10 January 2013

Thomas Frank vs. Neo-Lincolnism

Now all we need is Thomas Frank and Sean Wilentz in a steel cage. Frank's latest "Easy Chair" column for the February Harpers is an all-out attack on Steven Spielberg's Lincoln, its source in Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, and the political philosophy the film especially appears to endorse. While Frank doesn't mention Sean Wilentz by name, the historian and Clinton cheerleader is the leading exponent of what I call neo-Lincolnism, and Frank's essay is an attack on nearly everything Wilentz stands for. Frank reveals himself here as what Wilentz would call a "mugwump" or others would call a "goo-goo." If you've never heard that term, it's short for "good government," in a disparagingly infantile way.  In short, Frank has not reconciled himself, as Wilentz insists we all must, to the deal making and "horse trading" necessary to get anything accomplished in a pluralist representative government. Spielberg's Lincoln famously demonstrates the idea by showing how Old Abe enticed antagonistic Democrats (remember, the latter were the racists of their day) into supporting the 13th Amendment and ending slavery by offering the targeted lame ducks lucrative government jobs, among other things. In my own summary, Lincoln's moral is "You don't have to change people's minds; you just need to change their votes." Frank sees Lincoln differently.

To repeat: Spielberg & Co. have gone out of their way to vindicate political corruption. They have associated it with the noblest possible cause; they have made it seem like harmless high jinks for fun-loving frat boys; they have depicted reformers [e.g. Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens] as ideological killjoys who must renounce their beliefs in order to succeed.

Frank is particularly disgusted by the contrasts shown between idealists like Stevens, who "must learn to lie and to keep their mouths shut at critical moments if they wish to be effective," and lobbyists (embodied in the movie by James Spader's fixer), "a class of people the movies seems at pains to rehabilitate." Frank is well aware of the movie's perceived contemporary relevance, and probably hates it even more for that reason. He quotes screenwriter Tony Kushner saying that he saw "the Obama years through a Lincoln lens," through which he saw "enormous potential now for 'rebuilding a real progressive democracy in this country,'" obstructed only -- so Frank infers -- by what Kushner calls "an impatience on the part of very good, very progressive people with the kind of compromising ... the kind of horse trading that is necessary."

In Frank's view, Lincoln is an insidious film because it stacks the deck (by making "corruption" necessary to "the noblest possible cause" in favor of a style of politics linked now with nothing nearly so noble. He may as well have said that the film was a vindication of lobbying -- an activity distinct from activism and protest, both of which Frank approves unreservedly. Again, Wilentz goes unmentioned in the essay, but Frank seems to go out of his way to deny one of Wilentz's core premises: that activists accomplish nothing, i.e. get no bills passed, without the help of politicians and politicians' methods. Instead, on the particular issue of concern in Lincoln, Frank writes, "Abolition was nine parts grassroots outrage to one part Washington machination." Unfortunately, that's hard to quantify, and Wilentz could easily argue that the crucial measures are qualitative rather than quantitative -- that without the one part of machination we might still have slavery today. Frank could be put on the spot if challenged to show how Lincoln could have gotten the Amendment passed, given the balance of power in the House of Representatives, without the "horse trading" dramatized in the movie. He offers no alternative, unless we infer that Thaddeus Stevens should have been allowed to harangue the nation until everyone succumbed to his moral fervor. In general, The most Frank can argue is a point Wilentz has also challenged: that the politicians would never take up the great reform causes unless pressed by activists. Wilentz has demanded that some politicians, at least, get more respect for their sincere, unprompted commitment to reform, but Frank is having none of that.

"Maybe complaining about all this is yet another hang-up of the contemporary Thaddeus Stevens set, who can't see that tremendous victories await if they'd just lighten up about reform," Frank writes, "But maybe -- just maybe -- reform is itself [emphasis in original] the great progressive cause. Maybe fixing the system must come first." While the sort of reform Frank means was not at stake in the 13th Amendment debates, the urgent need he perceives for such reform now makes Spielberg's Lincoln a poor role model for the moment. Whether horse trading is an answer for today's troubles remains to be seen -- the answer depends on whether today's politicians are too fanatical to bargain and whether any of us actually can afford horses -- but Frank doesn't really offer any alternative in this essay. He's very cogent in his many writings on what's wrong with our economy and our culture, but when it comes to doing anything about it he writes here as if we should just keep occupying and chanting as some have done for nearly fifty years until something finally happens. I'm not a big fan of Sean Wilentz these days, but I can't help fearing that if the two writers ever did debate these subjects, Wilentz would tear Frank apart ... while Frank would claim a moral victory no matter what. His kind are always the moral winners; it's the next round that's always the problem.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well, perhaps if all the occupiers and chanters joined up with the prayer groups and maybe got some witches to cast spells . . .


There is really one of three options for progressives:
1) Quit the Democrat party, en masse, and form a party dedicated to progressive activity and reform.
2) Accumulate enough wealth to openly compete with corporate interests on the lobbying front.
3) Give up and accept whatever scraps the Democrat party occasionally tosses them through horse trading.