The Jacksonian Tradition and the War in Iraq

John Moser

May 1, 2004

There is an ominous tone emanating from some of those who supported the war in Iraq. The failure of a democratic regime to emerge within a year after the war, and the ongoing violence in certain parts of the country, have led to a sense of frustration. If the administration’s policy has not worked as quickly as they had hoped, they reason, the problem must be that not enough force has been employed. They bristle at the continuing coverage of the prison abuse scandal of Abu Ghraib, reminding their fellow Americans that sometimes during a war the rulebook has to be tossed out the window. A few have begun to toy with the idea of leveling troublesome cities such as Fallujah, or perhaps even using nuclear weapons.

In response there has been a frightened tone coming from some of those who opposed the war. A historian from Swarthmore College, for example, has claimed that “one important faction of the American right has unabashedly revealed its total contempt for anything approaching universal liberal democratic values.” Men such as radio commentator Rush Limbaugh, classicist Victor Davis Hanson, and Senator James Imhofe, by suggesting that too much has been made of the occurrences at Abu Ghraib, “have dived in and happily wallowed in pure and unrestrained moral excrement.” Those who suggest the massive use of force in Iraq are advocates of “unapologetic exterminationism” reminiscent of the racial ideology of the Nazis. “I emerged from 9/11 with a renewed faith and pride in American society, with a sense of my belonging to America and treasuring its achievements and possibilities,” the Swarthmore historian writes. “I still believe in America, love America, but I increasingly wonder if I am believing in a once and future thing, that in the kingdom of the present, the America I love is lost.”

Such surprise seems odd coming from a liberal historian, who presumably knows that the classical liberal ideals of the Founding Fathers did not necessarily preclude an “exterminationist” policy along the Western frontier. Nor did the American commitment to liberty and democracy preclude the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans, nor did it prevent a significant minority of the U.S. population from calling for the elimination of all Japanese in retaliation for the attack on Pearl Harbor. Indeed, there is a streak of near-savagery that runs deep in American society, and which most commonly manifests itself during times of war. Walter Russell Mead, in his 2001 book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World, calls it “Jacksonianism”—and not only does he see it as an integral part of American society; he believes it to be a necessary one as well.

Mead, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, interprets the history of U.S. foreign policy through the lens of what he identifies as four dominant schools of thought. The Hamiltonian school emphasizes the development of the American economy by advancing the country’s commercial and industrial interests abroad. The Wilsonian school seeks the advancement of democracy and international law through multilateral institutions. The Jeffersonian school, meanwhile, remains skeptical of the international machinations of the other two, fearing their effects on democracy at home.

And then there are the Jacksonians. Unlike the other three, they are not likely to hold important positions in the media, the business community, academia, or the foreign policy establishment. However, they do make up a substantial part of the working-class and middle-class population, and they are well represented in Congress and in the military. This group espouses populist values, believing strongly in the traditions of the “folk community” and tracing its ancestry back to the Scots-Irish clansmen who settled along the American frontier. Its members embrace a code of honor based on self-reliance, equality, and individualism. They are unabashedly patriotic, suspicious of foreigners, and distrustful of those who tell them that any given problem is too “complex” or “nuanced” to avail itself of a simple, straightforward solution.

Jacksonians, according to Mead, are not automatic supporters of intervention abroad. In the 1990s the Clinton administration’s efforts in Somalia and Eastern Europe, having little to do with tangible American interests, left them cold. However, once they are convinced that war is justified on grounds of national interest or national honor, their sole concern is achieving victory at the lowest cost to American forces. They have little patience for diplomacy, and none whatsoever for the notion of “limited war.” They find it difficult to understand why humanitarian concern for the enemy should be allowed to trump the lives of U.S. soldiers and other personnel.

The fiercest Jacksonian outrage is reserved for enemies who are deemed to be dishonorable—that is, those who fight contrary to the recognized rules of war. Ordinary opponents, who honor longstanding traditions such as the flag of truce, and who treat prisoners humanely, are entitled to be treated in the same fashion. On the other hand, terrorists who target women and children, kidnap and execute journalists and other civilians, and commit similar atrocities deserve whatever they get. The Geneva Convention, they believe, exists to protect civilization, not the barbarians who seek to bring it down.

