How Sean Wilentz’s history ‘The Politicians and the Egalitarians’ resonates

A clear fault line emerged in the Democratic Party primaries leading up to the 2008 presidential election. Sen. Barack Obama, a former community organizer, ran as the head of, inspirer of, voice of a political movement: His campaign rallying cry, “Yes, we can” summoned the power of popular demand; it was Saul Alinsky and César Chávez, the civil rights and labor movements, the feminist achievement, the Underground Railroad. This was the voice of marches and rallies and Frederick Douglass oratory.

His primary opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton, who had previously borrowed and bought into the African paean to collective action, “It Takes a Village,” took a more practical if less inspiring tack: She replied, in essence, that, sorry, marches and rallies and speeches don’t get it done. Although she was more diplomatic about it, her approach was aimed at showing her young opponent to be callow and naïve —real change takes the slow grind of administrative and legislative toil. That is an argument Sean Wilentz takes up passionately: He’s not interested in mere show; he wants results.

Wilentz gets it. One of America’s great modern historians, and also a devoted and outspoken liberal who writes left-leaning columns on the side, Wilentz happily joins the little-d democratic fight for equality and against privilege.

One of the heroes of his new book, “The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics,” is Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer and rabble-rouser who gave form to an argument that America was exceptional because it broke from the elitist traditions of Europe and embraced a new ethos of equality, as least as compared to other societies of the time. One of Wilentz’s villains is that new hip-hop musical star, Alexander Hamilton. For Wilentz, the problem — and the crux of his distinction between Paine and Hamilton — is that Paine was the consummate egalitarian while Hamilton, who came to America as a teenage orphan, saw America’s future dependent on the creation of a wealthy elite.

Wilentz finds in America’s founding a deep commitment to egalitarianism, and while this engrossing and deeply enriching book is both history and argument, much of it is devoted to the long struggle for that equality that John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Paine, and a surprising number of the Founders embraced, at least rhetorically (although it was generally assumed that this leveling was limited to people who were white and, in terms of political participation, male). Lincoln is also here, and LBJ and Teddy Roosevelt. So too are John Brown and W.E.B. DuBois.


Unless you’re a professional scholar, much of what Wilentz describes will be like discovering a rich new dessert, one such tasty bit being a description of how Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry led members of the newly formed Republican Party to pass over the better-known William Seward, a former two-term governor of New York and twice-elected member of the United States Senate, and hand the party’s presidential nomination to an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln, who had been a state legislator except for two years in the U.S. House. Wilentz has also long viewed the American labor movement as a vital piece of the fight for equality, and although I taught about the Homestead steelworker strike as part of my social movements course at Princeton, where Wilentz is a professor of American history, his description of that seminal event tosses in what were to me rich new nuggets of information and insight in his chapter on the Gilded Age.

If you want to read this book — and you should read it — as simply a rewarding insight into how we got from A to B, and some of the fascinating steps along the way — a history — you’ll be well rewarded. But Mr. Wilentz will not be happy. Because what he wants you to understand is that Hillary Clinton was right: Social movements are important in establishing awareness of problems and a demand for solutions. But the solutions come not merely from demands but from effective political action, which includes using the governance levers of the American republic and not just the public platforms of democracy.

On that, Wilentz and I are on the same page. Spare me your parades and outbursts unless you have a follow-up plan that includes concrete steps to get change enacted the only way it can really be enacted in a constitutional democratic republic: through political action.

Here, for example, is Wilentz talking about the over-mythologized Lincoln: “Lincoln may have had his own purposes, like the Almighty, but those purposes always included gaining or maintaining political advantage, often enough by cagey and unexhilarating means. Although he was often unsuccessful, his political cunning was his strength, and not a corrupting weakness.” Lincoln’s opposite, of course, was the bloody and decidedly unpragmatic idealism of a John Brown. “The contrast posed by Brown,” Wilentz writes, “is between a savage, heedless politics of purity and a politics of the possible.… John Brown was not a harbinger of idealism and justice, but a purveyor of curdled and finally destructive idealism….” As in so much of this book, Wilentz the historian is visiting the past to send a message to those of us who live in the 21st century.

That point having been made, however, Wilentz’s further argument — his case for stronger parties — begins to slip and, ironically, that’s because his prescription for achieving the political ends he envisions is rooted in a past that has unfortunately slipped away from us. What’s required, he believes, is not the burgeoning post-partisan movement but the exact opposite: more partisanship, stronger parties. You can see the conflict: My last book was “The Parties Versus the People: How to Turn Republicans and Democrats Into Americans.” I tell you that because you’ll have to take what I say now with that in mind; on that piece of Wilentz’s argument I’m not a neutral observer.

The Founders very deliberately rejected the party-centric parliamentary systems they knew in Europe. Today, as we move ever closer to party government, we find it harder, not easier, to bring about the kinds of paradigm-shifting changes Wilentz desires. The same is true for those whose views differ greatly from his: When government is divided in a heavily partisan system, change in any direction is difficult. The Founders might have thought that was the whole idea — big change should require something close to consensus — but it’s not what Sean Wilentz the activist wants. He can’t have both: When politics becomes a constant war between conflicting party loyalties, one gets stalemate, not change. As Ronald Reagan might have said, partisanship is not the solution, partisanship is the problem.

The problem is in definition and in, as it happens, the historical timeline. Wilentz imagines a partisan political system in which wise party leaders, committed to the public interest, carefully guide their members through a legislative process that produces results for the common good. And indeed there was a time when leaders in Congress were more inclined to take their constitutional responsibilities seriously – to understand that they were not servants of the White House when the presidency was held by a member of the same party, or to offer knee-jerk resistance if the White House fell into the “wrong” hands. A time when party leaders like the ones Wilentz imagines to exist today worked to build congressional majorities drawn from both sides of the aisle. Perhaps that day will come again but it is not what we have today. Instead, a combination of closed party primaries, partisan gerrymandering and laws that give ideologues (who dominate party primaries) the ability to limit ballot access, has created an altogether different, and much less desirable, kind of partisan process than Wilentz might have in mind.

He is right — absolutely right — that to actually make good things happen, including the advances in equality he rightly desires, will require more than rallies and marches; it will also require engagement with the political process. But in today’s ideology-driven Congress, giving partisans even more control is, I promise, the last thing Wilentz should want.

Mickey Edwards served in Congress for 16 years, after which he taught government at Harvard and Princeton for more than a decade. He is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune and had his own weekly political commentary on NPR’s “All Things Considered” before he returned to Washington as a vice president of the Aspen Institute, where he runs a bipartisan political leadership program.


The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics

By Sean Wilentz

W.W. Norton: 384 pp., $28.95