The Political Odyssey of Sean Wilentz

The Partisan

The political odyssey of Sean Wilentz.


As the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton rolled forward in 1998, the White House called on the assistance of a longtime ally: the Ivy League. The administration summoned a team of experts to testify on the president’s behalf in front of the House Judiciary Committee that included a Yale law professor, a Harvard political scientist, and a Princeton historian. The historian, Sean Wilentz, was the youngest member of the group, but he was also the most zealous. After the witnesses were sworn in, Wilentz told the committee that if they supported impeachment without being absolutely certain that the president’s transgressions constituted high crimes and misdemeanors, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.”

Wilentz’s appearance garnered poor reviews—“gratuitously patronizing,” wrote The New York Times—but it whetted his appetite for partisan skirmishing. He had come to the Clinton team’s attention as the result of a campaign he’d led with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to gather signatures from prominent historians for a petition that charged the supporters of impeachment with endangering the US Constitution. Now it seemed that Schlesinger, the aging liberal giant, had found his successor—a public intellectual, rigorous scholar, and Democratic Party street fighter who would carry the battle for liberalism into the next generation.

Over the following decade, Wilentz cemented his place as Schlesinger’s intellectual heir. Like Schlesinger, he’d begun his career as a specialist in early American political history, then moved on to writing about the entire scope of the nation’s past. Outside academic circles, he was well known for his regular contributions to the Leon Wieseltier–run “back of the book” at The New Republic, where he opined on subjects ranging from the influence of postmodern theory (bad) to the popularity of David McCullough (also bad) in essays thrown down like lightning bolts from Mount Princeton. In 2005, he published The Rise of American Democracy, a 1,000-page opus on the emergence of popular government in the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War. Three years later, he followed it up with The Age of Reagan, a survey of American political history from 1974 to 2008 that not so implicitly set the stage for a coming liberal era after Reagan’s. With the 2008 presidential election under way, rumors swirled that Wilentz was poised to follow Schlesinger’s example yet again, this time as the court historian for Hillary Clinton’s upcoming administration.

Then things started to go wrong. First came Barack Obama, whom Wilentz depicted as a virtuoso manipulator who traded the support of the party’s white working class for minority voters and liberal elites. Eight years later came Bernie Sanders, whose nomination, Wilentz insisted, did not “bode well either for Sanders or the party.” And then, disastrously, there was Donald Trump.

Since Trump’s election, Wilentz has taken up the resistance with vigor, warning that if the president gets his way, “America, once a beacon to all the world, Reagan’s shining city, will more closely resemble Putin’s Moscow.” Still smarting from Democratic voters’ hostility to Clinton in 2008 and 2016, Wilentz has been almost as severe with those on the left. On one side, he sees advocates of identity politics who want to replace liberalism’s universal principles with a hodgepodge of group-based grievances. On the other side, he sees socialists whom he insists will drive voters away from the Democratic fold with their platform made up of “pie-in-the-sky, ideologically dogmatic promises.” Both groups, he argues, have forgotten the essential insight of America’s liberal tradition: that to change things for the better, we have to face up to the messy complexities of the world as it is. What Wilentz’s critics would portray as an excuse for making peace with the lesser evil, he depicts as the starting point of a liberal’s political education.

These concerns can be found at the heart of Wilentz’s two most recent books, The Politicians and the Egalitarians and No Property in Man. The former, an essay collection drawn mostly from his articles for The New Republic, celebrates the wisdom of pragmatic political leaders throughout American history while offering cautionary tales of radicals whose extremism damaged their cause. The latter examines the debate over the legal status of enslaved people that began with the writing of the Constitution and continued up to the Civil War—a period in American history in which he finds an important lesson for how to achieve political change in a democracy.

