National Interest, November/December 2016
Sean Wilentz, The Politicians and the Egalitarians: The Hidden History of American Politics (New York: W. W. Norton, 2016), 384 pp., $28.95.
NOT EVERYTHING published between covers really adds up to a book. The distinguished liberal historian Sean Wilentz’s latest release, The Politicians and the Egalitarians, doesn’t cross that threshold. What he’s given us instead is a series of quirky but engaging sketches of (mostly) major figures and episodes in American history from the founding through the mid-twentieth century. These sketches readily betray their origins as review essays (in the New Republic and the New York Review of Books) on the work of other authors, albeit on subjects he knows well. Wilentz is hardly the first writer to have had the experience of looking back on a body of casual past work and asking: What was I getting at with these? The theme he has found to his pudding turns out to have been the dual importance of partisan politics and the passion for equality in American history.
It’s a bit unjust—but only a bit—to blame authors for the sensationalized subtitles publishers like to put on books these days. If partisan politics and egalitarian enthusiasm constituted a hitherto “hidden” element of the “history of American politics,” it will come as news to anyone who has read any American history, not least Wilentz’s own estimable work. So let us join Wilentz in his statement of the obvious: both egalitarian passion and the rough-and-tumble of politics have shaped American history.
The compensation for the banality of what The Politicians and the Egalitarians stands for is the superior interest of what the book stands against: above all, the proposition that partisan politics, including in its highly polarized form today, is the main obstacle standing between America and political progress. Continue reading