Harriet Tubman is going to be on the $20 bill, with former president Andrew Jackson demoted to the back. This will make, obviously, no practical difference in anyone's life, but you may have heard or read a lot about it anyway.
This is precisely because it's a purely symbolic question rather than a pragmatic one — it touches some of the deepest nerves in American politics. Fox News' Greta Van Susteren calls it "dividing the country" while Donald Trump has denounced the move as "pure political correctness."
People who were initially enthusiastic about the change when word leaked Wednesday morning were perhaps disillusioned to learn later that day that Jackson hasn't been exiled from the bill entirely. Meanwhile, fans of both the musical Hamilton and the strong-state tradition in American politics are simply heightened to learn that America's first treasury secretary has gotten a reprieve relative to the initial plan to replace him with a woman.
The basic moral of all these storylines is the same.
The demographic face of the United States of America is changing, rapidly. The Democratic Party is fitfully and at times awkwardly embracing that change, while the Republican Party is to an extent being torn asunder by it, with one faction hoping to repackage traditional conservative movement politics for a multicultural audience while another faction wants to create a less ideologically rigid movement that stands foursquare against the declining social privilege of white men.
What, exactly, is happening with the $20?
America's currency notes are routinely redesigned on a set schedule, whose main purpose is to keep the bills up-to-date in terms of anti-counterfeiting measures, but which also presents the opportunity for aesthetic fixes.
Back in June of 2015, the Treasury Department announced that as part of the scheduled revision of the $10 it would redesign the bill to feature a woman in response to longstanding activist requests to incorporate some gender diversity into America's money.
This, however, prompted an immediate backlash from fans of Alexander Hamilton who, as the founder of America's banking and monetary system, arguably has a tighter connection to the currency than anyone else. Instead of ditching Hamilton, many said the Bureau of Printing and Engraving should replace Jackson with a woman. Jackson, after all, was a slave-owner and ethnic cleanser who also opposed the existence of paper money.
On April 20, 2016, the Treasury Department leaked that they had decided to go in this direction. A woman — specifically Tubman — would go on the $20.
That news was immediately celebrated by most progressives. Taking an iconic figure of 19th-century white supremacy off of money to replace him with a courageous African-American woman who fought for freedom would make a powerful statement about American identity. It turns out, however, that the plan is not to remove Jackson from the money but instead to do a split with Tubman on one side and Jackson on the other.
This turns out to be one of those compromises that angers everybody. It puts Tubman on the money, but seemingly as a second-class citizen compared to the white men celebrated on other notes. But it also marks a formal recognition that the American pantheon is being revised in a way that reduces white male domination.
How did Andrew Jackson fall out of favor?
The process by which American liberals came to clamor for the replacement of Jackson — but not Hamilton — with Tubman is, essentially, the entire political history of the United States since its founding.
For the bulk of its history, the Democratic Party has understood itself to have been dually founded by Thomas Jefferson (in opposition to Hamilton's Federalists) and Jackson (in opposition to the Whigs of Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams). And the modern day Democratic Party is very much the institutional descendent of Jackson's party, while the Republican Party founded in the 1850s had very clear ideological links to the Whigs.
But during the middle of the 20th century, a complicated series of events caused the parties to "realign" on the question of racial equality.
Northern African Americans were brought into the Democratic coalition by the welfare state programs of the New Deal, and Northern urban machines began to incorporate their interests. Liberal ideologues and progressive labor unions joined African Americans in pushing for a civil rights agenda, and Southern white supremacists began fitful efforts to bolt the Democratic Party.
As the civil rights agenda progressed to include more demands for government regulation of private business and more affirmative provision of government services, the conservative ideology of Midwestern Republicans came more into line with the ideas of the white South.
The new, multiracial Democratic coalition has led to a historiographical revolution in American history that features skepticism of iconic Progressive-era president Woodrow Wilson and new respect for the left-wing credentials of figures like Hamilton, both Adamses, and Clay.
This manifests itself both in scholarly works (Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought), popular biographies (Ron Chernow's Alexander Hamilton), pop culture (Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton but also the 1997 movie Amistad and the John Adams HBO miniseries), and punditry (Ta-Nehisi Coates's series of posts celebrating Ulysses S. Grant).
The upshot is that the exact same intellectual currents in American society that were most likely to be enthusiastic about the idea of putting a black woman on American currency were least likely to be invested in the old Jefferson-Jackson tradition of the Democratic Party.
