02 July 2012

Power, persuasion and manipulation: from LBJ to Obama

Robert Caro's publication of the fourth volume of his decades-long project of the life of Lyndon Johnson provides the occasion for another of Sean Wilentz's dissertations on liberalism and its discontents in The New Republic. Wilentz, a historian of 19th century America who later expanded his scope as a best-selling generalist, notoriously championed Sen. Clinton against Sen. Obama during the 2008 Democratic primaries and has remained a critic of a President he clearly regards as inexperienced and naive. Caro's critical biography of LBJ, particularly his defining criticism of Johnson as a man motivated yet undermined by a raw lust for power, must strike Wilentz as a brief for the sort of "mugwumpery" that produced President Obama. Wilentz himself is less interested in Johnson's supposed craving for power than in the ways LBJ used power, both over institutions and over people, to accomplish many things for the public good, from civil-rights legislation to Great Society social programs. The reviewer unapologetically echoes Clinton's 2008 claim that the experienced political operator (LBJ) was more essential to the enactment of these measures than the eloquent agitator (MLK). The refusal of Clinton's opponents and critics to understand what she said, to dismiss it as veiled racism, illustrates the core weakness of the Obamite attitude, in Wilentz's opinion.

The reviewer draws a dichotomy between realistic political operators like the Clintons and unrealistic types, like Obama's supporters if not the man himself, who seem to feel that politics should be entirely a matter of deliberative persuasion, debates of ideas decided by objective appraisals of the merits and flaws in each argument. Lyndon Johnson, while Majority Leader of the Senate, saw speeches as pure time-fillers during which he could wheedle, twist arms or otherwise manipulate Senators into voting as he wanted. Once he had the votes he needed, he wanted a vote on the floor as soon as possible, and if anyone, even in his own party, still had a speech to make it was just too bad. Johnson's politics, deplored by Caro yet implicitly applauded by Wilentz, was an art of manipulation rather than an art of persuasion -- or else it was an art of persuasion based on something other than rhetoric or ideas. It may seem cynical to sensitive observers -- the sort Wilentz might call "mugwumps" -- but a case can be made that Johnson symbolically occupies a strategic middle ground that some progressives today can't even imagine. It sometimes seems that the progressive imagination encompasses two polar opposites only: persuasion at the exalted level of ideas or, depending on one's idea of progress, either brute force or hopeless whining. By comparison, when Wilentz reads Caro, he sees in LBJ a leader capable of clever bargaining and psychological manipulation that got men of opposing ideologies to go along with his plans. To Wilentz, the Obama apologists who only complain of Republican intransigence -- a fact he readily acknowledges -- yet can't imagine doing anything about it look helpless and pathetic. Obama was doomed, Wilentz seems to say, as long as he saw himself, in the reviewer's words, as "the latest antidote to the kind of low political scheming that an earlier generation of reform Democrats had seen and detected in Lyndon Johnson."

Whether Lyndon Johnson with all his tactics and all his ruthlessness could have made more progress against a Tea Party Congress than Obama has remains a matter of debate. We shouldn't assume that LBJ would have an easy time based on the ease with which he dispatched Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was helped then not just by his sacred glamor as the heir to martyred JFK but by a fear, more compelling than any anxieties provoked by Tea Partiers today, that Goldwater might actually destroy the world in a fit of fanaticism. Johnson also worked in an environment more trusting of government, before a trend of distrust that he did much (in Vietnam) to start, and one less microcritical and 24-7 vigilant against "big government." It's unclear whether public opinion today would let him get away with the sort of power plays he perpetrated as Senator and President. But Wilentz would probably have us pause before assuming that circumstances and opponents are more intractable now. He emphasizes how weak the Republicans looked when Obama took office after the McCain-Palin fiasco, and implies that the GOP only took back Congress because of Obama's obtuse bungling. He cites things that Obama or the Democratic congressional leaders could have done that Johnson would have done -- but that still leaves open whether today's political culture would have let Democrats get away with any of it. Wilentz suggests that LBJ would find a way to capture public opinion, while Obama gave up such opportunities in his commitment to post-partisanship. I don't know. I don't know whether LBJ can serve as an example to any politician at any time or whether he's a creature of a unique time in American political history. But the larger question Wilentz raises remains relevant in all times. Can we accept that politics is something more than debating -- and if so, can we agree on how much more is permissible within our vision of constitutional democracy? As always, we have to think about ends before we think about means, but ends don't end the discussion. Questions like these keep the study of the dead -- history -- a living, relevant art.

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