Andrew Jackson Lives! America's Foreign-Policy Populism

December 5, 2013 Topic: Public OpinionPolitics Region: United States Blog Brand: The Buzz

Andrew Jackson Lives! America's Foreign-Policy Populism

A new poll shows the enduring influence of the populist folk tradition on Americans' attitudes toward the world.

In his well-known book
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, 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.

All this suggests that the Jacksonian influence remains a powerful one in shaping Americans’ views of the world. Yet at the same time, it also helps to demonstrate the limitations of this influence. One might use the data above to try to argue that because there are these key issues on which public and elite opinion diverge, there would be potential political rewards for a party that better aligned itself with the Jacksonian sensibility. But it’s hard to imagine that either foreign policy in general or issues like trade in particular would rank high enough on the list of issues that concern the electorate for this to make much of a difference. More likely, candidates will continue to pander to Jacksonian America on the campaign trail and then ignore those promises once safely in office. As Daniel Drezner put it during the 2012 presidential campaign, “You campaign as a mercantilist; you govern as a free trader.”

In the end, one overriding fact is worth keeping in mind: Americans are perennially unhappy with the direction of world affairs. Nine times over the past twenty years, Pew has asked, “All in all, would you say that you are satisfied or dissatisfied with the way things are going in the world these days?” Every time, between 64 and 81 percent have said they were dissatisfied, with only 12 to 28 percent satisfied. This year was no exception, with only 16 percent satisfied and 78 percent dissatisfied. The reason for this is anyone’s guess. Maybe the U.S. public just has unrealistic expectations about the world. Or maybe it’s because international news coverage is dominated by crises and disasters, and not by long-term positive trends like declines in global poverty and violence. But there’s at least one other potential explanation: the persistent gap between the outlook of Jacksonian America and that of the (usually Hamiltonian or Wilsonian) representatives that generally make up the country’s foreign-policy establishment.