The two books capture the dueling sides of Wilentz’s public persona. In The Politicians and the Egalitarians, we meet the gifted essayist who is one part New York intellectual and one part Beltway pundit. In No Property in Man, we discover the meticulous historian who can back up every claim with impeccable footnotes. Taken together, the two books constitute an extended defense of what Wilentz calls “mainstream politics” against the lures of “abstract moralism.” Would-be prophets can maintain their purity only by rejecting the political establishment, thereby giving up any hope of exercising power; Wilentz’s pragmatic politicians, on the other hand, accept the compromises that working within the system demands, and as a result, they make a real difference.

It’s a way of thinking that made a lot more sense before Trump was elected president and before Sanders became one of the most popular politicians in the country. With the political establishment in crisis and the global liberal order dancing on the edge of the abyss, it’s become clear that the division between pragmatic insiders and committed moralists is—to use a bit of vintage Clintonian rhetoric—a false choice.

Trump was the first to seize on the opportunity afforded by the collective failure of the political class, but the left has not been far behind. Since 2016, radicals have campaigned to transform the Democratic Party, one primary and one piece of legislation at a time. Their goal is to save mainstream American politics from itself by proving that the system is still capable of delivering transformative change. They are part of a tradition that has deep roots in American history and that today just might remake American democracy. The odd thing is that, not so long ago, one of the most eloquent defenders of this tradition was a young historian named Sean Wilentz.

In 1984, Princeton University hosted a three-day conference on American socialism to mark the 100th birthday of Norman Thomas (class of 1905), the Presbyterian minister and reform champion who was the Socialist Party’s candidate for president no fewer than six times. The participants at the conference included Harry Fleischman, Thomas’s former campaign manager and first biographer; Irving Howe, a co-editor of Dissent; and Michael Harrington, the founding chairman of the Democratic Socialists of America. (On the drive to the conference, Harrington discovered a bump on his neck while stopped at a traffic light. It was the beginning of a struggle with cancer that ended with his death in 1989.) In an interview with The New York Times, one of the conference’s organizers, a 33-year-old Sean Wilentz, admitted that Thomas had no clear successor. Socialism was now chiefly a matter of historical interest to his students—including a young Elena Kagan, who wrote her senior thesis on the Socialist Party in New York City during the Progressive era under Wilentz’s supervision. But Wilentz did draw the Times’ attention to one bright spot in the bleak landscape of the Reagan years: the “only…notable Socialist office holder in the United States—Bernard Sanders, the Mayor of Burlington, Vt.”

Even though socialism’s electoral prospects appeared dismal, Wilentz believed there was a slumbering radical tradition in the United States waiting to be awoken. Chants Democratic, his first book, used statistical evidence and textual exegesis to argue that a movement dedicated to “an anticapitalist vision of extraordinary boldness” developed among New York’s artisans during the Andrew Jackson era. These radicals, in turn, sprang from an egalitarian lineage that stretched back to the Declaration of Independence’s announcement that all men were created equal. In case there was any doubt about Wilentz’s own politics, the book featured a block quote from Marx’s Capital on its second page, and its subtitle—“New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850”—emphasized his debt to The Making of the English Working Class by the great British Marxist historian E.P. Thompson.

However, Thompson’s book appeared in 1963, when the New Left was just catching fire on both sides of the Atlantic. In Reagan’s America, that flame was sputtering, and it was becoming increasingly difficult for Wilentz to carry the torch. Writing for The New Republic in 1989, he dismissed “mere politicians” and “the wishful thinking of the liberals that the welfare state is all America needs.” But he struggled to come up with a realistic alternative: “The nation’s political institutions,” he explained, “have become so compromised by bureaucratic special interests and private corporate power that it’s hard to know how much any movement from below can achieve.”

Matters looked even grimmer to Wilentz in the Clinton years. “Although a few revolutionary sects, of the Old and New Left variety, still cling to a kitschy afterlife,” he observed in 1994, “most of the extreme left has trailed off from socialism into the politics of personal identity or into academic fads.” Reveling in their isolation, radicals had conceded their distance from the wider culture rather than claim American traditions as their own. “Amid the cacophonies of today’s interest and identity politics,” Wilentz wrote in a wistful essay on Eugene Debs from 1993, “it is hard to imagine a reinvented sense of comradeship upon which some future Debs might build.”

