In the 2008 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton was widely criticized for suggesting the Civil Rights Movement would have achieved little without having a sympathetic sitting president in Lyndon Johnson to actually pass progressive legislation. “Dr. King’s dream began to be realized when President Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act,” she said. “It took a president to get it done.”
The Princeton University historian Sean Wilentz wrote a sharp defense of Clinton’s remarks in The New Republic, and he seems to have not gotten over the incident. In The Politicians & The Egalitarians, Wilentz repeatedly chides those who prefer the purity of social movements to the concrete results that arise from partisan politics. “Every era of fundamental reform in our history, from the Jeffersonian Democracy of the early nineteenth century through the triumph of the Lincoln Republicans, the Square Deal of TR and the New Deal of FDR, on to the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson to the counterreformation of the age of Ronald Reagan, has involved partisan politicians advancing basic and far-reaching political principles,” he writes. Much of "The Politicians & the Egalitarians" is an attack on "postpartisans."
The other, less developed theme of Wilentz’s new book is economic inequality. “The driving force in American political history has been the effort to curb the power of concentrated wealth, whether the power of the slaveholders or the power of industrial plutocrats,” he writes. Wilentz has few original ideas on this subject, however, and it almost seems like an afterthought to him.
"The Politicians & the Egalitarians" is a collection of essays about different politicians, thinkers, and eras in American history: speeches by John Brown, W.E. Du Bois, and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address receive separate treatments, as do 10 others. Most chapters began as book reviews, and not all can be said to fit with the book’s themes. Sections on John Quincy Adams and the 1892 labor strike in Homestead, Pennsylvania, are interesting, but Wilentz strains to make them relevant to other parts of the book.
What really arouses the author’s passions are defenses of politicians and the political process. Wilentz feels that while activists and intellectuals have important contributions to make, ultimately their disdain for politics is a disdain for democracy. A refusal to see that conflict is central to American democracy is not only naïve, it is dangerous; Barack Obama receives recurring chiding here for his belief as a candidate and a president that reason could prevail and partisanship could be overcome.
Wilentz is at his best when showing the ways in which politicians have been integral to realizing the change that outsiders agitate for. Lincoln’s political genius is on display, shown ably as helping him manipulate both his radical abolitionist and conservative foes on his pathway to ending slavery. Thomas Jefferson is shielded from the charges that the author of the Declaration of Independence was nothing more than a slaveholding hypocrite. And Oliver Stone’s "Untold History of the United States" is eviscerated so badly that the match-up between a film director and an eminent historian seems rather unjust.
This is not to say that "The Politicians & the Egalitarians" is always convincing. “Partisan politics has survived because, in the United States, it has worked well, or well enough,” it reads. But there are different degrees of partisanship; disagreements between parties are inevitable and healthy, but hatred between them is neither. Since this is not a work of comparative history, perhaps it would be unfair to point out that America lags behind the rest of the post-industrialized world in measures ranging from access to health care to security from gun violence. The country’s partisan chasm cannot be held responsible for all of these ills – but neither is it innocent. Likewise, it is difficult to see the Civil War as a triumph of the political process, as Wilentz does, rather than a failure to solve the problem of slavery through peaceful political means.
Still, it is a pleasure to be in the hands of an individual who can write compellingly about such a range of American history. Reading "The Politicians & the Egalitarians," one comes away with the sense that historical debates matter. Whether the subject is Lyndon Johnson or Thomas Paine, Wilentz’s vivid prose renders the debates as high-stakes. “The antiparty current is by definition antidemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters,” he writes. The word "reliable" does a lot of work in that sentence. But reading Wilentz, one is almost ready to go to the ballot box in November with a smile on one’s face.
– Jordan Michael Smith is the author of the forthcoming Kindle Single, Humanity: Jimmy Carter and the Transformation of the Post-Presidency.