It should surprise no one that Sean Wilentz has given Steven Spielberg's Lincoln a rave review in the pages of The New Republic. As I've written here and on my movie blog, Spielberg's film and Tony Kushner's screenplay are a cinematic endorsement, intentional or coincidental, of Wilentz's view of Lincoln as an exemplary politician and practitioner of what the historian now calls "all of democracy's dark but often essential arts." As demonstrated in the movie, these include "dispensing favors of patronage to congressmen and hedging public remarks to the edge of mendacity." While the latter may be regrettable, Wilentz prefers this total practice to "the sanctimonious anti-political stance that passed itself off (and still does) as righteous progressivism." For some time now, Wilentz has fiercely criticized the "anti-political" or "post-partisan" stance he identifies with President Obama and, more strongly, his supporters, i.e. those who affect to despise Clintonian Democracy. Wilentz is disturbed by a "purist" idealism that, as an idealism, is virtually a straw man for him to attack. That purism, in his account, sees politics as an art of purely intellectual (or possibly emotional) persuasion and ends up helpless when those forms of persuasion fail. As our American Machiavel for the 21st century, Wilentz wants us to understand that there are other forms of persuasion short of coercion -- though he allows for some degree of coercion in the form of party discipline. "Partisanship [i.e. party discipline] and deal-making ... are essential to success in American politics," he writes now. He puts it more starkly toward the end of his latest essay: "[I]n a democracy, baseness and trickery may be essential to achieving the highest ends." These, however, are the realm of elected politicians. Wilentz, formerly a historian of the early labor movement, has no more patience for the "reflexive assumption" of "today's academic historians [and] Hollywood populists" that "party politicians are inherently corrupt, that even the best of them do nothing unless goaded by angry ordinary Americans, and that the true heroes of our political history have been the oppressed and the pure of heart, not the wily pols." In Wilentz's history, the wily pols are the only ones who actually accomplish anything, though seeing American political history in this way is perhaps like saying that Lincoln ended slavery without the help of the army.
Wilentz makes vast claims for the Spielberg film, treating it not just as the ultimate refutation, after almost a century, of The Birth of a Nation, but also as a belated antidote to the cinematic anti-political populism most identified with Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The historian suggests that he sees nothing wrong with the agenda and tactics of Jeff Smith's antagonists -- apart maybe from their running down newsboys -- arguing that Lincoln more rightly demonstrates that "if Lincoln aimed to do good like Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, his methods were those of Claude Rains's Senator Paine." That is, Lincoln, like all the allegedly corrupt pols in movies, got things done by cutting deals. Wilentz rightly reminds readers that cutting deals isn't the same thing as compromising, and attacks "lazy writers and critics" who've claimed that Lincoln teaches the need for compromise among today's politicians. For Wilentz, it was precisely because Lincoln refused to compromise (in January 1865) on ending slavery that he had to start cutting deals and practicing other forms of "dirty" politics. Wilentz apparently would have us assume that when politicians make deals, they are acting from motives more like those of the real (and cinematic) Lincoln than those of the purely fictional Paine.
It sometimes sounds as if Wilentz is telling progressive critics of the Democratic party to shut up and trust their leaders. He seems to pose a false choice between that (presumably not blind) trust in party leaders and elected representatives, on one hand, and impotent activism on the other. He definitely hopes to impress us with a truism: politicians are not corrupt by definition. We can even go further with him and accept the premise that many if not most politicians have the public good at heart. Even a political party as a group can have the public good at heart. But that only begs two questions: what is the public good, and who gets to say what it is? In his polemic against progressives and activists, Wilentz essentially is telling those groups to defer to the definitions issued by parties and elected officials. No alternate definition that fails to take into account what representatives actually can accomplish is to be taken seriously. Again, this is an appeal to trust, an insistence that we take party politicians word for what can or can't be done. These practical arguments can't be dismissed out of hand, but Wilentz would seem less like an apologist for partisanship, or for the Democratic party in particular, if he would seriously address the potential for partisan self-interest to compromise the public good, as well as the ways Bipolarchy may exacerbate that potential. If he simply wants to say that we must never assume that parties are out for themselves, he isn't worth our attention. Meanwhile, Spielberg's Lincoln shouldn't suffer by any conceptual association with Sean Wilentz. It makes many similar points but in less belligerent fashion, without polemical axes to grind. You don't have to buy into Wilentz's worldview to agree with the film's core premise that you don't need everyone to agree with you on everything; you just need enough of them to vote your way. But whether deal-making is the answer to today's political troubles remains to be seen.