In perhaps the clearest distillation yet of the Democratic Party’s long-running shift toward becoming a “rainbow coalition” heavily reliant on women and ethnic minorities, it is severing ties with two of its great agrarian populists (or slaveholding white male oppressors, depending on your perspective): Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson. The New York Times reported this week that Democratic parties in states across the country, including Connecticut, Missouri, and Iowa, are renaming their traditional Jefferson-Jackson dinners out of “a desire for greater racial and gender inclusion.”
The Times frames the party votes to scrap the two former presidents as an embrace of the politics of identity over the politics of class:
For all the attention this summer to the fight over the Confederate battle flag, the less noticed moves by Democratic parties to remove Jefferson and Jackson from their official identity underscore one of the most consequential trends of American politics: Democrats’ shift from a union-powered party organized primarily around economic solidarity to one shaped by racial and sexual identity.
But were the Democrats ever really a party “organized primarily around economic solidarity”, or has identity always been an important part of the mix? The party of Jefferson, and especially the party of Jackson, employed identity politics, too—albeit a different kind. As the historian Jeffrey Bloodworth has said, Andrew Jackson’s presidential coalition was composed largely of rural Scots-Irish immigrants, a “‘folk-community’ bound by poverty, pride and militant Christianity.” Jacksonianism embraced identity politics in the sense that it appealed to this cultural group’s particular interests, grievances, and resentments. Of course, there was an economic component to both Jeffersonianism and Jacksonianism in that they envisioned the family farmer as the basis of American society. But the economic message was tethered to what was unmistakably a form of identity politics—an assertion of the dignity of a particular social-ethnic group.
Even Franklin Roosevelt’s storied New Deal coalition would probably not have been able to hold together without its own kind of identity politics. Social security infamously excluded domestic and agricultural workers—i.e., Southern blacks, who were disenfranchised. Southern Democrats may not have acceded to the legislation if Southern blacks had stood to benefit as well. The New Deal coalition nominally united working class people of all races and creeds against elite economic interests, but identity politics—in particular, Southern white identity politics—were very much at play as well.
Some Democrats oppose the decision to drop Jefferson and Jackson because they think it privileges the politics of identity over the politics of class. One strategist quoted in the Times story said:
Jefferson and Jackson and the ideas they stood for, spreading economic opportunity and democracy, were the beginnings of what was the Democratic Party. That is what unified the party across regional and other lines for most of the last 200 years. Now what unites everybody from Kim Kardashian to a party activist in Kansas is cultural liberalism and civil rights.
But this analysis is not quite right. While identity politics has a long history in America, pure class politics has never been nearly as successful. Partly because of our ethnic heterogeneity, partly because of our founding belief in free enterprise, egalitarian movements in the United States, from Jacksonianism onward, have usually relied at least in part on identity-based appeals in order to survive. In that sense, by dumping Jefferson and Jackson, the Democrats may not be so much departing from their history as repeating it.