Sean Wilentz's Rise of American Democracy.

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 12 2005 6:47 AM

When History Meets Politics

The implicit politics of Sean Wilentz's new book.

Book cover

The Democratic Party and the endeavor of writing American history have a problem in common. Until the 1960s, both enjoyed the coherence of a shared narrative in which American politics and history could be described as a struggle by the great mass of virtuous Americans—"the people"—against privileged monopolists and plutocrats. Just before the 1948 presidential election, Harry "Give 'em Hell" Truman unloaded with a standard piece of populist rhetoric. "The Wall Street reactionaries," he warned, "are not satisfied with being rich. … [T]hey are gluttons of privilege … cold men … cunning men. … They want a return of the Wall Street economic dictatorship."

But in the 1960s, under the pressure of a divisive war abroad, the feminist critique of the family, and racial riots at home, both the Democratic Party and the writing of American history splintered. The monolithic virtue of the masses came under scrutiny. The racism, sexism, and militarism of "the people" emerged as a problem in the eyes of their former champions. The "solution" instituted in the wake of the disastrous 1968 Democratic Convention was the quota-driven politics of the Dutton/McGovern reforms. Designed to remake the Democratic Party, the Dutton/McGovern rules pushed working-class Catholics away in favor of a party organized around quotas for racial, gender, "peace," and so-called youth interests. At the same time, the focus of American political history shifted to emphasize the study of race, class, and gender. The aim in both cases was to redress the injustices of the past, but the fragmented parts were never able to produce a cohesive whole.

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Sean Wilentz's impressive new book The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln ambitiously tries to mend these breaches by presenting a history in which the fragments of identity politics are once again fastened together. The struggle for democracy, he argues, has unified Democrats, despite their differences, from the time of Andrew Jackson to the present. As a historical narrative, the book has the great virtue, notes Adam Kirsch, of demonstrating "how to write about democracy democratically." Although Wilentz scants the role of ethnic resentments in driving politics, he does a masterful job of integrating the history of social conflicts into a grand political story organized around the struggle to expand political participation. "Americans," Wilentz argues, "perceived ... social changes primarily in political terms and increasingly saw them as struggles over contending ideas of democracy." In practice, this meant that debates about slavery and immigration became arguments about the nature of democracy. Abolitionists, for instance, argued that slavery was not only morally reprehensible but a threat to the right of poor whites to participate in self-government. In the abolitionists' eyes, democracy was more than a matter of voting every four years; it involved the "habits of heart" that ordered the way people related to one another. Or as E.B. White explained it, democracy "is the line that forms on the right. … It is the dent in the high hat, the feeling of communion in libraries. … Democracy is a letter to the editor" and the "feeling of vitality everywhere."

Most historians would be content to let the implications of their arguments for contemporary politics speak for themselves. But Wilentz, a contributing editor at the New Republic, is by no means a typical historian. In a recent article, "Reconsidering Bush's Ancestors," published in the New York Times Magazine, Wilentz makes explicit the implicit politics of his historical interpretation. Reading history backward, he defines today's Republicans as the direct descendants of the now long-forgotten Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s. The alternative to the Democrats in the years before the Civil War and the creation of the Republican Party, the Whigs—like today's GOP—clashed sharply with the Democrats on both the size of government and the shape of American foreign policy. For Wilentz, "the blend of businessmen's aversion to government regulation, down-home cultural populism and Christian moralism that sustains today's" Bush Republicans is but a continuation of the political formulas first laid out by the Whigs.

Wilentz is updating the arguments Arthur Schlesinger Jr. made famous for an earlier generation of liberals. For both men, the Jacksonian Democrats were the good guys, the horny-handed men of hammer and plow who were both the true tribunes of the people and the friends of the oppressed. "Jacksonians," Wilentz argues, "unlike conservatives then and now, also battled against the country's financial and mercantile elites and sought to reduce the power of what Jackson called 'associated wealth' over the nation's economy and politics." In essence, Wilentz aims to present Jacksonianism, along with abolitionism, as two facets of a common drive for democracy.

But Wilentz's tidy lineage skews the reality of Jacksonianism and misconstrues the Whig position as well. Jackson was a slaveholder, and some of his strongest supporters were small Southern and Western farmers who wanted Indian land that many of them hoped to farm with slave labor. The Democrats were a party with strong slaveholding interests, which drove the Indians of Georgia on to the "trail of tears" and then looked to westward expansion through a war with Mexico to advance their interests.

It was the Whig Party, which Wilentz accuses of hiding its elitist aims in the faux democratic symbolism of "the log cabin," that was the center of opposition to both slavery and the Mexican War. Moreover, when it comes to foreign policy, what Wilentz misses is that today's Northeastern Democrats are the heirs of the Whigs' dovishness, and today's Republicans, with their Southern base, are the heirs of Jacksonian hawkishness.

In his Times piece, Wilentz seems to suggest that there are historical plumb lines that, when dropped into the past, can place all that is admirable along a single alignment. But political systems go through refractory periods, like the run-up to the Civil War and the 1960s, when coalitions shatter and are then reshaped by losing old partners and political positions while gaining new ones. One unanticipated effect of the Dutton/McGovern reforms in the wake of the split over Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic Convention was not only to move feminists in and Catholics out, it was also to make support for abortion—which was traditionally stronger among Republicans—a cornerstone of the newly remade Democratic Party. What happened was that upper-middle-class Republican women shifted into the Democratic Party partly on the issue of abortion. The parties have sifted and sorted and resorted their constituencies and thus their issues time and again, so that attempts to read the past directly into the current political framework are bound to be problematic.

More fundamentally, there is a problem with the idea that all good things can be found in one package or one party. Politics, as Isaiah Berlin never tired of explaining, is often a matter of compromising on even core principles. Liberty and equality, he noted, are necessarily in tension so that the debate over the trade-offs between them can be a matter of virtue vs. virtue. Wilentz the historian struggles with the Whigs' admirable position on slavery. But Wilentz the present-minded party polemicist has no need for such exertions; he's settled on a polarizing certainty that casts a retrospective shadow on his version of American history.

Fred Siegel is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York, and the Genius of American Life.

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