12 July 2009

Lincoln for Liberal Realists

The current New Republic cover-features an enormous review article by historian Sean Wilentz to mark the Lincoln bicentennial. Though his heroes of American history are usually Democrats or precursors of the Democratic party, he admires Lincoln, but he's concerned that too many people today admire the 16th President for the wrong reasons. He finds the prevailing misrepresentation of Lincoln typical of a time that has made Barack Obama President. He doesn't really criticize Obama himself this time, but it may be recalled that during last year's primary season, Wilentz was a strong supporter of Hilary Clinton and a stronger critic of people who he thought adored Obama due to a naive infatuation with his rhetorical powers. This viewpoint carries over into his Lincoln essay, because his major complaint about today's Lincoln worshipers is that they make too much of his admittedly admirable rhetoric while neglecting the necessary political skills that allowed Lincoln to advance his liberating agenda.

Here is Wilentz on Presidential rhetoric:

Presidential rhetoric certainly can persuade, placate, or inspire people to action, whether the presidents actually write their own words (as Lincoln did) or rely on speechwriters and cabinet members. But just as presidential language need not be eloquent in any classic literary sense to get things done, so eloquence is no guarantee that the words will be effective, or even right.

True enough. It seems wise at this time to warn Obama's most ardent supporters that they can't expect him to win everyone over with brilliant speeches. But Wilentz also worries that too many liberals today seem to oscillate between an idealism that idolizes the bully pulpit and a radicalism impatient with resistance and tempted toward coercion. He reads this into Lincoln biographies that make heroes out of the abolitionists and other radicals who constantly pressured Lincoln to take extreme or arbitrary actions in the name of their idea of justice. These writers make activists like Frederick Douglass the moral superiors of Lincoln, mainly because they demanded instantaneous, unconditional abolition of slavery when Lincoln was more tentative. Wilentz makes a valid point when he observes that radicals aren't accountable to anyone in the same way that a politician is, and he makes a more valid point when he reminds readers that Lincoln considered himself constrained by the Constitution, though the constraints did come off over time.

But Wilentz is clearly building toward a moral applicable to modern politics, so the question isn't whether President Obama should or shouldn't claim extraordinary powers to take emergency actions. Wilentz is trying to teach Obama's supporters how to be political, and not to despise it. He thinks that Obama benefited across the board last year with a dissatisfaction with politics as such that he seems to regard as immature.

Many present-day American historians assume that political calculation, opportunism, careerism, and duplicity negate idealism and political integrity....they charge that the similarities between the corrupt major political parties overwhelm their differences....they equate purposefulness with political purity. Consequently, their writings slight how all great American leaders, including many of the outsiders they idealized, have relied on calculation, opportunism, and all the other democratic political arts in order to advance their loftiest and most controversial goals.

Here's another dose of the same toward the end:

Two of the major objects of enmity in this current of reformism are the political parties (with their dark hidden forces, the professional politicians) and the money-drenched system of campaigning (with its dark hidden forces, the coroprate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties -- or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party -- can be broken, then the true will of the rank and file, and ultimately of the people, will be unleashed, and principled government will be restored. And if the intrinsically corrupting (or so it is claimed) contributions of big money are ended, and something approximating public financing of elections is installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?

Remember, Wilentz offers this paragraph sarcastically. In his mind, he's parodying people who believe that the monetarization of political speech and the persistence of the American Bipolarchy (were he aware of me, I'm sure he'd put my pet term in scare quotes) have harmed the republic. We are all so naive, and we'd probably be dangerous, in his eyes, if we weren't so ineffectual. What makes us ineffectual, as far as Wilentz is concerned, is that we want radical change yet expect that our leaders can make it happen by giving a bunch of speeches. So thinks the Obama voter of his imagination.

In Wilentz's own account, Lincoln's great political triumph is issuing the Emancipation Proclamation and getting re-elected afterward without a full-scale mutiny by soldiers or civilians. He believes that Lincoln's lessons for modern politicians lie in how he prepared public opinion for emancipation by refusing to go to extremes immediately and actually throwing generals under the omnibus who jumped the gun, and by making it clear throughout that his primary objective from the first shots was restoring the Union rather than freeing the slaves so that people would believe him when he finally said that the latter was absolutely necessary to the former end. In this account, that means schmoozing some people, lying to others, and stabbing others yet in the back -- metaphorically only, of course. In other words, for a politician there is no shame in duplicity as long as it furthers a noble end. Go back a couple of block quotes and you'll recall that Wilentz listed duplicity as one of the traits that negate integrity, in idealists' opinion. He's guilty of a little disingenuousness himself when he doesn't add duplicity to his list of "democratic political arts" in the same quote, since practically the only examples of Lincoln's political artfulness that he cites involve duplicity of some sort, whether it's telling radicals that he doesn't intend to emancipate while already planning to do so, in order to shore up conservative support, or making Frederick Douglass feel important and think they are going to be good friends.

I suppose Wilentz makes sense of a kind. If we can't hope to win people over purely with rhetoric, if reasoned arguments will never suffice with some folks, and we won't allow ourselves to force our ideas on people or disregard constitutional constraints on our powers, then politics is going to have to come down to tricking people, or at the very least manipulating them in ways that might seem dishonest to some idealists. Wilentz would have us be less idealistic about means and more realistic about pursuing ideal ends. What this has to do with the two-party system, which he seems to defend implicitly against the idealists, I'm not quite sure. I'm going to guess that Wilentz perfers "big tent" style politics that forces people of disparate beliefs and agendas to work with each other toward goals agreed upon through compromise. If I read him right, then he may imagine the only alternative to the Bipolarchy to be a bunch of ideologically rigid parties that would never do anything but speechify or simply yell at one another until one makes a grab for unconstitutional power. I shouldn't have to say that I can imagine a different alternative, but partisanship itself isn't Wilentz's main concern on this occasion. Our concern should be with his advice to his country. For all I know, he may be right that no great cause can be advanced in this country without tactics that will seem intellectually if not morally dishonest to many people. He invites us to embrace this truth and not be so snooty, but I wonder whether people can stand such a truth being told -- if it is the truth --without losing a little of their faith in democracy as the political system morally superior to all the others.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Willentz shows things as they are, not as they should be. And there is no reason why they shouldn't be better, except that the people lack the proper motivation to "make it so". If we want honesty in politics, then the answer is simple: don't vote for men with a history of dishonesty. If we want a successful government: don't vote for men with a history of failure. If we want a thrifty government: don't vote for men with a history of foolish spending. etc.

The problem isn't so much with government or politicians as it is with Americans, who would rather see a dishonest sleazeball win the election if he represents their "team" and will vote against an honorable, intelligent politician if he represents the other "team". As long as Americans are more concerned with who's team "wins", rather than doing what is best for the country, our political system will continue to decline.