Can Biden’s Jacksonian language heal America?

Posted in: Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Political history, Political ideologies, US politics

Dr Luke Cahill is a Lecturer in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath.

Joe Biden, if he wins the presidency in November, has the chance of putting America on a path to greater unity, and the opportunity to resolve pressing domestic and international issues after Donald Trump’s four-year term. Biden can do this by framing his policies to appeal not just to the Democratic Party, but to a wider audience using Jacksonian language of honour, duty and service.

American scholar, Walter Russell Mead, has theorised that US foreign policy is made up of four schools: Hamiltonian, Jeffersonian, Wilsonian and Jacksonian. No president is simply one of these, but is a combination of several or all of them.

Mead argued that the Jacksonian school emphasises the use of force and honour, protecting the “folk community” (bound together by deep cultural and ethnic ties), and a binary world-view. These traits are prevalent throughout US political culture and separates it from much of Europe.

Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, elected in 1828. Jackson ran for the presidency against John Quincy Adams, son of the second president John Adams, in 1824. The election outcome was complicated by four candidates. The House of Representatives decided the election in Adams’ favour. This defeat would encapsulate much of Jackson’s feelings about Eastern political and business “elites”, and his desire to stand against them with “the people”.

When Jackson stood again in 1828, he sought to tear down what he saw as elites who rigged the economic and political system to their benefit against the ordinary man, and consistently favoured the white working classes over others. For example, he organised the forcible removal of Native Americans from their lands to make way for white settlers. This became known as the Trail of Tears.

There are clear parallels between Jackson(-ianism) and Trump. Both see themselves as standing up for the ordinary white American, and against what they see as corrupt political and economic elites. Trump’s view of his campaign as a “great movement” has strong Jacksonian resonances, that can be seen in his policies and rhetoric. Examples include Executive Order 13769 (the “Muslim ban”); his 2016 comments about a judge with Mexican heritage having a conflict of interest when ruling on Trump’s proposed border wall; and his 2017 comments that drew equivalence between the far-right and those protesting against them in Charlottesville.

It is clear that America is a polarised nation with disagreements over political, economic and social issues. Rather than both sides seeking to change the mind of each other, and potentially making divisions worse, it may be more fruitful to reframe some of these issues to unite America’s numerous Jacksonians with those on the Left.

Though polls are uncertain and subject to change, it is still more likely than not that Joe Biden will win the presidency in November. Some of Biden’s advertisements have stressed his working class, Pennsylvania roots, contrasting him with Trump. Consequently, Biden has an opportunity to narrow the divides between his Democratic base and Jacksonian America. By doing so he could gain greater domestic legitimacy for his domestic and foreign policies.

In some ways, through his background as a white working class member of the folk community, Biden is well placed to engage with Jacksonians and expand the definition of the folk community. As Mead writes, “Jacksonian opinion has increasingly moved to recognise the right of code-honouring members of minority groups, to receive the rights and protections due to members of the folk community”.

Thus, Biden could use Jacksonian terms of honour and service to ease racial and ethnic tensions - should he win in November. He could also use the same language on issues such as healthcare and the environment. By saying that Americans who work hard and participate in the (folk) community, are just as American as anyone else; or for instance, that those outside the military - such as teachers and those serving the elderly and vulnerable - are also serving their community.

By using honour, and protecting and enhancing the folk community, Biden could appeal to Jacksonians and create a larger consensus to address such complex issues. In reframing language through a Jacksonian lens, a future President Biden could not just have greater support for his policies, but begin unifying a deeply divided nation.

This post is part of on an ongoing series on the United States Presidential election, 2020. View more

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath. 

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Posted in: Culture and policy, Democracy and voter preference, Political history, Political ideologies, US politics


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