Wilentz’s prize exhibit for left-wing marginalization was the contemporary professoriate, “at worst irresponsible and at best irrelevant.” Universities had become havens for charlatans and hacks preoccupied with deconstructing MTV, “the hip-hop craze,” and other excrescences from “the idiot culture.” (One can only imagine what he made of the Hamilton cast’s performance at Obama’s White House—or of Hillary Clinton’s quoting from the musical in her acceptance speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.) “Theorizing about the transgressive narratives of a Madonna video threatens no vested interests outside the English department, least of all the record company tycoons who suddenly find their products studied in the classrooms as well as in the dorms,” he grumbled.

Leftists were faced with a painful question: “In an America where socialism is discredited and where liberalism is in an intellectual crisis, how do we say what we mean to say without becoming irrelevant?” At the time, Wilentz’s answer was to tailor the message to fit the audience. Radicals should make practical demands in electoral politics and save their utopian musings for little magazines—i.e., liberalism in the streets, socialism in the sheets (of left-wing journals). “Leading a political double life, between bright dreams and piecemeal reforms, is risky,” Wilentz acknowledged. “It easily gets labeled half-hearted and hypocritical—and may actually become half-hearted and hypocritical.” But conditions were desperate, and he would not let go of the promise of American radicalism. Although the hour was getting late, the democratic revolution that began in 1776 could be rescued from the abuses of the right and the neglect of the left. Only then would Americans have the politics they needed, a politics “focused on the glaring and growing inequalities that divide the rich and powerful from the rest of us.” It was a moving call to action. But what, exactly, did it mean?

Not Clintonism, at least not at first. Despite his later association with the first couple, Wilentz showed little enthusiasm for Bill or Hillary before impeachment. In 1996, he summarized the major policy achievements of Clinton’s first term as “at best a hodgepodge and at worst a disaster.” Foreshadowing his later descriptions of Obama, he called Bill Clinton “a technocrat and a conciliator…of mostly decent intentions but of uncertain principles and judgment.” The administration was redeemed only by comparison with its critics on the left, who Wilentz insisted were peddling an “inbred, insulated ‘progressive’ politics that have led nowhere, year after year, for more than two decades.” Once again caught between unsatisfying alternatives, he found a sliver of optimism in figures like Robert Reich, unapologetic liberals who were maneuvering for the greater good from positions of power.

Despite his growing admiration for the most leftward segment of the political elite, Wilentz showed little interest in the details of policy debates. His passion was for the art of politics—the cut and thrust of the campaign trail, the backroom deals, the grand debates over the nation’s future—not the wonkish intricacies of contemporary policy-making. That’s why impeachment was such a crucial moment for him. By chance, a fellowship year in Washington brought Wilentz to the capital in 1998, just in time for a constitutional crisis that resurrected debates stretching back to the founding of the republic. After a life spent watching from the bleachers, he was offered a spot in the game.

To his surprise, Wilentz emerged from the experience with a new perspective on politics. “I got a different kind of education,” Wilentz explained. “I learned to respect politics and politicians”—especially Democrats, and especially Bill Clinton. Committed liberals such as Reich were still admirable to Wilentz, but it was Clinton who spearheaded the campaign to drag liberalism into the 21st century.

The balance that Wilentz had tried to maintain between socialist ideals and liberal politics collapsed. A romantic streak had always run just beneath his superficial cynicism, and he still had the idealist’s hunger for a glorious crusade. Now, he channeled that energy into a new cause. Liberalism became an end in itself, while faith in democracy’s radical potential turned into hostility toward critics of Clinton, who, Wilentz suggested, were motivated by “a deep-seated contempt for American politics.”

Ralph Nader’s third-party bid for the presidency and the result of the 2000 election solidified Wilentz’s conversion, trauma-bonding him to the Democratic Party establishment and providing yet another example of the disastrous consequences of left-wing utopianism. Wilentz saw the Clinton years as proof that pragmatic liberals could restrain capitalism’s excesses while delivering widespread prosperity. Whatever faults remained in the system were either the inevitable trade-offs of modern life or the results of handing elections to a radicalized Republican Party that had been taken over by right-wing ideologues all too willing to do the bidding of their plutocratic donors.

