Towards a New Jeffersonianism

“Prudence … will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

  • Thomas Jefferson

There is in American society a deep political tradition that challenges the power and prerogatives of the wealthy, the expert, and the bureaucrat. It would be a shame and a folly for Socialists to abandon this tradition to the pseudo-populists of the right. This is especially true for a Socialist left that embraces local and democratic control of politics and the economy. It was Jeffersonian Populists who led the fight against Federalist tyranny in the early days of the republic, who fought the power of finance & monopoly in the late 19th century, and who struggled for the New Deal in the dark days of the Depression. This is not to say that we should attempt to import, wholesale, political and economic doctrines born from and suited for the 19th and 20th centuries. But instead we should revive the spirit of the movement: a deep devotion to Republicanism and the rights and duties of citizenship, a fundamental trust in the decency and capabilities of the common person, a corresponding distrust in the powerful and self-proclaimed experts, an understanding of the necessity of an informed and engaged public, a recognition that laws must serve the living, and unyielding defense of the rights and freedoms of the individual.

This is not to deny the often fraught historical record of the various historical Jeffersonianisms. These movements were often deeply racist, particularly towards African-Americans and Native Americans. But this should not be used, as it is by many elitist Liberals, as a means to undermine the legitimacy of the Jeffersonians’ overall project of popular democracy and local rule. There is no reason why a 21st century Jeffersonianism couldn’t be anti-racist. The failures of the past should be taken, not as a sign of the futility of change, but as a challenge to do better. 

Why should today’s Socialist be interested in borrowing this language? Because the most successful political movements of the past have almost always borrowed the existing political lexicon; in the process attaching a new political content to an old political form. The Socialists of France and Germany had tremendous success in the 19th century by portraying the industrial working class as a fourth estate, which would do to the Liberal Capitalist order what the Liberals had done to the feudal aristocracy. The Socialists Party of America had tremendous success in situating itself as the spiritual successor of Jefferson, Jackson, and Lincoln. Unfortunately, today that Socialist political tendency is largely dead outside of a few minor subcultures. Because of this, we will not win over any substantial number of people to a Socialist viewpoint by spewing Marxist, or Anarchist, jargon at them. People should be met where they’re at. 

This strategy has particularly strong potential in the South and Midwest, both of which tend currently to be rather skeptical of anything called Socialism. It also aids us in insulating ourselves from right-wing accusations that we are importing some sort of strange foreign ideology or that we are trying to turn the US into Venezuela (or Cuba, or China, or whatever other target of the day). After all, what is the basis of Socialism if not the belief “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”. And what’s more American than that?

Categories: Politics

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