REVIEW: Fed Up With Politicians? A Leading Historian Explains Why They're America's True Heroes

The Politicians and The Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics by Sean Wilentz

W.W. Norton & Company    384 pp.

By Jim Kaplan

Many great histories are less about historical events than commentaries on the current day — and this has long been true.  It was accepted in the 18th century, for example, that when a British or French historian wrote about the Iroquois or the imaginary Brobdingnagians he was really discussing the current-day issues of the British or the French.  And so it is with Sean Wilentz’s new history of the United States.

Wilentz, the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history at Princeton, looks back on more than 200 years of our nation’s history, particularly the long struggle to achieve equality -- racial, gender, ethnic and economic.  He demonstrates quite clearly that the inequality question has been around as long as the Republic, and even before that.  He traces it from the writings of Thomas Paine and the popular egalitarian ideas present in the American Revolution, through Jefferson’s small-scale democratic ideals, John Quincy Adams (abolitionism), Lincoln of course (emancipation and democracy), the 19th century labor movement, Theodore Roosevelt (progressivism), the New Deal, and the Second New Deal of Lyndon Johnson.  In this survey of the struggle for equality, Wilentz only occasionally touches upon the present day, but his book and his theory are very much concerned with it, even animated by it.

It is probably too strong to say that between the Politicians and the Egalitarians of the title, Wilentz believes the Politicians have it.  But not too strong by much.  Wilentz argues that brilliant ideas to counter inequality are one thing, but their fulfillment, even imperfectly, is something else again, a much more difficult struggle against the established order.  The thought leaders and activists, the “Egalitarians,” like Paine, Adams, abolitionists like John Brown and Frederich Douglas, W.E.B. DuBois, the workers of Homestead, the socialists of the 1930s -- are dealt with either more (DuBois and Paine) or less (John Brown, Henry Wallace, the American Communists of the Popular Front era) sympathetically.  But in general, the heroes of Wilentz’s book are the Politicians -- those who push the nation forward toward greater equality and democracy.

This is true despite their many, many foibles.  Jefferson was probably a racist, and certainly a hypocrite concerning the race issue.  But Wilentz points out the debt we owe him: his ideas and his Presidency, more than any other early one, pushed forward the concrete concept of democracy for the property-less many rather than just the propertied few.  
Teddy Roosevelt was hardly always true to his beliefs -- after all, he endorsed and rose and worked within a corrupt Republican establishment that had grown far from the National Republican ideas of Lincoln and had embraced the laissez-faire of the financiers and industrialists who essentially owned the party by the early 20th century.  But the Republican Roosevelt began the implementation of modern progressive reform, really inventing it as a political conceptand then passing it along to the first Democratic progressive President, Woodrow Wilson, whose election he virtually assured by finally leaving the Republican party and running against it.

Wilentz quotes Robert Caro at length about how Lyndon Johnson was truly devoted to equality but was also an egomaniac and power-obsessed.  Johnson, whatever his personal shortcomings, was largely responsible for the greatest expansion of the New Deal’s ideals -- the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, and the War on Poverty -- since FDR.

Wilentz’s points are numerous and skillfully made.  First, there is the idea that it takes presidential-level leadership -- and very skillful political leadership at that -- to address inequality.  Congress can’t do it, intellectuals can’t do it, popular movements can’t do it (despite what Bernie Sanders says).  America is not and has never been 18th century France, where a revolutionary uprising in the biggest city could trigger an entire remaking of society.  America addresses and mitigates its most pressing issue -- inequality in a nation dedicated to political equality (or at least democracy) -- by gradual, sustained, and ultimately, brilliant work on the project by Presidential leadership.  It takes a President who knows how to lead and work the processes of political power to move the nation toward greater egalitarianism.

Luck, timing, and of course, skill are all involved.  According to Wilentz, success at implementing the egalitarian program does not mean the heroic Politician is pure or incorruptible or that he (or she) is good at everything, even other things touching on presidential leadership.  Look at Johnson and Vietnam, which Wilentz accurately notes, taints Johnson’s legacy to this day.  The heroism that exists among Presidents is imperfect, and sometimes even contradictory or tragic.

There is one American historical figure for whom the foregoing does not apply, for Wilentz and for most of us, and that of course is Abraham Lincoln.  Wilentz embraces the view that Lincoln was both a thought leader (and hence an Egalitarian) and a brilliant Politician, all in one amazing soul that arose out of the common people.

Lincoln thought, before becoming President, that slavery would ultimately die off if prevented from spreading outside the core Southern states.  Once secession and war happened, Lincoln gradually embraced the idea that slavery anywhere was inconsistent with a democracy, and that growing belief lay behind the Gettysburg address, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the timeless words of his Second Inaugural Address, made just weeks before he was assassinated.  
But Lincoln’s first thought on the subject appears, in retrospect, to be right.  Despite the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments — which banned slavery, gave the right to vote to all male citizens, and guaranteed the equal rule of law to all — something very much like slavery continued to exist in the South for about 100 years after Lincoln’s death in 1865.  It took a Second Reconstruction, beginning with Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, which held segregated schools to unconstitutional, for the hearty disease of slavery to be eradicated over the following 25 or so years.  Progress was slow and change very gradual.  Dr. King was right: the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  It was a sentiment Lincoln would almost certainly have shared. 

