Culture, Domestic, Opinion — November 23, 2010 at 5:57 pm

Populism, Yea Yea

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John Adams tried to be an American Idol,
Jefferson tried to be a ROCK STAR,
Madison tried to make the Presidency vital,
James Monroe was a DOUCHEBAG.
The story always ends the same.
It’s hard to handle all that fame.
You don’t really have it in ya …

– Rock Star

Professor Eric Foner might be Columbia’s version of a rock star, but it’s indisputable that history lessons are quite a bit more interesting when they are sung by an emo band. One of Broadway’s newest musicals, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson takes presentism to an entirely new level by reimagining the life of America’s seventh president through the lens of emo rock culture and at the same time lampooning the waves of populism in American political culture. Somehow, in 90 minutes of entertainment, Jackson captures the tragedy and the genius of our political system.

As the opening song kicks into gear, Jackson, played by Benjamin Walker, appears on stage in black eye makeup and ridiculously tight black pants. He is just another guy from Tennessee—never mind the estate or the 300 slaves or the command of an entire army. Starting early on in the story, he is furious with the “elites of Washington,” who do nothing but sit around and talk about how to improve their own world and never think of the people on the frontier who face the threat of the British, the French, the Spanish, and Indian nations. His decision to run for president as a man of the people sets off America’s first wave of post-revolutionary populism.

The populist outcries of the frontiersmen who surround Jackson—his backup band, if you will—are strikingly similar to some of the political demands of today’s Tea Party. The scripted speeches that Jackson gives about taking back the government for the people could have been stolen from the podium at a Sarah Palin rally. The people demand that the “Washington elite” pay attention to what is going on in other parts of the country outside of wealthy New England. They feel threatened by outsiders. Jackson introduces himself as a “maverick.” As a candidate, Jackson is focused on “taking back the country” for the people. The same strain of thought seems to have survived past Jackson and at least partially permeated every election cycle since his own.

The question, then, is what taking back the country looks like. Has it ever really been done successfully? As the campaign turns into the presidency, Jackson finds it difficult to deliver on his promises of change. His backup band sings, “Did you really think this was going to work?/You’re fucked.” With a court he disagrees with and a Congress that can’t get anything passed, he transforms into Obama. The people who rallied around the best rhetoric during the campaign season begin to desert their choice as political gears start jamming in Washington—it’s just the way the system appears to be designed. The irony is that the great idol of populist democracy has to turn despotic in order to deliver on any of the reforms he promised. When things get hard, his supporters have mostly abandoned him, and he is alone while trying to solve the country’s problems. This narrative is woven through almost every presidency since Jackson. Campaigning and governing are two different skill sets.

The story, like all good emo songs, is one of desperation and tragedy. There is no right answer when it comes to the day-to-day slog of governing millions who all want something different out of their government. True populism would be to make everyone happy—or even just a majority. But that’s damn near impossible. This irony of our political process—the disconnect between promising and delivering—means that we are forever locked into this cycle of populist outcry, a shifting electorate, and eventual disappointment, only to start up again with a new but slightly masked version of the same old populism. On the other hand, it does make for a great show every election. And sometimes on Broadway as well.

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