Political parties, like the poor, have always been with us, or almost always. The framers of the Constitution feared them; modern commentators describe them as obstacles to political progress. Barack Obama won his first real national acclaim at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston for criticizing partisanship.
And yet, in “The Politicians and the Egalitarians,’’ Sean Wilentz, the prominent Princeton historian, argues not only that the clash of political parties is essential to social progress but also that the collision of the parties is the indispensable element in a recurrent core concern in our politics — our shared impulse to corral the wealth gap and the growth of economic privilege. Indeed, he insists “all of the great American social legislation, from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to the Great Society, has been achieved by and through the political parties.’’
Political parties have drawn furrowed brows from the beginning of our history. The great thinkers who shaped our political system deplored “factions,’’ as parties were described in Federalist Number 10. When opposing groups emerged anyway, Thomas Jefferson became the first national leader to proclaim a post-partisan era: “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.’’
But Wilentz argues that that declaration was merely a Jeffersonian ploy to attract support from moderate Federalists, and in any case the party system proved more resilient than Jefferson suspected. In fact by the early national period, the idea was rising that partisan conflict may be necessary to avoid what Martin Van Buren called “the establishment of a moneyed oligarchy, the most selfish and monopolizing of all depositories of political power.’’
Still, the notion that parties were pernicious and potentially threatened to tear apart the republic persisted. John C. Calhoun inveighed against them, and one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Confederate States of America was that it had no parties; as the delegates to the Confederacy’s constitutional convention began to gather, the New Orleans Daily Picayune newspaper warned of “that devil that vexes us — party spirit.’’
This is one of history’s great ironies, lost upon us as we contemplate a Congress immobilized by partisan differences and as the two parties veer off in their respective directions, with the public staring in bewilderment if not contempt. Wilentz argues that our historic antipathy to partisanship “is by definition antidemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.’’
Wilentz’s verdict, fortified by examples from Jefferson to Jefferson Davis, and from Grover Cleveland presumably through the conventions in July: Partisanship is not only good, it is also productive. Who knew?
And the proselytizers of nonpartisanship? Here is Wilentz’s view: “Whenever political leaders have presumed that their expertise and their background make them special repositories of wisdom above the wheeling and dealing and ‘spoilsmanship’ of democratic politics, the result has been a fatal disconnection between themselves and the citizenry.’’
Wilentz shows us that his other preoccupation — wealth disparity — has a storied tradition. Jefferson worried about the “enormous inequality’’ of his time. So did his great rival John Adams, and James Madison, too, who warned of “the inequality of property, by an immoderate, and especially an unmerited, accumulation of riches.’’
Along the way Wilentz examines the legacy of Thomas Paine (“He spoke the language of disinterested virtue and commonwealth proclaimed by eighteenth-century republican writers, but he was a liberal with respect to individual rights and commercial expansion’’), John Quincy Adams (“the boldest and most consequential American nationalist of his time’’), John Brown (“a purveyor of curdled and finally destructive idealism’’), and Lyndon B. Johnson (“one of the truly formidable presidents in our history’’). There are also stops at the shores of the Monongahela River, where the 1892 lockout and strike at the Homestead steel works flared into violence, and there are peeks inside the covers of W.E.B. DuBois’s masterwork, “The Souls of Black Folk.’’
In the course of all this Wilentz sets forth a provocative idea that may provide vital perspective to the politics of this very year. In a discussion of the political spectrum and travails of Lincoln he says:
“[I]t is one thing to acknowledge the contributions of outsiders and radicals and quite another to vaunt their supposed purity in order to denigrate mainstream politics and politicians. The implication of this antipolitical or metapolitical narrative is that the outsiders are the truly admirable figures, whereas presidents are merely the outsiders’ lesser, reluctant instruments. Anyone who points out the obvious fact that without a politically supple, energetic, and devoted president, change will never come runs the risk of being branded an elitist or worse.’’
Words to live by, if you want to be president. Words, perhaps, to be read by the two party chairs at the outset of their conventions, if they want to nominate an effective president.
THE POLITICIANS AND THE EGALITARIANS: The Hidden History of American Politics
By Sean Wilentz,
Norton, 364 pp., $28.95