Moreover, Jacksonians are less willing to draw sharp distinctions between actual enemy combatants and other members of the enemy nation, particularly when opponents eschew traditional uniforms, and insist on ensconcing themselves in mosques, hospitals, and other non-military buildings. According to Mead this stems from the experience of frontier warfare: “It was not enough to defeat a tribe in battle; one had to ‘pacify’ the tribe, to convince it utterly and totally that resistance was and always would be futile and destructive.” Only by carrying the war to the civilian population could future wars be avoided. “The tribal leadership had to maintain an iron discipline over its hotheaded young men; half a dozen teenagers banding together on a raiding party would bring instant, terrible, and implacable retribution down on the entire community, and perhaps endanger the very existence of the people.” [italics mine]

It is precisely this attitude that many non-Jacksonians find frightening. Yet Mead, far from denouncing it, believes that it is no less important to the American “style” of foreign policy than is Hamiltonianism, Jeffersonianism, and Wilsonianism. Simply put, “every American school needs Jacksonians to get what it wants.” No matter how noble one’s foreign policy goals might be, if they are opposed by the bulk of working-class and middle-class opinion they will not succeed. Certainly anyone facing enemy mortar fire would prefer to share a foxhole with a Jacksonian, no matter how “exterminationist,” than with a Wilsonian who would prefer to be fighting under the auspices of the United Nations, or with a Jeffersonian who suspects deep down that the whole war was cooked up by Halliburton.

Why, then, if the Jacksonian school of foreign policy is so venerable, and so indispensable, do so many elites find it threatening and incomprehensible? Mead offers an answer to this question as well. For most of American history foreign affairs was the exclusive province of no more than one to two percent of the population, virtually all of them white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants from the most prominent families. Today’s elite—lawyers, journalists, academics, policy makers, and business leaders—is more diverse in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity (Mead estimates between ten and fifteen percent of the population). Nevertheless, this does not mean that they are more socially diverse; indeed, they are actually less in touch with the attitudes of ordinary Americans than men like Teddy Roosevelt, who in his youth lived and worked as a cowboy in Montana. “Today,” Mead notes,” the sons and daughters of influential Americans are more likely to spend their summers working as interns at prestigious media companies than doing physical labor, or even working as waiters or check-out clerks.”

As a result young people graduate from top colleges and universities with an understanding of world cultures and civilizations—and perhaps a dangerous tendency toward moral relativism as well—but with little appreciation for the beliefs of average American citizens. What little they do know about working-class Americans might well come from the perspective of Marxism, so that when they hear expressions of patriotism from, say, coal miners their immediate assumption is that these poor unfortunates have been duped by greedy mine owners and their reactionary pet politicians. Is it any wonder, then, that they react to talk of “nuking” the Middle East by invoking the specter of Nazism?

The main reason why President Bush has thus far managed to maintain broad public support for his foreign policy (despite the reverses of the past several months most Americans continue to believe that the invasion of Iraq was justifiable) has been his ability to relate to working- and middle-class Jacksonians. His plain manner of speech, his invocation of God and traditional morality, and even his public appearance at a NASCAR rally have all made him appealing among this group. Ironically, of course, it is these very factors that have made him so hated by academics and other liberal elites. It is difficult to imagine John Kerry—the cultured, well-groomed New Englander with a nose for nuance—winning wide support among Jacksonians, despite Kerry’s heroism during the Vietnam War. Yet the biggest mistake the president could make would be to take these voters for granted. Jacksonians turned against the Democrats in 1952, and again in 1968, when the Truman and Johnson administrations tried to fight limited wars in Korea and Vietnam respectively. Having been convinced that the occupation of Iraq was a necessary component of the War on Terror, they will hold Bush accountable if they feel the war is not being fought in earnest.

John Moser is an assistant professor of history at Ashland University. He is author of Twisting the Lion’s Tail: American Anglophobia between the World Wars (New York University Press, 1999) and Presidents from Hoover through Truman, 1929-1953 (Greenwood Press, 2001). His latest book, Right Turn: John T. Flynn and the Transformation of American Liberalism, will appear next year from New York University Press.