Conflict remained essential to how Wilentz thought about politics, but his enemy had now shifted from the capitalist class to the Republican Party. His days of quoting Marx and lamenting the sad decline of American socialism were finished. “I happen to love American politics,” he told Newsweek in 2007. “I think American politics is wonderful.”

Gathering together essays published from 1992 to 2013, The Politicians and the Egalitarians is Wilentz’s fullest defense of American politics—and in particular of American liberalism. The book presents itself as a guide to the two “keys” for unlocking the secrets of American political history. One is the inevitability of partisanship; the other is the existence of a homegrown tradition in America that is opposed to economic inequality. “Most of the better moments in our democratic history,” he argues, “have come about not through the workings of a consensual republican general will, but from the clash of interests.” It’s a sentence he could have written at any point in his journey from would-be American E.P. Thompson to baby-boomer Arthur Schlesinger. The only change has been in the site of the battle, which has shifted over time from the picket line to the halls of Congress.

The heroes of Wilentz’s account are the “egalitarian politicians” who used the machinery of party politics to make the United States a more equal country: Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and Lyndon Johnson, among others. “The great issues in our history,” Wilentz argues in the introduction, “have been settled not from friction between politicians and egalitarians but from the convergence of protest and politics.” Most of the book consists of character studies meant to demonstrate the power of this synthesis, and many of them are fairly convincing. Jefferson, Lincoln, and Johnson all neatly fit within Wilentz’s framework. Some of the other case studies don’t fit as neatly with his thesis. Theodore Roosevelt, for example, is a tougher sell as an egalitarian politician. A wily defender of the business community as president, he embraced the cause of reform only during his doomed 1912 campaign on the Progressive ticket, and he dropped this newfound radicalism just as quickly in the run-up to World War I so that he could reunite with his true love, unhinged militarism. (“I have no doubt he thinks he believes what he says, but he doesn’t,” remarked a GOP elder during Roosevelt’s flirtation with progressivism.)

Even stranger is a chapter on W.E.B. Du Bois that offers an eloquent but off-topic meditation on The Souls of Black Folk while skipping past Du Bois’s frequent condemnations of the two-party system: for instance, his 1950 description of Republicans and Democrats as “one combine, with one aim and one policy, one kettle of graft and one pool of grafters; one set of lies and one bunch of liars,” delivered when Du Bois was making a third-party run for the Senate.

Despite some of Wilentz’s detours, there is an undeniable force to his broader argument. From the abolition of slavery to the passage of Obamacare, political parties have been indispensable champions of reform.

Things get a little trickier, though, when it comes to the relationship between partisanship and economic inequality. When explaining the origins of American egalitarianism, Wilentz emphasizes that the country’s abundance of land ensured that by 1776, wealth was already far more evenly distributed among white men in the 13 colonies than it was in Europe. Over the next century, the barriers to suffrage for white men tumbled, and the United States became home to the first mass political parties in world history. But here is where his story about the rise of partisanship and the decline of economic inequality begins to falter: By 1860, almost 30 percent of the nation’s wealth belonged to the richest 1 percent—more than twice the prevailing level in the Revolutionary era—despite decades of heightened party activism and partisan conflict. Democratic politics, it turned out, was no guarantee against economic inequality.

A variation of this story repeats itself in the Gilded Age, when party polarization and economic inequality again surged alongside each other. The gap between rich and poor declined in the middle of the 20th century, which also happened to be a period of unusual bipartisan overlap. And in our second Gilded Age, polarization and economic inequality are back at historic highs.

Wilentz suggests that the clearer lines of battle created by partisanship has helped move American democracy forward. But it appears that when control of the government is split between ideologically divided parties, partisanship leads mostly to gridlock. For the people who are already benefiting from the status quo, a paralyzed government is far from the worst of fates. For everyone else, it removes the most effective agent we have for redistributing wealth.

