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In Defense Of The Political Establishment

Rich Barlow: "Populists like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don’t get it. Only parties can solve America’s problems." (Bob Schutz/AP)closemore
Rich Barlow: "Populists like Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump don’t get it. Only parties can solve America’s problems." (Bob Schutz/AP)

During Thomas Jefferson’s presidency, his opponents mocked his party’s politicians, with one newspaper decrying, “Office-holders, Office-seekers, Pimps.” I wonder if the editor was an ancestor of Donald Trump, who has excited hordes this year with similar attacks on his own party’s establishment, not to mention Democrats’. Politicians are “full of s---,” he said in New Hampshire while discussing veterans’ inadequate health care. “That’s why you do need Trump, because you know what? No politician’s gonna solve this.”

If Trump’s answer to our woes is himself — a winner who will take America back from the losers now in charge — Bernie Sanders has inspired similarly worshipful hordes by tirelessly trumpeting a “political revolution” — albeit peaceful — against our establishment politics. The revolution he seeks, Sanders says, means, “bringing millions and millions of people into the political process in a way that does not exist right now” to muscle a do-nothing Congress into legislating progressive wet dreams.

 'The antiparty current is by definition antidemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.'

Historian Sean Wilentz

Put aside the Vermonter’s failure to recruit even a majority of Democratic voters to his revolution. A new book by Princeton historian Sean Wilentz shows that Sanders and Trump are tapping a longstanding American tension between issue activists, who always want more from their leaders, and politicians, who must compromise in order to achieve anything.

Both camps are necessary for good governance, Wilentz writes in "The Politicians and the Egalitarians." But that means that, in dissing the two parties and their politicians, Trump and Sanders are, quite simply, fools. They and their minions misunderstand how progress happens in their own country.

The book cites that long-ago anti-Jefferson quote as part of our tradition of damning pols, but Wilentz counters that tradition succinctly: “The antiparty current is by definition antidemocratic, as political parties have been the only reliable electoral vehicles for advancing the ideas and interests of ordinary voters.”

Trump’s histrionics, coming from a narcissist whose unfamiliarity with public issues is legendary, may fool only his diehards. Dispensing with Sanders’s well-intentioned but equally misguided rant about revolution requires a little history, starting with how “party democracy,” as Wilentz calls it, ended the nation’s greatest sin, slavery.

The infant Republican Party, led by the cunningly partisan Abraham Lincoln, waged civil war to crush the slavocracy. That’s pretty revolutionary, but it didn’t seem so to radical abolitionists, the Sanderistas of their day: Lincoln, with an eye toward maintaining public support for his policies, at times stressed reuniting the country over freeing the slaves. His greatest act, the Emancipation Proclamation, declared all slaves free — unless they happened to live in Kentucky, Maryland, Missouri, Delaware and other slave-holding areas that remained in the Union and whose support Lincoln needed to win the war.

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Honest Abe, in short, played politics and relied on party machinery (Republicans dominated Congress after southern Democrats seceded), Wilentz reminds us. “Ever since,” he writes, “all of the great American social legislation, from the Progressive Era to the New Deal to the Great Society, has been achieved by and through the political parties.” The New Deal is especially apt, as some Sanders supporters extoll it as the type of political revolution their man seeks. Wrong. Working with his Democratic Party — which included southern segregationists — FDR achieved much while settling for plenty of half loaves.

The landmark Wagner Act gave most workers the rights of unionizing and collective bargaining. But under pressure from conservative Democrats in the South and West, Wilentz writes, it exempted agricultural employees. Social Security, meanwhile, omitted agricultural and federal workers, domestic servants and casual laborers from its coverage for efficiency reasons — which meant, among other things, it left many African-Americans high and dry. Wilentz also could have noted that the Roosevelt administration abandoned plans to include national health insurance with Social Security’s pensions, fearing diehard opposition to the former would doom both if they were linked.

The hard left savaged FDR, condemning the Wagner Act for aping Mussolini’s corporate-state policies. The U.S. Communist Party stated the comparison more bluntly, labeling the New Dealers “social fascists,” Wilentz notes. History has ruled otherwise.

This pattern of evolutionary progress on the back of party politics has played out in our own time. Using Democratic support in his first term to beat reflexive Republican opposition, Barack Obama passed a health care law that, while imperfect, made the down payment on universal health insurance that eluded the great FDR. He passed Wall Street reforms, again imperfect, that nevertheless have had positive effects. His stimulus plan was too small, but by economists’ near-universal consensus, it helped avert the type of depression that confronted Roosevelt. Only a Bernie Bro (or a Trump supporter) would deny that these are signal achievements.

Wilentz isn’t blind to “the countless and unending episodes of partisan politicians corrupting our politics and sustaining social wrongs.” From denying climate change to the occasional racist spasm, Tea Partiers made the GOP a doofus den long before Trump did. On a lesser scale, Hillary Clinton’s indefensible though hardly nation-threatening email shenanigans, and the stream of Republicans endorsing Trump with fingers plainly clenching their noses, will further feed voter cynicism.

Tea Partiers made the GOP a doofus den long before Trump did.

Yet history is clear: If you want a fix for dishonest or corrupt party hacks, vote them out in favor of honest politicians. (Yes, there are a few of those. Obama has conducted himself admirably as president.) Indeed, one critic of Wilentz faults him not because his thesis is wrong, but because it’s old news in political science. Sanders ultimately may grasp this. The lifelong independent ran for the Democratic nomination, after all, and has said he hopes to use his strong showing to make the party a vehicle for more progressive policies.

Let’s hope he’s good for his word. Obama recently rebutted liberal griping that he hasn’t enacted the kingdom of God on earth, illustrating how compromise is not only inevitable in office, but the only path to any progress. The president, who attained office on hopes of a post-partisan presidency, knows better than anyone how illusory that hope was.

Read More By Rich Barlow On Trump And Sanders:

Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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