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The Politicians & The Egalitarians
The Hidden History of American Politics

by Sean Wilentz, W W Norton & Company 2016

Sean Wilentz was an outspoken supporter of Clinton during her previous presidential bid, and according to Clinton insiders he has remained close to her since. Wilentz has been described as helping Hillary Clinton understand where and how her potential administration, and that of her husband Bill Clinton, fit into the arc of progressive history over the last half-century or more.

Sean Wilentz is regarded as one of America's foremost political historians. He has been dubbed by National Review as the new Arthur Schlesinger. Wilentz is a professor of American History at Princeton University.

Wilentz approves of partisan politics. He writes that "the framers built a political system which inspired partisan politics" and that "partisan politics has survived because, in the United States, it as worked well, or well enough."

Wilentz derides historians who try to locate Lincoln's success in the beauty of his prose and not his skill in the art of politics.

At Amazon.com, Paul Krause describes Wilentz as viewing "the classical liberalism of Locke, Jefferson, and Adams as the natural starting point for the evolution of liberalism through Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, to Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt."

Krause describes Wilentz as not agreeing with " leftist/postmodern/neo-Marxist historians" or with those "new conservative" historians who have portrayed Jefferson and Jackson (two of Wilentz's heroes) in as worst possible light.

Krause describes Wilentz's work as hyper-partisan, and Wilentz writes of historical moments of extreme partisanship: ratifying the Constitution, slavery/abolition, New Deal, and Great Society.

Chapter 12 is titled "The Liberals and the Leftists." Wilentz describes "the rise and fall of the Progressives and the advent of the New Deal" as having redirected the American egalitarian tradition. As egalitarian politics changed, so did the character of American dissent... a more coherent if endlessly contentious and squabbling American left emerged."

Involved in this is a presumption about who controls political life in the US – what C Wright Mills called the "power elite." Anti-establishment radicals have contributed to momentous change, and they have accused liberal components of the "governing elite" or establishment as having supported major reforms strictly in order to advance purposes of their own. Wilentz is describing people on the left who have a Manichean (an absolutistic black vs white) political mentality.

Wilentz complains about an over-identification of dissent with protest to the exclusion of politics. He sides with "what might be called the political egalitarian, from pragmatic social democrats to committed liberals, who actually effected radical transformations, including the most radical transformation of all in American history, slavery's destruction." The Manicheans regard reformers as lacking in purity and prone to pursuing their political self-interests. But, writes Wilentz,

American history has been driven not by co-optation and frustration on the left but by convergencies of protest AND [emphasis added] politics.

Wilentz list the failures of radical leftists on their own. The socialism of Eugene Debs failed, but the "bread and butter" unionism of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor made gains for workers. New Dealers enacted reforms and frustrated those like the socialist leader Norman Thomas who complained that Franklin Roosevelt was carrying his socialist program out "in a coffin."

Helping fight the good fight were the not so far left activists such as the labor leader John L Lewis (a republican) and Senator Robert Wagner of New York – while the US Communist Party was opposed to the Wagner Act and denouncing New Dealers as "social fascists."

Wilentz writes of the New Left having "degenerated into ferocious and abiding contempt for liberals and liberalism, which sent some of its adherent spiraling into violence and neo-Leninist sectarianism of the Weather Underground."

Allow me to interject some personal experience. I was on campus at UC Berkeley in the 1960s (but not attending classes) and I did hear contempt spoken for liberalism. But it was a mixed bag. My friend Jerry Rubin, leader of the Vietnam Day Committee and soon to be Yippie leader making trouble at the Democratic convention in 1968, and author of Do It, expressed contempt for Marxism to me when we were alone. He did see himself as a revolutionary, but I can't say he was anti-liberalism. Eventually he became a stock broker.

Among the leftist students I knew was recognition of the importance of electoral politics, and the left in Berkeley succeeded in electing a radical city council and elevating a member of the city council, Ron Dellums, to the US Congress. It was in Berkeley that I acquired a contempt for anarchistic leaning protesters who loved expressing themselves in demonstrations, throwing rocks, calling cops pigs, setting fire to trash and accomplishing nothing.

Wilentz writes of some on the left having contempt for Bill Clinton's policies including his welfare reform legislation of 1996. But he reminds us of the Clinton administration's accomplishments,

which included overseeing the longest period of economic growth in modern ties,one that significantly raised family income and real wage for the first time in a generation.

Wilentz ends the chapter writing of the debt that radicals have owed to liberals and of "the damage some leftists have willfully done over the last thirty years to liberal ideals, and, ironically, to their own.

In Chapter 13, Wilentz complains of the Ralph Nader's third party candidacy in 2008 – a move supported by purists (my word) on the left that has been described as helping to throw the election to George W. Bush. Wilentz writes of several leftists described as celebrities as supporting Nader and "some of them [having] recycled false Republican attacks on Gore."

If we look hard enough we can find some Manichean leftist doing the same against Hillary Clinton.

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.