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'The Politicians And The Egalitarians' Explores Role Of Partisan Politics In U.S.

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'The Politicians And The Egalitarians' Explores Role Of Partisan Politics In U.S.


'The Politicians And The Egalitarians' Explores Role Of Partisan Politics In U.S.

'The Politicians And The Egalitarians' Explores Role Of Partisan Politics In U.S.

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Historian Sean Wilentz talks about his new book, The Politicians and the Egalitarians, which explores how partisan politics have always informed the running of the American republic.


One theme in this year's presidential campaigns is the yearning to have politics without politicians - the idea that political parties impede solutions. Real progress comes from people and movements outside them.

Well, according to historian Sean Wilentz, that's not new. It's a theme that has echoed throughout the history of American politics. And he says it is essentially wrong. In his book "The Politicians And The Egalitarians," Wilentz argues that historians have underestimated the contributions and talents of great insiders and exaggerated the influence of activist outsiders. Sean Wilentz, welcome to the program.

SEAN WILENTZ: Great to be here.

SIEGEL: First, if Americans have often been tempted by the idea that politics and government can't be trusted to politicians, where does this idea come from? What are its roots?

WILENTZ: Well, it goes back to the beginning of the republic, really. You know, the framers of the Constitution - they didn't like parties. They thought parties were divisive. They thought that parties aided individual ambitions - that it would dissolve the Commonwealth. However, they designed a government where parties are almost inevitable.

So very quickly after the beginnings of the first administration and George Washington, parties arose over issues about banking and foreign policy and so forth. And Thomas Jefferson came to the fore. And there was really no way for Americans to handle the intense divisions among them without political parties organizing those disputes.

SIEGEL: And this idea, as you describe it, surfaces and resurfaces at various times throughout our history. For example, the idea that politics is all driven by machines - you need some kind of nonpartisan panels to handle our affairs, instead.

WILENTZ: Right. That's one way that it's come up. But it's really an intense distrust of politics itself, really. Politics always involves in the clash of interests. And the clash of interests in a country as diverse as the United States has always had to involve compromise, which many people think of as, you know, a sellout. There's a downside to party politics.

And Americans too often see the downside as the essence of what politics is about, and mistakenly so, because as you can see in American history, all of the really truly important changes which people honor as the great breakthroughs in American history - all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, and onto Abraham Lincoln, and onto FDR. All of those were completed by party politicians. You know, it took someone to be a party politician to understand how to get things done.

SIEGEL: You write about Abraham Lincoln as a very good party politician. But you also write about his relationship with the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. And you acknowledge that it has been common among historians to see Douglass as the inspired, demanding progressive outsider and Lincoln as the cautious pall whose aversion to slavery was less than absolute. You say that that's backwards.

WILENTZ: Yeah, it is backwards. I mean, and it's typical of what's become of the writing of American history these days. Politicians are on the outs, and outsiders - agitators - are on the ins, as it were. With a case of Douglass and Lincoln, Lincoln from the very beginning ran for the presidency on a platform that was devoted to bringing slavery to an end. The South seceded over that, and he had a war on its hands.

So he had to go about his presidency differently than he might've wanted to. But Douglass was angry at Lincoln for not pushing harder. He saw Lincoln on three occasions - twice, when he went to complain that he wasn't moving fast enough. And he came away singing Lincoln's praises. Lincoln had converted Douglass much more than Douglass ever converted Abraham Lincoln.

SIEGEL: But in the recent writing of American history there seems to be this almost instinctive attraction for the Douglass character - Martin Luther King versus Lyndon Johnson...

WILENTZ: Yeah. Right.

SIEGEL: ...John Lewis, the labor leader, versus Franklin Roosevelt. How did those people gain such academic favor at the expense of the...


SIEGEL: ...Party palls?

WILENTZ: Well, and look, it was about time for those people to get their due. I mean, the writing of American history, for a very long time, didn't include them at all or saw them as sort of nutty and impediments to getting anything done. I think the 1960s turned a lot around. And my generation of historians certainly came of age in the '60s and into the '70s. And it seemed as if the politicians were out of touch and had to be pushed.

And indeed, in the civil rights movement, the politicians did have to be pushed. But even then, I think people lost sight of the fact that - for example, with regard to Lyndon Johnson and Martin Luther King - that they had developed a kind of division of labor, and that when egalitarian politics really works in the United States, it's always involved in the division of labor between the politicians and the egalitarians that are actually working together.

SIEGEL: You were finishing up your book as this presidential season was getting under way - the primary season.


SIEGEL: I'm curious to hear first what you make of the Sanders phenomenon, the sudden...


SIEGEL: ...Rise of inequality as the greatest anxiety in American life, as far as his supporters are concerned.

WILENTZ: Well, that's interesting because, you know, when I started writing this book was before 2008. And 2008 really changed a lot in American politics. And I think what we're seeing in the Sanders campaign is the expression of just how much economic inequality rose to the fore as it hadn't since - really since the 1930s. So the Sanders campaign I think is indicative of a very large shift. And what the Sanders campaigned did do was instead of agitating from outside of politics agitated inside of politics - in fact, inside the Democratic Party, where Sen. Sanders had not been really for his political life.

SIEGEL: And on the Republican side, the nonpolitician is not a political activist but the businessman who is untainted supposedly by the normal rough and tumble of politics - Donald Trump.

WILENTZ: That's right. I mean, he's an anti-politician politician. But he arose again, I think, out of the fallout from 2008 because listen to him - the Republican Party or the establishment of the Republican Party wasn't giving the voters that supported them so loyally what they really needed, especially in the aftermath of the collapse.

You know, we were getting the same old bromides about tax cuts and all the rest of it. Donald Trump came right in and said no, we're not going to do that anymore. We're for entitlements. It's these lousy trade deals - actually sounding somewhat like Bernie Sanders - but appealing to the outrage I think that Republican voters had about how the Republican Party had treated them.

SIEGEL: But in your reading of American history, do you see any obvious precedent for Trump, anything remotely like this that we're seeing this year?

WILENTZ: For Trump as a character, no. I mean, there's never been a billionaire celebrity, you know, reality show celebrity come this high and this far in American politics. But what we are really seeing though I think is something we have seen before, which is the disintegration of the modern Republican Party under all of the stress and strains for all of the reasons that we just talked about.

This has happened before. The Federalist Party collapsed in 1800, limped on for another 15 years but then disappeared. The Whig Party in 1854 cracked up over the issue of slavery. Well, the Republican Party - the modern Republican Party is going through its own crackup, and Donald Trump was the figure who came in and figured it how to exploit that for his own uses. But in that sense, what we're seeing is - you know, it's not a common event in American politics, but it is certainly not an unprecedented one.

SIEGEL: Historian Sean Wilentz is a professor of history at Princeton. His new book is called "The Politicians And The Egalitarians: The Hidden History Of American Politics." Thanks for talking with us.

WILENTZ: Thank you so much, Robert.

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