Far from a force of egalitarianism, partisanship can sometimes end up bolstering the interests of the donor class. As the cost of running hotly contested campaigns grows, politicians become even chummier with their financial backers, who know a good investment when they see one. Seasoned candidates become so accustomed to the status quo that they might even decide—to pick an example at random—that it’s a good idea to accept $675,000 for three appearances at Goldman Sachs right before running for president.

For Wilentz, focusing on the kind of genteel corruption perfected by the Clintons distracts us from the systemic depravities represented by the GOP’s plutocratic pseudo-populism. He’s not entirely wrong, but that generous attitude toward the Democratic wing of the political elite has led him to consistently underestimate the appeal of candidates running against Washington, whether it was Obama in 2008 or Sanders and Trump in 2016. Trump has been especially difficult for Wilentz to interpret. “There has been nothing like him in American presidential politics, ever,” he said of Trump in the spring of 2016. “He is truly outside politics.” Wilentz has repeated that argument many times since Trump’s election: The president, he insists, “represents a sharp break in our national political history—something unlike anything America, in all of its turbulence, has seen before.”

It’s the historian’s equivalent of “This is not normal,” and it’s safe to assume that Wilentz approached his follow-up to The Politicians and the Egalitarians with this background in mind. An academic monograph on slavery and the founding fathers might not seem like promising material for a response to the age of Trump. But No Property in Man is also a defense of the American political system, a system Wilentz believes is today confronting an existential threat. Despite it all, Wilentz still loves American politics, and he wants you to love it, too.

Wilentz first brought the book’s thesis to public attention in 2015, in a column attacking Bernie Sanders. That fall, Sanders had told an audience that the United States “in many ways was created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles. That’s a fact.” Ever the Clinton partisan, Wilentz responded two days later in a column for The New York Times, writing that “as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact” and accusing Sanders of spreading a dangerous “myth” that could “poison the current presidential campaign.”

Sanders, of course, wasn’t the only public figure to accept this “myth.” The notion that white supremacy has been a fixture of American life since the Constitution’s ratification is now conventional wisdom among liberals; if anything, during the 2016 primaries, it was more common to hear it from Clinton supporters denouncing Sanders’s supposedly myopic fixation on class.

But Wilentz’s critique of Sanders didn’t really turn on American racism. It focused instead on the argument that the founders, by refusing to recognize what James Madison called “the idea that there could be property in man” in the Constitution, deliberately deprived slavery of national protection. By keeping this notion out of our foundational text, they caused it to remain a creature of state and local laws and therefore subject to revision, opening up the possibility that an antislavery political movement might one day use the federal government to restrict slavery’s expansion. As James Oakes has shown in Freedom National, thanks to the framers’ deft maneuvering on this subject, Republicans in the mid- and late 1850s were then able to craft a constitutionally legitimate and therefore politically viable antislavery platform.

No Property in Man is a prequel to Freedom National, offering the early history of a story Oakes traces to its climactic end. The book revolves around what Wilentz calls repeatedly the “paradox” of an American Constitution that “would tolerate slavery without authorizing it.” Wilentz acknowledges that this is an awfully fine distinction. Even if the framers did not authorize slavery, they certainly created a government that did an excellent job of protecting it. In 1790, just under 700,000 enslaved people lived in the United States. By the time Abraham Lincoln won election to the White House, there were almost 4 million spread across half a continent, and the Constitution played a role in this expansion. That expansion could take place because of significant concessions made to slaveholders, most notoriously the inflated political power granted by the three-fifths clause.

And yet, Wilentz argues, there’s more to the story than the relentless advance of human bondage. By 1787, slavery had been either abolished or put on the road to extinction in five states, plus the soon-to-be state of Vermont. The institution’s legitimacy was even under attack in Virginia, home to Jefferson, Madison, Washington, and the nation’s largest slave population. And so the framers of the Constitution had to arrive at a compromise that would be acceptable to both the free states of the North and the unrepentant slave states of the deep South. Neither side could win, and neither could lose.

