that's where he has the political advantage.

If McCain can frame the economic debate as "oil drilling vs. conservation," that's the kind of eye-catching thing that will really resonate with Jacksonians. They like to drill. They don't like the idea of regulation, they think drilling creates jobs, and they're not particularly environmentalist.

Jim Webb criticizes the Iraq war by calling it an idealistic, alien enterprise that offends his Jacksonian sense of Scots-Irish honor. Do you think that kind of counternarrative would make it easier for Obama to withdraw from Iraq?

"The politicians have screwed up and we grunts have to fix it," is probably the more authentic Jacksonian line. "And because they screwed it up so bad, we should just leave," is the harder sell. Jacksonians like to win, and they hate losing. What the Obama campaign should hope for is continuing good news from Iraq that narrows the gap between what a McCain presidency would do in Iraq after '09 and what an Obama presidency would do--and for Iraq to recede as an issue.

How can Obama withdraw from Iraq without causing a Jacksonian revolt?

The easiest thing to do is to say, "We're winning, so we're going home." Say that. Say, "Boy, that awful George Bush--he got us into this terrible pointless war. But thank God to our glorious, brave soldiers we're winning, so we can go home." The more it looks like victory, the more you can withdraw.

The problem for the Obama campaign, I think, is that for a good chunk of the base, it's so important on a gut level to repudiate Bush and punish the war.

It sounds like you think Republicans are still a lot closer to the Jacksonians.

It's been a long time since they trusted the liberal policy elite, but, during the Bush administration, the conservative policy elite has lost its ability to communicate effectively with Jacksonians. Bush's perceived failures as a war leader have, to some degree, discredited the whole conservative schtick for a lot of them. They've lost confidence in Bush. They've certainly lost confidence in the conservative pundits who backed him to the hilt--and they've lost confidence in the entire conservative policy machine.

Still, the gap between the conservative elites and the Jacksonians remains substantially smaller than the gap between liberal elites and Jacksonians. The Republicans have many, many easier roads back than the Democrats do.

What should the parties do in trying to make future inroads with Jacksonians?

Any new approach to Jacksonians will have to keep in mind that, over time, you're going to see more Hispanic voters fitting their profile. There is a lot of common ground: a family values ethic, a hard work ethic, and a strong desire by a lot of Hispanic immigrants to join the community--to be part of the nation. You saw the same thing as turn-of-the-20th-century immigrants moved into the Jacksonian column over time.

The slow, slow fading of the color line is one of the most important long-term trends in America's self-understanding--the inexorable expansion of who gets to be part of the American folk community. Once, Irish Catholics, Italians, and Czechs couldn't take part in the Jacksonian tradition. Now they're the heart and soul of it. Hispanics are now headed in that direction.

Barron YoungSmith is a web intern at The New Republic.