Monday, December 12, 2005

A Book Review

Fred Siegel on Sean Wilentz, The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln. Siegel says there is much to admire about the book, but the implicit argument--made explicit by Wilentz himself in New York Times Magazine--is flawed:

In his Times piece, Wilentz seems to suggest that there are historical plumb lines that, when dropped into the past, can place all that is admirable along a single alignment. But political systems go through refractory periods, like the run-up to the Civil War and the 1960s, when coalitions shatter and are then reshaped by losing old partners and political positions while gaining new ones. One unanticipated effect of the Dutton/McGovern reforms in the wake of the split over Vietnam at the 1968 Democratic Convention was not only to move feminists in and Catholics out, it was also to make support for abortion--which was traditionally stronger among Republicans--a cornerstone of the newly remade Democratic Party. What happened was that upper-middle-class Republican women shifted into the Democratic Party partly on the issue of abortion. The parties have sifted and sorted and resorted their constituencies and thus their issues time and again, so that attempts to read the past directly into the current political framework are bound to be problematic.

More fundamentally, there is a problem with the idea that all good things can be found in one package or one party. Politics, as Isaiah Berlin never tired of explaining, is often a matter of compromising on even core principles. Liberty and equality, he noted, are necessarily in tension so that the debate over the trade-offs between them can be a matter of virtue vs. virtue. Wilentz the historian struggles with the Whigs' admirable position on slavery. But Wilentz the present-minded party polemicist has no need for such exertions; he's settled on a polarizing certainty that casts a retrospective shadow on his version of American history.

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