Why Politicians Matter

Review: Sean Wilentz, ‘The Politicians and the Egalitarians’

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A "doughface" politician, back in the pre-Civil War years, was a Northern Democrat who often sympathized with the South and slaveholders. The term connoted lack of principle and a willingness to say anything to earn political support. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, was one such Democrat. Campaigning against him in 1852, a Whig politician charged that Pierce, despite his Southern sympathies, was also pretending to be a champion for the antislavery cause. He pointed out that Pierce had expressed opposition to the pro-South Fugitive Slave Law and had been assiduously courting members of the antislavery Free Soil movement. And then, after quoting from a book with a sailor’s chantey about a mixed-race woman named Sally Brown, this Whig speaker quipped that a President Pierce "will, politically speaking, not only be a mulatto; but he will be a good deal darker one than Sally Brown."

The speaker was Abraham Lincoln. That Lincoln was not above using racially tinged jokes might alarm some readers. It has certainly alarmed some historians. After studying the source for Lincoln’s quote in a book by Frederick Marryat, literary biographer Fred Kaplan concluded that Lincoln distorted the true meaning of the song by invoking racist language common for his time. What Kaplan did not discuss, however, is the politics of Lincoln’s speech. Lincoln knew that General Winfield Scott, the Whig presidential candidate in 1852, would need to win over Northern conservatives in both parties to become president, and he intended to portray Pierce as a vacillating politician who could not be trusted. Moreover, Lincoln had already declared his opposition to slavery, though he allowed that the Fugitive Slave Law was constitutional as part of a compromise passed by Congress. Lincoln remained committed to putting slavery on the path to extinction, and his political skills were an asset in that regard. As Princeton historian Sean Wilentz describes Lincoln: "He was a shrewd and calculating creature of politics….It was the only way that anyone could have completed the momentous tasks that history, as well as his personal ambition, had handed to him."

In The Politicians and the Egalitarians, Wilentz hones in on some of the themes contained in his earlier and lengthier works, like his well-received The Rise of American Democracy. He believes today’s historians focus too much on social movements and identity politics, and not enough on the actual practice of politics that advances the goals of those movements. Also, he is fascinated by the interplay between political leaders and popular movements, the moment when politics and protest converge. For Wilentz, there are two "hidden" keys to American political history: first, that partisanship and political parties have been and remain "the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters"; and second, that there is a long-running egalitarian tradition in American history defined by the notion that "democracy’s fate rested on a large and prosperous middle America" and a "basic equality" among citizens.

Animus toward political parties has a long tradition in America. Its origins can be traced to James Madison’s warning in Federalist No. 10 about the dangers of "faction." Madison later wrote, however, that two parties were "natural to most political societies" and that the evils of partisanship could be combated by "making one party a check on the other." Madison of course became a member of Thomas Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, the first American political party with clubs, newspapers, and local efforts to boost voter participation. Jefferson governed pragmatically and was willing to compromise if it would advance his party’s principles, at one point noting to a friend that "what is practicable must often control what is pure theory."

The most successful political coalitions and reform agendas in American history—Wilentz singles out Lincoln’s Republicans, Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and Ronald Reagan’s "counterreformation"—have shared the same basic approach as the Jeffersonians, he argues: an understanding of political realities and the limits of radicalism, and a willingness to use party politics and democratic institutions to serve average Americans. These politicians, who more or less respected the boundaries of the Constitution and public opinion and fended off criticism from radicals, were the true guarantors of America’s uniquely egalitarian society.

The best part of Wilentz’s book is his analysis of Lincoln, a figure who neatly weaves together his historical threads of political acumen and egalitarian principles. It is fashionable among today’s academic historians to assert that politicians—irredeemably corrupt, in the minds of professors—will only pass the right reforms if compelled by circumstances and radical activists. In Lincoln and Civil War scholarship, this takes the form of depicting outsiders like Frederick Douglass as the "true heroes" who ended slavery.

Douglass himself, however, would disagree. As he put it in 1876: "Had [Lincoln] put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible." Lincoln "was never too good for politics," Wilentz rightly concludes, and it was that partisan mindset that ultimately achieved the egalitarian goals of the abolitionists. And if Lincoln had been more radical, "the slaveholders would almost surely have won the Civil War."

Conservatives will find fault with much of Wilentz’s discussion of more recent political history, especially the latter half of the 20th century. Reagan is alternately described as "ideologically extreme" and "peculiarly pragmatic" in the same sentence, rather than simply as a prudent leader whose rhetoric and policies appealed to those he called "simple souls," the average American. While the George W. Bush administration is dismissed as "radically partisan," Barack Obama is praised for his "sweet reason" in the face of "obstructionist Republicans" (though Wilentz does suggest that Obama lacks the political savvy of presidents like Johnson).

But political squabbles aside, Wilentz has done the Lord’s work here—he is a liberal historian who critiques and rebukes a lot of misguided and frankly shoddy research from his far-left colleagues. Since the Vietnam War sparked rising distrust of governing elites, scholars have tended to prioritize the history of social justice movements at the expense of political history and the workings of the democratic process. To take just one example, historian John Stauffer suggests in his book about Douglass and Lincoln that the two had "homoerotic tendencies," but then proceeds to offer no evidence that proves that assertion. Stauffer’s claims "look like nods to current academic styles," Wilentz writes, illustrating "the difference between a historian and a professor with an agenda."

Needless to say, a significant portion of Americans are not likely to find Wilentz’s defense of partisanship and political parties all that appealing, especially during this election season. A majority of voters say neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton is trustworthy. Surveys find that young Americans in particular are less supportive of civil liberties, free elections, and democratic institutions, and more open to authoritarian alternatives than previous generations. Yet whenever revolutionary movements have arisen outside of our constitutional democracy—Wilentz notably mentions the terrorism of John Brown and the Weather Underground—the result has often been violence and a betrayal of the radicals’ own interests. Restoring faith in our republic will require a new generation of leaders, one with integrity, empathy for the ordinary voter, and—above all—immense political skill.

Daniel Wiser   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Daniel Wiser is an assistant editor of National Affairs. He graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May 2013, where he studied Journalism and Political Science and was the State & National Editor for The Daily Tar Heel. He hails from Waxhaw, N.C., and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @TheWiserChoice.

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