The Buzz

Andrew Jackson Lives! America's Foreign-Policy Populism

In his well-known book Special Providence, Walter Russell Mead laid out a typology that divided American foreign-policy thinking into four broad schools: the big-government, pro-business Hamiltonians; the Wilsonians, determined to spread U.S. values around the world; the Jeffersonians, concerned primarily with preserving America’s identity at home; and a group that he dubbed the Jacksonians. While the first three are readily identifiable—and well represented within the Washington elite (especially the the first two)—the Jacksonian school is at once the most difficult to describe and the most interesting. Mead calls it a “large populist school” that “believes that the most important goal of the U.S. government in foreign and domestic policy should be the physical security and the economic well-being of the American people.” Its adherents believe that America should not seek out foreign wars. But should it become involved in them, then “there is no substitute for victory,” in the words of Douglas MacArthur.

If you want to get a sense of how Jacksonian America sees international affairs, as good a place as any to start is the Pew Research Center’s latest version of its “America’s Place in the World” survey, released earlier this week. The quadrennial study polls both the general public and members of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The full results of the 2013 survey show a strong current of Jacksonian thinking in the public across a wide range of foreign-policy issues.

The main headline that some observers have grabbed on to in the Pew poll is that the number of people who say both that the United States “does too much” in helping to solve world problems and that it plays “a less important role” as a world leader are at record highs. But it’s not quite that simple. The “less important role” that the U.S. public envisions its government playing abroad still involves doing quite a lot of things. 56 percent think “U.S. policies [should] try to keep it so America is the only military superpower,” and on average Americans want to preserve current levels of defense spending. Large majorities said that “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” (83 percent) and “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” (73 percent) should be “top priorities” among U.S. long-range goals.

This is a public, in short, that cares deeply about maintaining an overwhelmingly powerful military and taking decisive action against what it sees as core threats to American security—both central tenets of Jacksonian thinking. What the public doesn’t see as top priorities are things like “helping improve living standards in developing nations” (23 percent), “promoting democracy in other countries” (18 percent), and “promoting and defending human rights in other countries” (33 percent).

In the Pew survey, the public breaks most decisively with CFR members on issues like economics, trade and immigration. The public is far more likely (82 percent) than CFR members (29 percent) to consider “protecting the jobs of American workers” to be a top priority. The same is true when it comes to “reducing illegal immigration” (48 percent versus 11 percent, respectively). These are deep and enduring divides that are reflected in how consistent these numbers have been over the past twenty years. This, too, tracks with Mead’s description of the Jacksonian school. As he wrote in Special Providence:

Jacksonian opinion is instinctively protectionist, seeking trade privileges for American goods abroad and hoping to withhold those privileges from foreign exports. . . . They see the preservation of American jobs, even at the cost of some unspecified degree of “economic efficiency,” as the natural and obvious task of the federal government’s trade policy.

Likewise, Mead says that Jacksonians “are also skeptical, on both cultural and economic grounds, of the benefits of immigration,” seeing it as “endangering the cohesion of the folk community and introducing new, low-wage competition for jobs.”

This doesn’t mean that the public is wholeheartedly opposed to immigration or trade. Indeed, one section of the Pew study found a significant level of enthusiasm for increased economic engagement with the rest of the world. What it does mean is that their views on these issues are often based principally on their concern for American jobs. One measure of this is that while the public believes that “more foreign companies setting up operations in the U.S.” would help rather than hurt the U.S. economy (by a 62 to 32 percent margin), they decisively oppose “more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas,” with 73 percent saying they thought it would hurt the economy. This is in direct contrast to the CFR members, 73 percent of whom think that more U.S. companies setting up operations overseas would benefit the economy.