Over the weekend I read a loooong (25,000 words or so) essay by historian Sean Wilentz (whom I wrote about earlier this summer, and probably at least once or twice before that) in The New Republic discussing (not so much reviewing) a handful of recent books about Abraham Lincoln, released to coincide with the bicentennial of his birth. As usual when I read Wilentz, I appreciated his insights even as I was put off by his refusal to Get Over It with respect to the 2008 Democratic primary race; at this point, he's more Catholic than the Pope when it comes to defending the Clintons and taking shots (though now more veiled than explicit) at Barack Obama.
His essential contention in the essay is that the recent trend of Lincoln scholarship has put the 16th president on a pedestal above "mere politics," presenting him as a literary man, a mystic, or a philosopher--where the truth is that Lincoln's greatness was largely if not entirely bound up in his talents as a politician. I'm sympathetic to this view, as it aligns with my own belief that all our most successful political leaders have been master tacticians above all else. Anyone who read Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals (which Wilentz briefly mentions, mostly to take a passing shot at Obama and his admirers--of which more in a minute) takes the point: in how he maneuvered for the Republican nomination in 1860, how he assembled his Cabinet largely from the ranks of those he'd defeated for that prize, and how he utilized and even manipulated its members, Lincoln showed political mastery on a level probably unmatched in American history.
But at least within historical circles--and a big part of Wilentz's critique of the authors he discusses is that, at bottom, they are not historians--none of this is much in dispute. His other salient point, which unfortunately he can't help but fold into yet another poke at Obama, is that the scholarly inclination to remove Lincoln from the political realm mirrors something else, something more insidious and even dangerous, in the character of the American liberal:
Despite their differences in methods and conclusions, much of the new wave of books on Lincoln reflects a common mood among a portion of the liberal intelligentsia, one that cannot be ascribed simply to Lincoln's bicentennial. The mood might seem political, but this is imprecise: it cares about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it. The mood to which I refer is in truth profoundly anti-political. It runs deeper than conventional election loyalties, touching what has become a ganglion of contemporary liberal hopes and dreams about America, about its past, its present, and its future.
Historically considered, the Obama phenomenon battened on the high-minded Mugwump disdain for "politics as usual" that has become such a central feature of contemporary left-liberalism--and which, in a twisted way, has become associated with the iconic Lincoln. 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 corporate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties--or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party--can be broken, 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 installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?
The candor of Lincoln's language, the ease with which he accurately describes his real vocation, is refreshing. He saw no shame in the practice of politics, and experienced no priggish discomfort about what it takes to get great things done. He was never too good for politics. Quite the contrary: for him, politics--ordinary, grimy, unelevating politics--was itself a good, and an instrument for good. Lincoln knew who he was. He knew that his colleagues knew who he was. He would never renounce who he was. It would take the earnest liberal writers of a later age to do that for him--or, taking him at his word, to slight his eventual achievements while vaunting their own radical heroes. In misunderstanding Abraham Lincoln, these writers misunderstand American democratic politics, in Lincoln's day as well as in our own.
I resemble this remark, and it stings me. I am painfully, almost laughably susceptible to exactly the tendency Wilentz is talking about: I seriously thought Mike Bloomberg would make a good president (and I'm still not entirely convinced he wouldn't), largely because I bought the story he told about being "above politics"--which in his case only meant, and means, a repudiation of party politics. I even briefly considered voting for Ross Perot in 1992, for the same reason. And I voted for Ralph fucking Nader in 2000, out of some deeply misguided belief that there was no meaningful difference between the two parties. AND I WAS ALREADY WORKING IN PUBLIC POLICY BY THEN.
(I don't, however, think that I had this delusion about Obama himself, at least not in the way Wilentz describes. In fact, I strongly believed that it was his political talent--the same knack for discerning where the country was, knowing where he wanted to take it, and understanding how best to do so that powered the successes of FDR and Lincoln himself--that could render him a great president. I won't deny being somewhat taken by the persona of the man--Obama was the first candidate I've voted for whose literary talents I particularly admired, and the first one with whom I felt any cultural or generational simpatico--but I thought of him more as an exceptional practitioner of political arts than as someone who might transcend them.)
The problem I still have--and this arguably relates to the less melodramatic points of my last post, about the degradation of American politics to the point where it might be even money that we see a country-wrecking demagogue pop up in the near future--is that there's no satisfactory middle ground. You can take yourself out of the game with the high-minded yet simplistic "pox on both your houses" perspective shared by Nader and George Wallace... or you can march in one of the competing armies now in the field, run by Howard Dean and David Plouffe on the left and Dick Armey and Steve Forbes on the right, where they're mostly interested in your money and your physical presence. (No, I'm not claiming equivalency--other than in how much any of these groups values the individual as anything more than a wallet or a body.)
I hate both options, but the result is that I default to the first.