In a speech at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library earlier this week, Arkansas senator Tom Cotton sketched out one possible political fusion: Jacksonian internationalism.
Though now out of fashion among many on the left, Andrew Jackson was for many years an emblem of the Democratic Party. He stood for folk populism at home and, as foreign-policy theorist Walter Russell Mead has famously argued, pugnacity abroad. Though skeptical of idealist foreign policy, Jacksonians were quite willing to use force to protect the national interest or national honor.
Cotton’s speech touched on many populist themes. He assailed the “administrative state” and large technology companies. He lamented various forms of left-leaning identity politics in public schools and demanded new efforts to crack down on crime. To combat illegal immigration, Cotton called for more enforcement at the border and mandatory E-Verify to check the legal status of workers; he argued for restricting family-based migration to spouses and minor children and for replacing the current chain-migration system with a skills-based one. He blasted the decision to allow the People’s Republic of China into the World Trade Organization as “one of the worst mistakes of this generation,” causing deindustrialization at home and threatening the international position of the United States.
Cotton situated these populist policies within a broader context of global politics. While he criticized “globalism,” his speech supported continued global engagement. In addition to slamming the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan as reckless, he called for continued support for the Ukrainian resistance against Vladimir Putin’s invasion: “We will never accept a new Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe.”
This speech thus presents one possible synthesis of a Jacksonian orientation of politics with international engagement. At the core of Cotton’s attempt to incorporate Jackson into this fusion was a remark made by Jackson in 1830. At a gathering attended by those who argued that states should nullify federal laws, Jackson gave the following toast: “Our Federal Union, it must be preserved.” The preservation of the Union was, of course, an animating principle of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, and there are broader affinities between the project of maintaining the Union at home and acting as a great power abroad.
From the coronavirus pandemic to Putin’s attack on Ukraine, the past few years have underlined the geopolitical stakes of being able to produce key medical supplies, strategic goods, and energy. The American ability to act as a ballast for the post–World War II international order in part depended on its industrial, energy, and agricultural capacities. Conversely, escalating domestic conflict at home — fueled in part by an elite-driven culture war — and economic stagnation may threaten its ability to help sustain this order. Efforts to improve wages for working-class Americans, rebuild local supply chains, and temper domestic conflict could play a role in securing American interests and democratic ideals abroad.
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