The framers resolved this problem by dodging it, leaving behind a government that could be used either to defend slavery or to crush it, depending on which side could build a democratic majority. In other words, according to Wilentz, they left the door open for future generations to decide—and in 1860, the Republican Party barreled through that door.

In this way, Wilentz insists, the early debates over property in man were of “unsurpassed importance” in slavery’s abolition. Wilentz’s reasoning has the elegance of a syllogism: “Everybody knew that the heart of the matter was slavery, and that the main political issue was the future of slavery in the territories. That issue turned on a fight over the Constitution and property rights.” QED.

In a technical sense, the logic is flawless. But disputes over constitutional hermeneutics rarely fuel herculean political struggles. As Wilentz himself has documented at length in other works, the shrewdest egalitarian politicians understood that the antislavery movement drew its energy from different sources—from fears about a nefarious slave power scheming to impose its will on the rest of the nation, from visions of a free country where all white men had an equal chance in the race of life, and from Republicans’ willingness to issue the kind of moral denunciations that Madison would never have dreamed of putting into the Constitution. They saw parties as a means to an end, and they were willing to challenge the entire political establishment to achieve their goal. In the debate over slavery, Lincoln agreed with the radical Charles Sumner, whose 1864 pamphlet, “No Property in Man,” gives Wilentz’s book its name: “Morals is the true soul of politics.”

So what should we take away from this history? Wilentz clearly sees it as another example of the good that pragmatists can do by exploiting the latent egalitarianism of the American political tradition and by working out compromises needed to get practical things done. The book’s dust jacket even manages to sneak in a clue about the contemporary inheritors of this tradition. It shows the author sitting on a couch, hands clasped, with a framed picture just above his shoulder—a photo of Wilentz with Bill Clinton.

But if Wilentz were not so closely associated with the Clintons, he might now be claiming vindication as a Bernie bro ahead of his time. Thirty years ago, he was urging leftists not to give up on electoral politics and calling on Democrats to put working-class solidarity and a critique of corporate power at the center of their agenda. He even was one of America’s first Bernie bros, celebrating the Burlington mayor’s rise. Admittedly, by the time Sanders entered the Democratic primary in 2015 and began putting this strategy into practice, Wilentz had lined up behind Clinton. But great historians are known for their appreciation of irony, and Wilentz is undoubtedly one of the greats. No American historian of his generation has written so well on so many different subjects; few even come close.

Tilt the perspective on the history in both of Wilentz’s books, and one can draw a different set of lessons from his works of history. In both, Lincoln serves as Wilentz’s example of what American democracy at its finest can achieve. He’s the quintessential egalitarian politician in one book and a deft exploiter of the Constitution’s latent antislavery promise in the other. But in neither work does Wilentz quite convey how much of the old order had to be destroyed for Lincoln’s extraordinary rise to occur. Emancipation came only after the two-party system of the Jacksonian era imploded, and Lincoln won the presidency by defeating the last great champion of compromise, his old rival Stephen Douglas.

Douglas accused Lincoln of a radical plot to destroy the nation, and on that point he wasn’t entirely wrong. Lincoln didn’t want a civil war, but he had spent years provoking one, all while mocking “the bugbear of disunion” and maintaining that Southerners had “too much of a good sense, and good temper, to attempt the ruin of the government.” He saw that the Jacksonian parties were breaking apart, and he joined the Republicans in creating a new one, using the tools of electoral politics in a campaign against the political establishment.

When the Civil War came, Lincoln’s commitment to seeing slavery abolished only hardened, and he led the effort to pass the 13th Amendment, finally making the Constitution a true antislavery document. Time and again, events forced Lincoln to reassess what he thought he knew about American politics. “Of course he wasn’t God,” Du Bois observed. “But he learned! He learned, he learned—what more can a man do?” It’s the type of painful but necessary work we have a right to expect from our best politicians—and our best historians.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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