There is an article in the most recent issue of The Economist in which the author discusses whether the mood of America is Jacksonian or whether it is more Jeffersonian. The author spends some time defining the two terms, which illustrates rather well that his readership likely has no grasp of the meaning of the terms. If that is true, you can rest assured that the average American voter neither knows nor cares.
The question underlyng the discussion is, however, both extremely important and extremely difficult. What is the mood of the nation? What were the American people calling for when they chose a complete outsider over a complete insider? One might want to say that they were choosing isolationism and self-interest over globalism and a concern for others, but that is unfair to a people who have historically been the most generous in the world. One might want to say that it is a conservative victory, but the people who put this administration over the top are the heart of liberalism, and they immediately demonstrated that with their calls for universal health care and full rights for all genders.
One might also say that it was bigotry that drove this vote, and it is not as easy to put that aside. Few people are overtly racist, but there is a kernel of truth in those overt bigots who say that we want to be a people sharing characteristics. The history of America is replete with periods of what we might call anti-otherism, often quite ugly periods. Jackson was also famous for encouraging the genocide of native Americans. The post-Reconstruction period in the South, ugly as it was, is fully matched by the long and sad history of de facto segregation in the North. Today it is Muslims and Hispanics who are getting a version of the same treatment. Not long ago it was the Italians or the Irish or the Asians.
Silly as it may sound, we are afraid of being brown. We still have the residue of our predecessors’ commitment to their roots in Europe or the United Kingdom. My Irish grandmother referred to the entire population as either “one of ours” or “not one of ours.” She was pure Irish despite being third generation American, and so were my parents as fourth generation. The nation is not quite the melting pot it pretends to be. The German neighborhoods and the Polish neighborhoods and the Italian neighborhoods may have slipped away, but we still have this odd urge to be a physically identifiable people.
That, however, lies in direct opposition to our stated ideals, the recognition of the inalienable rights of all human beings. One hopes that the present xenophobia is the last gasp of this modern bigotry. One hopes that, in a few generations, it will be difficult to find someone without some level of African or Hispanic or Asian or Middle Eastern heritage. We need to hope that we will grow more and more to identify ourselves by those ideals rather than our physical makeup. I still believe that what we really want is to be a people defined by the recognition of the rights of all humans.
Yet, in a few generations, it will likely be difficult to find an American who does not have some African or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern heritage.