Obama vs. Boehner: Who is the True Jeffersonian?
Credit: Flickr/Wiki Commons/HNN staff.
As the presidential race neared the finish line, I occasionally tried to resist my obsession with today’s politics by opening Peter Onuf’s Jefferson’s Empire. The more I read, though, the more I realize that studying Jefferson doesn’t take us out of the present at all. It merely reminds us that, as Faulkner said, the past isn’t even past.
Onuf explains that Jefferson’s vision of America was profoundly shaped by his understanding of the British empire, where all power and wealth flowed from the periphery (especially the colonies) to the center, the great metropolis of London and its royal court. Jefferson insisted that the United States of America must be the opposite: a vast empire with no metropolitan center and thus no periphery to be oppressed by the center.
This view became the framework for Jefferson’s understanding of American nationalism and thus (like so much else in Jefferson’s thought) a basic staple of the American political narrative for future generations.
At every moment of crisis, Onuf writes, Americans have repeated Jefferson’s essential revolutionary gesture. They have understood -- “(or imagined)” he adds, in a crucial parenthetical remark -- that “they confronted powerful domestic enemies” ensconced in the metropolis “who were prepared to sacrifice the common good for their own selfish advantage. Thus even as the memory of the Revolution evoked images of transcendent brotherhood and union -- the apotheosis of empire -- it also taught young patriots to question the patriotism of their opponents and to mobilize against them.”
Jefferson is, of course, the holy grail of every generation of American political speakers. All want to prove that they are his genuine representative, worthy to bear and pass on his legacy.
So it’s not surprising that, in his victory speech, Barack Obama evoked powerful Jeffersonian images of transcendent brotherhood and union. “We rise or fall together as one nation and as one people. ... What makes America exceptional are the bonds that hold together the most diverse nation on Earth, the belief that our destiny is shared,” he proclaimed.
But he embedded his reconciliatory words within a veiled warning that there are still domestic enemies to be confronted: “By itself, the recognition that we have common hopes and dreams won't end all the gridlock.”
And throughout his speech he made it clear how to identify the enemies. They’re the ones who resist all the “common hopes and dreams” he named: better schools, new technologies, health care for all, equality for racial minorities and gays and the disabled, “new jobs and new opportunities and new security for the middle class”; in short, the whole agenda of policy goals for which he advocates government action and spending.
Where would the money to fund these improvements come from? And who would oppose them? Obama didn’t have to spell out the answers. Having spent months demanding higher taxes from the rich, and attacking Republicans who promise lower taxes, he could assume that everyone got the message clearly enough.
Obama did not question the patriotism of the rich whose special interest lies in resisting higher taxes, nor of the Republicans who carry their banner in Congress. But when he rejected the “wishful idealism that allows us to ... shirk from a fight,” he was clearly mobilizing his political troops to do battle against them. In good Jeffersonian fashion, he clearly implied that all patriotic Americans would rally to his call.
The most immediate battleground is the showdown over the looming “fiscal cliff.” Enter another major contender for the title of “true Jeffersonian” in 2012: John Boehner.
In a press conference just hours after Obama’s victory, the speaker of the House of Representatives sounded his own clarion call for transcendent brotherhood and union: Voters “gave us a mandate to work together to do the best thing for our country. ... Let's challenge ourselves to find the common ground that has eluded us ... and do the right thing together for our country.”
But Boehner, too, could scarcely conceal his warning about domestic enemies who imperil the common good for their selfish interests. “The greatest challenge of all [is] a massive [federal] debt.” And “the entitlement programs are the primary drivers of our debt.”
Boehner knew it would be impolitic for the losing party to spell out the obvious implication: The enemies are all those recipients of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid who refuse to take the cuts that true patriots would eagerly accept.
(Over at Fox News, Bill O’Reilly didn’t hesitate to say it out loud. “It’s not a traditional America anymore,” he lamented. There’s a new majority made up of people who “want stuff.”)
Boehner went beyond Obama by identifying the good guys as well as the bad guys. No less than seven times he lauded small businesses -- the “rock of our economy” -- and demanded that they be protected from tax hikes.
This praise of independent entrepreneurs gave Boehner another point in the competition for the title of “true Jeffersonian.” Jefferson assumed that the vast majority of patriotic Americans would be independent yeoman farmers, the most common form of small businessmen in his day.
Boehner scored an even bigger Jeffersonian point, though, when he warned against “government taking a larger share of what the American people earn.” Here was the familiar heart of the GOP's Jeffersonian message, the evil of the metropolis and especially the royal court: “Feeding the growth of government through higher tax rates won’t help us solve the problem. ... A ‘balanced’ approach isn’t balanced if it’s done in the old Washington way of raising taxes now, and ultimately failing to cut spending in the future.”
But don’t count Obama out in this “true Jeffersonian” contest. He’s proven that he’s every bit as much a “comeback kid” as Bill Clinton. And in this case his path to victory is clear, though not easy. He has to explain to the American people that the new form of empire, which Jefferson did so much to create, only managed to produce part of the change that TJ expected.
It did largely eliminate the old imperial system, in which rulers housed in the metropolis reaped direct financial gain from their political control. No one gets rich simply by being president or speaker of the House. Top-flight politicians can almost always make far more money by using their skills in the private sector, where the real wealth is.
Real wealth still flows in huge waves to the metropolis, of course. But it’s not the same metropolis as the seat of political power. To put it bluntly, Washington and New York (and Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and Dallas) are separate metropoles; the political and economic centers are no longer the same. That’s the piece of the picture Jefferson did not foresee.
This means that, theoretically, the government in Washington can be the true agent of the common good, the benefactor of all, while the masses remain oppressed by the other metropoles, where wealthy and powerful domestic enemies sacrifice the common good for their own selfish advantage.
Obama could use his impressive rhetorical gift to make the case that this theoretical possibility has become the actual reality. Then he could call true patriots to mobilize in support of the political metropolis against the selfish enemies of the nation, who live so lavishly in the economic metropoles.
Obama could add that the economic metropoles have reorganized our economic life so that Jefferson’s vision of a land full of small businessmen can no longer match the reality. But, he could explain, Jefferson’s praise of the yeoman farmer need not be seen as praise for the family or household as an independent economic enterprise.
Rather, Jefferson was making a compelling argument that everyone in society benefits when each household has a firm and dependable foundation of economic sufficiency. In our day this comes much more often from earned wages and benefits than from labor in one’s own fields. But it is still the task of the political metropolis to insure that the land is filled with economically secure households, despite all the opposition from the economic metropoles.
If Obama makes these rhetorical moves he can defeat Boehner and the Republicans in the contest for the title of “true Jeffersonian.” More importantly, he can update our understanding of America as the Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” and make it relevant for the twenty-firs century. And, in the process, he just might take control of policymaking in the political metropolis, too.
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