26 July 2012

Sean Wilentz, the American Machiavel

The historian Sean Wilentz has taken his polemic against leftist criticism of the Democratic party from the pages of The New Republic from those of The New York Review of Books, where he reviews Michael Kazin's American Dreamers in the latest issue. Wilentz has made himself obnoxious to many progressives since he vehemently favored Sen. Clinton over Sen. Obama in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries. Since then, he has elaborated a passionately realist case for the kind of institutional liberalism practiced by the Democrats, for a patient, pragmatic politics of incremental reform through constant negotiation with (and manipulation of) opponents as against the leftist practice of impractical, angry and self-defeating idealism. Wilentz's particular beef with Kazin comes from his perception that Kazin has perpetuated what Wilentz considers a myth. The myth is that people in power will only takes steps toward a more fair and just society when pressured by the powerless, for whom radicals and leftists speak most faithfully. As Wilentz sums up the story, "radicals challenge the privileged; liberals co-opt them, claiming the glory. In effect liberals are the enemies of fundamental political change." Wilentz himself believes, however, that liberals are the only people to have realized fundamental political change, while radicals always complain that the changes are inadequate.

"[S]ome things about American radicals ... their inability to handle what Daniel Bell called America's 'give-and-take, political world,' their chronic penchant for self-righteous dogmatism and sectarian squabbling -- have repeatedly undermined left-wing campaigns," Wilentz writes. If anything, he suggests, liberals have accomplished much good in spite of radical carping, not because of it as Kazin supposedly argues. Pressing the point, Wilentz argues now that liberals have done much of their good on their own initiative. Disputing Kazin's account of the New Deal, he explains that the effective reformers within FDR's administration, rather than being driven into action by radicals, "had begun shaping their own ideas and goals decades earlier." Nor should they be accused of undertaking reforms simply to "placate or restrain radical labor." Without actually naming it, Wilentz seems to be defending the Progressive movement, which did begin a generation before the Depression and took a more statist, top-down approach to reform than radicals outside of power liked. He'd have leftists celebrate this tradition, since he credits it with all the accomplishments they seem to credit themselves for, but he remains perplexed over why people like the Clintons and Al Gore are not more revered by radicals.  He can only explain it ad hominem, implicitly accusing radicals of dogmatic intolerance, if not pathological impatience.

Radicalism is intolerant by nature, not in the currently common sense of the word that denotes a dislike for difference but in the most literal sense of an inability to tolerate certain things, particularly inequality and injustice. Confronted with the intolerable, the radical asks why it should be endured for even one day more. The liberal is the person who sympathizes with the radical's anger but will tell him why he should endure a little longer. Sometimes the liberal has practical reasons; the change the radical demands simply can't be accomplished at once. Sometimes the reasons are moralistic; radical change might be a cure worse than any disease under certain circumstances. Whatever the reason, the liberal assumes that any reason he offers is sound and irrefutable. His presumption is that the radical has no good reason not to be patient, that radical impatience is a character flaw comparable to intolerance in the current sense. The liberal suspects that the radical is intolerant of the conservative and the reactionary, that the radical fails to see the necessity, practical or moral, of playing "give and take" with his perceived oppressor. To keep things topical, the liberal sees himself occupying the high moral ground between Bain and Bane, the heartless reign of plutocrats and a ruthless reign of demagogic terror. In this scenario, only liberals have the wisdom to keep everyone else's impulses, radical and reactionary alike, in check. For a radical to question this worldview -- to ask why he should settle for what the wise liberal decides is enough reform for today -- is literally to not know what is good for him. That radicals resent this attitude should come as no surprise to Sean Wilentz.

Nevertheless, Wilentz is certainly correct that liberals through American history have had their own agenda of orderly reform and a goal of improving people's lives. Historically, it has been inevitable that such an agenda, conceived and pursued by a self-conscious intellectual and institutional elite, should be at odds with an agenda generated outside the sphere of power by people desirous of a share in power, even though the two agendas converge to a considerable extent. I don't think Wilentz is consciously endorsing an elitist politics -- he'd certainly argue that the political track is open to everyone, including people from modest backgrounds like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama. But the "you don't understand why you can't have everything you want at once" stance Wilentz always takes toward anything to the left of the Democratic National Committee is certainly an elitist attitude. His attitude is also perfectly suited to Bipolarchy; this review closes with another angry swipe at the people who voted for Ralph Nader in 2000. How dare anyone be dissatisfied with Gore, Wilentz rages, when George W. Bush loomed over the horizon. The "havoc" Bush wrought over eight years apparently justifies retroactively the moral obligation in 2000 for anyone to Bush's left to vote for Gore. However Wilentz feels about Gore ("one of the most experienced and creative policy leaders of his generation"), the same argument would compel votes for any hack the Democrats coughed up at their convention. It is the same uncompromising argument for settling for whatever the Democrats deign to do, and as always it is an argument for unconditional surrender, leaving no one with leverage to move the party so long as everyone lives in mortal fear of the Republicans. Yet on the simplest level Wilentz is right about history. Protests alone have done little; politics alone has realized change. Radicals really do have a problem if they really think that their role is to agitate only, while Democrats govern.  Wilentz himself doesn't say that people shouldn't agitate, but he certainly does say that we should let the Democrats govern. But is that democracy? Wilentz fancies himself an expert on the subject, but sometimes I wonder....

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