A Long-lived Political Conversation: Should Democracy or Capitalism Govern?

            A friend who recently reread Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Age of Jackson (1945) sent along an article the two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian and public intellectual contributed to The New Republic entitled, “Jackson and the Intellectuals” (May 13, 1946). Schlesinger’s essay briefly summarized many of the 1945 volume’s arguments, which were, as my colleague suggested, striking for what they revealed about the enduring undercurrents of American political culture. In many ways, little has changed in our public dialogue since the Jacksonian era of the 1830s, but efforts nevertheless now appear to be afoot among some political leaders to redefine the meanings and contours of that social philosophy.

            In his New Republic article, as in his book, Schlesinger argued the Jacksonian Democrats sought to shift the United States political debate from a vigorous Jeffersonian embrace of agrarianism and equally strong hostility to the newly emergent cities and quickening growth of industrial capitalism to an acceptance of the inevitability of that economic sea change, but with the caveat that its purveyors had to be subject to the oversight of democratic institutions. In an echo of today’s political dialogue, (but with its tenets notably reversed by many in the current conversation), Schlesinger argued,

The Jacksonians believed that there was a deep-rooted conflict in society between the ‘producing’ and ‘non-producing’ classes—the farmers and laborers on the one hand, and the business community on the other. The business community was considered to hold high cards in this conflict through its network of banks and corporations, its control of education and the press, above all, its power over the state; it was therefore able to strip the working classes of the fruits of their labor. ‘Those who produce all wealth,’ said Amos Kendall, ‘are themselves left poor. They see principalities extending and palaces built around them, without being aware that the entire expense is a tax upon themselves.’

            As Andrew Jackson’s party leaders saw matters, the challenge was for the producing classes—the workers—both to accept the inevitability of the new industrialists, and to prevent or overcome these “non-producing” actors’ unavoidable efforts to usurp their political rights and equality. As Schlesinger observed,

If they wished to preserve their liberty, the producing classes would have to unite against the movement ‘to make the rich richer and the potent more powerful.’ Constitutional prescriptions and political promises afforded no sure protection. ‘We have heretofore been too disregardful of the fact,’ observed William M. Gouge, ‘that social order is quite as dependent on the laws which regulate the distribution of wealth, as on political organization.’ The program now was to resist every attempt to concentrate wealth and power further in a single class.

            The Jacksonian Democrats embraced Adam Smith’s critique of monopoly in The Wealth of Nations and its call on the state to regulate the tendency of business and the merchant class to overreach and to seek to control government in order to maximize capitalism’s scope of discretion and profitability at the expense of those it nominally served. As Schlesinger noted,

And, contrary to the Adam Smith of folklore, the real Smith did not object to government intervention, which would protect, not exploit, the nation. ‘Those exertions of the natural liberty of a few individuals,’ he wrote, discussing the question of banking control, ‘which might endanger the security of the whole society, are, and ought to be, restrained by the laws of all governments; of the most free, as well as of the most despotical.’

            These arguments are fascinating when considered and compared to the claims offered by political leaders for the last several decades, a period defined by broad acceptance of a so-called neo-liberalism that not only has celebrated the market and capitalist institutions, but also famously and actively disparaged democratic social organization at the same time. Three moments symbolic of this turn in our politics include President Ronald Reagan’s declaration in 1981 that government constituted THE problem to be attacked in our political economy, President Bill Clinton’s 1996 claim that the “era of big government is over” in favor of leaner and more market-like public institutions and 2012 GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s assertion that government had created a huge population of dependent “takers” who were receiving resources unfairly from those producing them. The need, in Romney’s and his party’s interpretation, was therefore to reduce government’s reach and capabilities so it could no longer unjustly take from the capitalist producers to give resources to dependent non-producers. In this view, the now unfettered capitalists could then be unleashed to generate more wealth thereby.

            Put differently, for several decades our political rhetoric, adopted consistently if variably by both of our nation’s major political parties, has disparaged government and, implicitly, democratic choice-making, in favor of markets and industrial capitalism as a supposed more efficient form of social organization that would produce increased wealth for the nation’s citizens. This period has seen calls for government not only to become more market-like, but often, literally, to become capitalistic in both form and function. Those arguments have taken an ever more radical form in the GOP in recent years and many of that party’s leaders now profess that only a government that does little or nothing to regulate the nation’s capitalists and just as little to assist workers, the poor, disabled and other vulnerable groups or to ensure a modicum of equality in society is the only form of governance that can guarantee positive economic results. These officials offer this argument notwithstanding the fact that wealth and income are already strongly distributed in favor of the richest members of American society, the largest share of whom belong to what the Jacksonians called the “non-producing” classes. These current leaders also assert these claims despite the marked decline of income mobility in the United States that has occurred during the years neo-liberalism has held sway in our politics.

            Our political culture in recent years has moved in precisely the direction the Jacksonian Democrats most feared. Political leaders of both parties have for several decades at least symbolically embraced capitalism as somehow superior to democracy, and wealth and income are now profoundly skewed in favor of so-called “job creators” and away from the broader population as a direct result of policies emanating from that assumption. In an ironic twist that turns the Jacksonian formulation on its head, today’s GOP particularly, has rhetorically recast Jackson’s concern about the role of non-producers (capitalists) and now claims they are the producers and that most who are not in this class are “dependent non-producers.” In their collective ideological zeal and desire to secure economic growth many of our leaders, especially Republican Party officials, have set aside Jackson’s fears of the potential consequences of a close collaboration between capitalists and government and have defined a substantial portion of the nation’s population as pariah in so doing. The result is not only a scenario in which the power of wealth and privilege in our society has grown to virtually unprecedented heights, but the ties of those individuals and firms so situated to democratic institutions have also grown markedly. These twin trends have occurred even as the broader population has persistently been told not to imagine that democratic institutions possess the legitimacy of their market cousins. In consequence, the principal instrument of control of capitalists’ disposition to exploit the nation on which Jackson relied, the people collectively, has been hobbled both legally and in the popular imagination. We are living in a period in our political economy typified by beliefs and institutional ties that the Jacksonian Democrats most feared for the health of freedom and democracy. It is well past time to embark on a public conversation concerning that reality and its implications for all of America’s citizens.