Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton
Posted on November 20, 2008
(This originally appearing in The Politico)
Mr. Jefferson and Mr. Hamilton
Thomas Jefferson, a gentleman farmer, disliked the hustle and bustle of the big cities, distrusted the moneyed interests and New York financiers, and favored the revolutionary spirit of France. Alexander Hamilton, a New Yorker through and through, saw debt as necessary to financial expansion, and in his heart of hearts, appreciated the monarchism of England. Jefferson and Hamilton hated each other, and their antipathy has carried through the ages.
As America matured, the battle lines became more complicated. Proponents of Mr. Hamilton’s love of capitalism moved from the cities to leafy suburbs. Those who shared Mr. Jefferson’s distrust of financiers often stayed in the country
Throughout the years, the states of Virginia and New York have assumed the personalities of these two founding fathers. The Old Dominion remained solidly socially conservative with Jefferson’s agrarian sensibilities throughout the 20th century, first in the Democratic Party, and later in the Republican Party. The Empire State, birthplace of the Rockefeller Republicans and Tammany Hall, became much more moderate on social issues and much more oriented to Wall Street.
This past election saw a rare occurrence. Virginia and New York agreed that Republicans were not worthy of their support. Not only did both states vote for Barack Obama. Both states are now dominated by the Democratic Party. Their Senators are all Democrat. Both of their governors are Democrat. Their Congressional delegations have Democratic majorities.
Why did this happen?
My theory is not that the new Democratic Party so great for either the Hamiltonian financiers or the Jeffersonian populists.
My theory is that the Republicans, in their efforts to curry favor with both groups, have alienated both instead.
Republicans promoted a free-market philosophy meant to appeal to big business interests. Their economic philosophy is pure Hamilton.
But as they tried to be true to their Hamiltonian roots, they also tried to curry favor with rural America, the Jeffersonians among us. In their efforts to do so, they promoted a socially conservative agenda that alienated many Hamiltonians that now live in the suburbs of both New York and Washington D.C.
It is not that Republicans have not been responsive to their base constituencies. Indeed, they have been too responsive to their constituencies.
New Yorkers see Republicans and they can’t get past their pandering to the religious right. So, they voted against their economic interests and by voting for the Democrats.
Virginians see Republicans, and they can’t get past the GOP’s reliance on free-market ideology and their antipathy to building more roads and infrastructure. While many Virginians may agree with some of the essential social conservatism of the Republican Party, they want good old-fashioned competence out of their elected leaders. So, they voted for a much more liberal Democratic Party than they are used to supporting.
By its very nature, this posthumous alliance between Mr. Hamilton and Mr. Jefferson is fragile. It is based more on anger at the Republicans than any deep love of the new Democratic Party.
And the Democrats can easily screw this up. Their redistributionist economic philosophy may alienate those financiers who supported Mr. Obama, Mr. Schumer and Mr. Emanual in the last two elections. And their radical social policies may alienate those Virginians who still value tradition.
Edmund Burke once said: “When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators; the instruments, not the guides, of the people.”
The leaders of the Republican Party have indeed become bidders in the auction of popularity. Instead of taking the tough steps to promote the general interest, they have attempted to satisfy the many special interests that make up their base. As a result, they have alienated just about everybody, and in the process, they have unified the two factions that had previously remained divided, those of Mr. Jefferson and of Mr. Hamiliton.