So when is my ATM going to start spitting Tubmans?
Not until 2030. The new plan does not alter the schedule of bill revisions.
The good news is that the new $10 bill will come out sooner, in 2020, and while it will continue to feature Hamilton on the front, the back "will honor the 1913 march and the leaders of the suffrage movement — Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul, Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott — who were instrumental in the passage of the 19th Amendment."
There is some irony here, because Aaron Burr, the man who shot Hamilton and who serves as the villain of Hamilton, was one of the earliest male proponents of women's suffrage in American history and introduced a bill granting women the right to vote during his service in the New York state legislature.
The new $5 has not been the subject of any controversy, but is also worth talking about. The front will continue to honor Abraham Lincoln, while the back is being revised to commemorate major historical happenings at the Lincoln Memorial — in effect, landmark moments in the Civil Rights Movement.
So who has a problem with this?
There's no hardcore Andrew Jackson constituency left in American politics, but the currency revision comes at a time when the Republican Party is being roiled by the surging support for Donald Trump.
Trump has a tenuous connection to the GOP's philosophical commitment to small government, and no personal investment in the kind of Evangelical Christianity that has powered much of grassroots conservatism. Instead, he advances a form of populist ethnic nationalism similar to what you see in many growing European "far right" political parties.
And while neither Trump nor Trumpism has much support among conservative intellectuals, both Trump and Trumpism have considerable support in the more commercialized segments of the conservative media world — talk radio, Fox News, and the tabloid press.
The $20 is a perfect incident to prompt this divide precisely because it has very little real content. There's nothing in Tubman's life or legacy that contradicts any points of modern-day conservative ideology or Republican Party policy ideas. But the very idea of going back through history and finding white male heroes to demote in favor of black female heroes rubs some people the wrong way.
Fox's Greta Van Susteren's negative reaction to the news, and conservative journalist Philip Klein's negative reaction to Van Susteren, captures the dynamic very well.
WTF? How is Obama dividing us by putting Tubman on the $20? Is there a less controversial figure in U.S. history? https://t.co/zkkGoqXaKb— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) April 21, 2016
Trump himself denounced the move as "pure political correctness," a term that has little specific content but that allows Trump to affiliate himself with the view — shared by most Republicans but not by most Americans overall — that anti-white discrimination is as big of a problem in America as anti-black discrimination.
As long as we're changing money, why not accomplish something practical?
This is an excellent point. There are three big things the United States could achieve by messing with physical money that will not be achieved by changing whose picture is on it.
Make money blind people can use.
American coins are different sizes from one another, which makes it easy to tell which coins you are holding while fishing around in your pocket. This is also convenient for people with impaired vision, because it lets them know what coins they are holding. Many foreign countries extend this principle to their banknotes for the exact same reason — not everyone can see but everyone needs to use money. Here in America, the vision impaired can go buy a special wallet to help them stay organized.
Eliminate $100 bills to make life worse for criminals.
When is the last time you paid for something with a stack of $100 bills? If you've ever done it, it's probably either because you are a master criminal or (more likely) because a service provider of some kind offered you a "cash discount" and you chose to pretend not to know that the purpose of the discount is that he can avoid reporting the income to the IRS.
Peter Sanders and his co-authors arguable persuasively in a paper for Harvard's Kennedy School of Government that use of $100 notes in legitimate transactions is rare, and legitimate circumstances in which a handful of $20s wouldn't be just as good is very rare. Getting rid of the high-denomination bill would, by contrast, significantly impair large-scale tax evasion and other financial crimes for which portability is a huge deal.
End recessions by eliminating paper money.
The old conventional wisdom in economics was that monetary policy could always end a recession by cutting interest rates. Then people remembered the "zero bound" problem — you can't cut interest rates below zero, because people can always hold onto cash which pays no interest. This turns out to not quite be true, but physical currency still puts a limit on how low interest rates can go.
Without paper money, the Fed could arrange things so money in your bank account would literally disappear over time if not spent. People would then have no choice but to rush out and try to buy durable goods (cars, home repairs, furniture) as the next-best means of saving. That increase in economic activity would spur hiring and reduce unemployment until the Fed started to raise rates again to cool things down and prevent inflation from getting out of hand.
Totally eliminating paper money would have some potentially dire consequences for privacy, but would also conceivable allow us to eliminate recessions altogether.