Power  /  Argument

What Trump Gets Right—and Progressives Get Wrong—About Andrew Jackson

In the 19th century, Jackson broadened the electorate, but the self-righteousness of some Democrats impedes their efforts to do the same.
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And then there are contemporary progressives, in Tennessee and elsewhere. Many who swooned over a young senator’s speech at Iowa’s 2007 Jefferson-Jackson dinner are appalled that the current president embraces Jackson and see racist dog whistles in his recent visit to Jackson’s grave and estate outside Nashville.

But it says a lot—and not all of it good—that progressives have so completely sworn off the political legacy of Andrew Jackson. As Steve Inskeep—whose own book pulls no punches on how Jackson stole the American South away from its native peoples—argued in these pages, “Jackson’s greatest political achievement was the widening of democratic space. He brought new groups of voters into the political system.”

Inskeep was making that argument to demonstrate a key difference between Jackson and Trump, who largely failed to widen the electorate in 2016. Jackson, Inskeep noted, brought new voters into the American democratic experiment and gave a political voice to those who had previously been voiceless. But if Trump failed to do the same, he seems to have understood lessons about Jackson’s success that progressives, to their detriment, have largely forgotten.

As Meacham argued, the great political tragedy of Jackson was that “a man dedicated to freedom failed to see liberty as a universal … gift.” He did not, in other words, see fit to extend political liberties to those other classes of people—women, African Americans, native peoples—who were denied a voice in the early days of the Republic. But Meacham was also quick to remind his reader that Jackson’s triumph was that he “held together a country whose experiment in liberty ultimately extended its protections and promises to all.”