A stern, thoroughly satisfying harangue on the realities of politics in the United States by the veteran, prizewinning historian.
Wilentz (American History/Princeton Univ.; Bob Dylan in America, 2010, etc.) emphasizes that two key factors of politics, ignored by lesser historians, are essential. The first—sure to jolt even educated readers—is that partisanship and party politics are essential to effective government. The Founding Fathers deplored it, and today’s presidential candidates assure us that they detest career politicians. Reformers denounce them, and Americans “want government conducted in a lofty manner, without adversarial confrontation and chaos. But more than two hundred years of antipartisanship has produced nothing,” writes the author. “This is because, despite their intentions, the framers built a political system which inspired partisan politics.” The second factor—less controversial but no less surprising—is that Americans hate economic privilege. Everyone agrees that vast material inequality threatens democracy. The author argues that the fight for racial and sexual equality during the 1960s and ’70s made that period an anomaly, and the conservative swing begun by President Ronald Reagan obscured it, but it returned with a vengeance after the economic crash of 2008. Conservatives today place less emphasis on moral arguments for a free market in favor of claiming that cutting taxes and government will provide jobs and eliminate poverty. Never shy about scolding colleagues, Wilentz maintains that the vogue of denigrating Thomas Jefferson has gone overboard, but he joins in the revival of the reputations of Thomas Paine and Lyndon Johnson. The author deplores the current fashion for giving idealistic outsiders credit for forcing crass politicians to do the right thing. Abolitionists did not compel Abraham Lincoln to promote emancipation, and Johnson supported civil rights long before he took office.
A master scholar delivers a delightfully stimulating historical polemic.