When your political party has no bench to speak of, then any “purple state” governor warrants a second look, and that makes Gov. Roy Cooper a potential presidential candidate. Yet Gov. Cooper has a problem because he’s a Clinton Democrat. To be fair, his ideology gives Cooper few viable options, because “Biden Democrats” are more elusive than leprechauns. Barack Obama, the only other politician for whom a modern Democratic faction might be named, is himself a Clinton Democrat, as evidenced by social media posts that alternate tone between “Triangulating Bill” and “Vindictive Hillary.”

What the Democrat Party needs, but would not know what to do with, is a populist like Andrew Jackson. It was President Jackson’s farewell address that got me thinking that way. Although he delivered the speech in 1837, only two parts of it sound shopworn today: Jackson’s hope that forcibly relocating Native Americans to reservations would ultimately benefit them, and the settlers’ pushing west was painfully misguided. Beyond that, his scathing contempt for centralized banks sounded antique even before the Civil War. 

Those blind spots aside, Jackson was, in historian Bradley J. Birzer’s words, “the first U.S. president to cast off traditional British sensibilities and embrace a thoroughly American persona.” The adjective modifying persona in that phrase is important because it’s “American” rather than “bureaucratic,” “pragmatic,” or “moderate.” The Washington, D.C. crowd never welcomed Jackson in the way that Roy Cooper wants to be. 

Although Jackson was no fan of party politics and the Democrat party that he gets lumped with actually took recognizable shape under his successor, Martin van Buren, we still have much to learn from “Old Hickory.” For all his flaws, Jackson was also humble and patriotic. Not for nothing does he gaze at us from the $20.00 bill. If Harriet Tubman replaces him there eventually, the look in her eyes should be as complex and approachable as his iconic look is on the bill. 

Jackson was a uniter, not a divider. “We behold systematic efforts publicly made to sow the seeds of discord between different parts of the United States and to place party divisions directly upon geographical distinctions; to excite the South against the North and the North against the South, and to force into the controversy the most delicate and exciting topics,” Jackson noted. Unlike Democrats today, he wanted no part in exploiting disagreement for political purposes.

If that sounds harsh, how else would you explain why Gov. Cooper gets so much exercise on his high horse, despite cultivating a public image as a moderate pragmatist? More than two years into a COVID-19-induced  “state of emergency” that mocks the meaning of that phrase, Cooper wields veto power with abandon and accuses his African-American lieutenant governor of being dangerous and irresponsible. 

Cooper knows full well that emergencies are supposed to be temporary by definition and that Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s interpretation of the Second Amendment aligns perfectly with the logic offered by our Founding Fathers, but he doesn’t care. He passed on the chance to defend the University of North Carolina’s flagship campus when progressive activists questioned hiring practices in Chapel Hill. He’d rather cater to partisans, punish unreliable allies, torpedo school choice initiatives, and force car dealers to increase the number of zero-emission vehicles they sell by 4,000% in eight years. Cooper was as big on mandatory masking as any other Democrat governor, despite the lack of scientific support for mask mandates and the unwillingness of NCDHHS leaders to admit that public health policies involve tradeoffs.    

As Andrew Jackson might observe (and actually did say), “Motives of philanthropy may be assigned for this unwarrantable interference, and weak men may persuade themselves for a moment that they are laboring in the cause of humanity and asserting the rights of the human race; but everyone, upon sober reflection, will see that nothing but mischief can come from these improper assaults upon the feelings and rights of others.”

Andrew Jackson portrait by Alonzo Chappel (public domain).

Roy Cooper is too savvy a politician to pooh-pooh the notion of accountability, but he also hides the ball when that’s convenient. Take public records, for example: There’s a searchable archive of executive orders on the governor’s website, but the first order you can find there is number 11, which promoted wind energy development on July 27, 2017. 

That Cooper’s first 10 executive orders are lost to history, and that all of them aren’t displayed in a long list, might be the result of nothing more nefarious than unimaginative coding by state IT personnel. Still, it’s not a good or transparent look. When people lose trust in institutions, they also lose trust in the stories told by those institutions

Now Cooper is pushing again for Medicaid expansion, and Kody Kinsley has replaced Dr. Mandy Cohen in the top spot on North Carolina’s pandemic response team. But you wouldn’t know that from reading Dr. Cohen’s biography on the DHHS website, where statements about her leading the COVID-19 response are in present tense, like the ageless “state of emergency” that Cooper refuses to cancel, as though ending it would be like parting with a favorite pair of house slippers. 

Near the end of his farewell address, Andrew Jackson issued a warning: “It is from within, among yourselves– from cupidity, from corruption, from disappointed ambition and inordinate thirst for power – that factions will be formed and liberty endangered. It is against such designs, whatever disguise the actors may assume, that you have especially to guard yourselves.”

What’s also worth remembering is that lack of vigilance makes a liar out of the main character in our state’s unofficial anthem. When Darius Rucker or Ketch Secor or the frontman in a bar band sings, “If I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free,” it’s a statement, not a question. That Andrew Jackson would applaud that sentiment in “Wagon Wheel,” and Roy Cooper would not tells you almost everything you need to know about the difference between politics then and politics now. We need more humble patriots, and fewer party hacks.

Patrick O’Hannigan is a Carolina Journal contributor, a father of two, and a technical writer and editor. He resides in Morrisville, North Carolina.