Is Elizabeth Warren the Real Jacksonian on Capitol Hill?

Warren has progressive values, but her populism is just like Andrew Jackson’s

Despite their many differences, Jackson and Warren both have a deep populist streak. (Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonian.com

In a modern era of political messaging, ideological talking points often make one politician interchangeable with another of the same party. This drone of similar arguments can even be a turn-off; there’s a reason that “sounding like a politician” is a death knell for any candidate. And it perhaps explains the success of President Trump’s campaign, which followed few political precedents.

Trump has compared himself to past politicians, though—most notably the famously populist President Andrew Jackson. Recently, Trump became the first president to visit Jackson’s home, the Hermitage, since Ronald Reagan, to mark Jackson’s 250th birthday. There, Trump compared his “rejection of authority” to Jackson’s—just the latest of many times he and his supporters have invoked the seventh president.

But for all Trump’s effort to align himself with Jackson, the real populist might be one of his biggest political rivals: Senator Elizabeth Warren.

Take a look at these two attacks on banks and the corrupting influence of money. Who said them?

“The rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes,” said the first politician. “When the laws… make the rich richer and the potent more powerful, the humble members of society—the farmers, mechanics and laborers—have a right to complain of the injustice to their government.”

“Washington already works really well for the billionaires and big corporations and the lawyers and lobbyists,” said the second. “But what about the families who lost their homes or their jobs or their retirement savings?...We were sent here to fight for those families, and it’s time for Washington to start working for them.”

It was Jackson who made the first statement when he vetoed the Second Bank of the United States on July 10, 1832. He feared bankers and wealthy aristocrats would take advantage of working-class people, and he was determined to fight for them. Now that Jackson is held up as the avatar of President Trump’s populism, one might expect the second statement to have been made by the 45th chief executive himself. Except the second is from Warren, the senior senator from Massachusetts.

“That populist rhetoric itself, since Andrew Jackson’s day, has become kind of constant. What Elizabeth Warren has been saying about bankers’ influence and lobbyists’ influence over legislation, however, has more direct echoes to what Jackson was saying,” says historian Daniel Feller, editor of The Papers of Andrew Jackson. “You could take whole passages out of her speech and mix them up in a bowl with Jackson’s Bank Veto and you wouldn’t know which was which.”

Historian H.W. Brands, the author of Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times and professor of history at the University of Texas, Austin, recently considered the similarity between Trump and Jackson in Politico Magazine. “What Jackson was to America in the 19th century, Trump proposes to be in the 21st. As a historian who has studied Jackson at length, I say: fat chance,” Brands wrote.

In a conversation with Smithsonian.com, Brands said he sees parallels between Jackson and Warren—with an important caveat. “She certainly professes to be defending ordinary people against the depredations of the rich and powerful,” he says. But, Brands adds, “Nobody on the liberal side wants to claim to be a Jacksonian.”

Modern Democrats, who take their name from Jackson’s party, have plenty of reasons to want to distance themselves from Jackson. (Warren’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the subject.) Jackson spearheaded the Indian Removal Act, which led to the Cherokee genocide now known as the Trail of Tears; Warren has claimed Native American heritage, leading to years of controversy. Jackson owned hundreds of slaves who worked on his plantations; Warren has been a vocal supporter of the civil rights group Black Lives Matter. Jackson was quick to take offense and engage in a number of duels; Warren makes her opinions known, but has also shown enough restraint to be well regarded by colleagues.

But though Trump puts more positive spin on Jackson’s legacy, Warren may fit more comfortably into Jackson’s populist shoes. Both Jackson and Warren worked their way from the lower class to attain their respective political offices. Jackson was the orphaned son of Irish-Scotch immigrants, serving in the military and state-level governments before rising to the presidency. Warren is a self-proclaimed “janitor’s daughter who became a public school teacher, a professor, and a United States Senator.” Her mother worked for minimum wage at Sears, her brothers served in the military, and Warren went to a commuter college in Texas for $50 per semester.

Both expressed wariness and even outrage over the idea of banks having control over the American political system. During the Bank Wars, Jackson fought his political opponents to dismantle the Second Bank of the United States. The bank was essentially the 19th-century equivalent of the Federal Reserve System, except that many of the bank’s shareholders were foreigners—a fact that particularly bothered Jackson.

“Should its influence become concentered, as it may under the operation of such an act as this, in the hands of a self-elected directory whose interests are identified with those of the foreign stockholders,” he said, “ will there not be cause to tremble for the purity of our elections in peace and for the independence of our country in war?”

Warren voiced a similar fear in her criticism of Citigroup’s bailout provision in December 2014. “A financial institution has become so big and so powerful that it can hold the entire country hostage. That alone is a reason enough for us to break them up.”

Despite those similarities, the two politicians belonged to very different eras. They had different opinions on whose rights should be defended, and even differed on the basic question of who was a citizen.

To be the true equivalent of Andrew Jackson, Warren would need to criticize the Federal Reserve itself. As it stands right now, the Reserve is more of a punching bag for the political right, who seem to have “this strange idea that the world will be better off if we go back to the world that existed after Jackson destroyed the Bank of the United States,” says Brands. “And after the bank was destroyed, the country spun into an inflationary spiral and then saw the worst financial crisis in its history”—the panic of 1837.

In the end, no modern politician is a perfect reincarnation of his or her antecedents. It’s easy to embody political idols for the sake of rhetoric or popular appeal, but doing so can be dangerous. “Most historians say [that everything] is embedded in a certain context, and what’s really important is that context,” Feller says. “The certainty that you’ve got a precedent, a prescription for action—that is dangerous.”

Or, as Brands says, “Everything that happens today is like something in the past, but it’s also unlike things in the past. We never know until an event happens if it’s the similarities or differences that matter more.”

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