Wilentz makes another point worth lingering over.  The national democratic impulse behind the founding of the Republican party gave way by the late 1800s to a laissez-faire view that accommodated its capitalist donor class and to a laissez-faire view of Southern Jim Crow that accommodated (and furthered) its political ambitions.  The party of the Civil War Amendments and the Emancipation became the party of the southern troop withdrawal of 1877 and Plessy vs. Ferguson, upholding Jim Crow in 1896.  The point is that in the national struggle against inequality, corruption is almost inevitable, success is never permanent, and the battle continues, and often with different allies and enemies.  But the core beliefs endure and the basic principles for success remain.

What are those principles for success?  A large degree of idealism seems essential.  The Presidential leaders Wilentz most admires for their achievements -- Jefferson, John Quincy Adams (after his Presidency, however) Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR, and Johnson -- had this in immense measure.  Not only did they have ideas, but they had a vision of what the more egalitarian future looked like. 

For Lincoln, it was the vision of a country that had no slavery, and that could be more truthfully described as one that embraced equality before the law for people of all races (“this Nation cannot endure half slave and half free”).  Jefferson’s vision (at least for non-slaves) was of a democracy knit together by a rough level of economic equality, a nation mainly of small farmers and tradesmen.  His vision was that they should be more or less equal, economically and thus, in Jefferson’s view, politically.

It is an ideal that endures to the present day, even in a radically changed economy and culture.  Johnson’s vision was to eliminate poverty in the world’s richest and most powerful nation.  All great leaders, Wilentz makes us believe, have these sorts of visions, ideals and goals.
All of the Presidential heroes, in Wilentz’s telling, also had an intensely practical side, and a great sense in what was politically possible in their times.  This was more painful in practice than it sounds.  Lincoln hated slavery to his core.  But until the moment was right, he only went so far as to favor elimination of slavery where it was already outlawed, or else in the new territories and states, but not in the South itself. 

Teddy Roosevelt hated the “spoils system” and political patronage with a passion.  It was the opposite of his vision of good government and civic virtue.  Yet he supported the ultimate spoilsman, Senator James Blaine, when Blaine was the Republican Party’s candidate for President in 1884, even when others less committed to reform fled the party rather than support Blaine.  Indeed, it could be argued, as Wilentz does in fact argue, that it was at the moment when Roosevelt really embraced his true radical reformist self-- when he left the Republicans in 1912, and ran against an incumbent Republican President, William Taft, thus ensuring Taft’s defeat -- that Teddy Roosevelt became less effective, less successful, and less able to put his ideals into practice. 

FDR and Johnson were legendarily practical.  When the times presented an opportunity to realize their respective visions, in the form of huge Democratic super majorities in Congress, they knew how to take advantage of their moments.

I don’t think it is a misreading of Wilentz to take some very cautionary lessons from his work regarding the pure idealists, the Egalitarians.  A persistent inability to comprehend political reality seems too often to go with the territory.  Henry Wallace, laudable though he may have been as an extraordinary agricultural scientist and cabinet member, was simply unable to realize the nature of the Soviet threat and the fact that his own hopeless (and damaging) 1948 presidential campaign was effectively controlled by the Communist Party U.S.A.  Later on, Wallace swung to the other side and ended up as a hard-line anti-Communist who supported Richard Nixon for President (against JFK) in 1960. 

In fact, the visions of many of the Egalitarians seem tied up with extremism as an ideal all by itself, the strong inclination that the only visions worth pursuing are those that embrace fundamental disagreement with mainstream thinking.  The practical effect of this -- to say nothing of the political implications -- are very often to render the would-be egalitarian prophet a pariah, and to actually make weaker the egalitarian project in the eyes of the people.  Wilentz discusses figures like the radical abolitionist John Brown and the 1930s and ‘40s American Communists as parts of this unfortunate tradition.  An aside about the execrable Ralph Nader from Wilentz places him and his supporters in the same destructive category.
Wilentz writes about the historian of the American Left, Michael Kazin:

His view of history acknowledges but diminishes the debt radicals have owed to liberals -- just as it blinds him to the damage some leftists have willfully done over the last thirty years to liberal ideals and, ironically, to their own.

Ultimately, Wilentz’s work is highly supportive of the gradual -- I do not use the pejorative word “incremental -- approach to egalitarian change.  Real progress is achieved, Wilentz contends, when deep idealism is wedded to a real understanding of what is possible to achieve, as well as a sense of timing and even opportunism that only the most seasoned and perceptive of political leaders can offer. 

To a generation in which “politician” at best connotes compromise, corruption and a certain spinelessness and shape-shifting, and where “idealist” is unmitigated high praise, particularly to disenchanted young people, Wilentz offers a vigorous and convincing rebuttal to the notion that real progress toward equality comes from anything but patient, practical, experienced and -- yes -- at times flexible political leadership.

Jim Kaplan is a lawyer and partner in the firm Quarles & Brady LLP. The views expressed here are his own.