Sean Wilentz: Lincoln, Obama and the myths liberals have fallen for

[Sean Wilentz is a contributing editor at The New Republic, and the author of The Rise of American Democracy: Jefferson to Lincoln (Norton).]

... The adage that understanding history requires understanding the historian also applies to literary critics trying to write history. Despite their differences in methods and conclusions, much of the new wave of books on Lincoln reflects a common mood among a portion of the liberal intelligentsia, one that cannot be ascribed simply to Lincoln's bicentennial. The mood might seem political, but this is imprecise: it cares about politics only so as to demote it and repudiate it and transcend it. The mood to which I refer is in truth profoundly anti-political. It runs deeper than conventional election loyalties, touching what has become a ganglion of contemporary liberal hopes and dreams about America, about its past, its present, and its future.

One would have to be blind not to see all the connections that bind this mood and the new Lincoln boom to the rise of Barack Obama. President Obama hardly created the mood. Although he wrote admiringly about Lincoln before he ran for the presidency, all these new books on Lincoln were in the works long before Obama's presidential prospects were very plausible. Along the way, though, the idealizations of Obama and Lincoln became tightly entwined, in support of an almost cultish enthusiasm--humorously, but unironically, illustrated by the ubiquitous Photoshop image that blended portraits of the two men into a single Abe-bama. The excitement of the campaign certainly had something to do with the linkage, as did pointed references by Obama to Lincoln on the stump--but liberal intellectuals eagerly validated it. And some of the books written to coincide with Lincoln's bicentennial went to press just in time to lend the linkage additional credibility.

The Lincoln Anthology concludes with a long excerpt from Obama's announcement of his candidacy in 2007 in Springfield, and suggests that the speech marks the fulfillment of Lincoln's aspirations and achievements. Stauffer's book, which was published on Election Day last year, carries as its epigraph a passage from The Audacity of Hope, in which Obama praises Lincoln for his combination of humility and activism, and cites Douglass to the effect that power concedes nothing without a fight. Gates's introduction, which reached the printers just after the election, mentions Obama three times, ending with an evocation of the president as the black man who, nearly a century and a half after the Emancipation Proclamation, fulfilled Lincoln's legacy.

Like any group of able politicians, Obama and his strategists exploited the mood by hyping their Lincoln connections, real and imagined--right down to agreeing to have the new president sit down to a celebratory postinaugural lunch consisting of dishes that President Lincoln himself enjoyed. This is not a mystic chord of memory. It is branding. But the mood is bigger than the man, and Obama can be no more blamed for succumbing to it, or for trying to turn its symbolism to his own advantage, than Lincoln can be faulted for his own political maneuvering. Our president is hardly the innocent that he tries to appear to be, but it is precisely his intensely political character, the political cunning that lies behind all his "transcendence" of politics, that makes him Lincolnian; and it comes as a great relief from the un-Lincolnian sanctimony that surrounds his image.

Historically considered, the Obama phenomenon battened on the high-minded Mugwump disdain for "politics as usual" that has become such a central feature of contemporary left-liberalism--and which, in a twisted way, has become associated with the iconic Lincoln. Two of the major objects of enmity in this current of reformism are the political parties (with their dark hidden forces, the professional politicians) and the money-drenched system of campaigning (with its dark hidden forces, the corporate donors). If only the hammerlock of the two major parties--or, alternatively, that of the bosses within each party--can be broken, the true will of the rank and file, and ultimately of the people, will be unleashed, and principled government will be restored. And if the intrinsically corrupting (or so it is claimed) contributions of big money are ended, and something approximating public financing of elections installed in its place, then something closer to Lincolnian government of the people, by the people, and for the people will emerge. Right?

The Obama campaign, with its talk of repudiating politics as usual and creating a new post-partisan era in Washington, and with its liturgical incantations of "change" and "hope," aroused liberal anti-politics to a fever pitch. The above-politics talk also appears to have played a major role in winning Obama favor with the political press and the intellectuals, as well as with many more Americans (including not a few libertarian Republicans) for whom "politics" means "dirty politics." Some obvious ironies, though, have gone undiscussed. Obama ran up his early lead in the pledged delegate count during the primaries chiefly because of his victories in state party caucuses, a system of selection that is seriously skewed against working people and older voters, and that, with its viva voce voting and arcane rules, is singularly vulnerable to blatant manipulation. Obama then secured the nomination in June 2008 when he won over the party's so-called "super-delegates."

In the general election, Obama, although pledged to accept public campaign financing, changed his mind, having gained an enormous war chest by gathering small donations through the Internet, but also through more old-fashioned methods of big-money political fundraising. (About half his funds were accumulated in the old unimpeccable way.) All of this, including his maneuvering through the primaries, was fair and square--and, from the viewpoint of any professional politician, very impressive. But there was also something, well, rich about the candidate beloved by the good-government reformers relying on the party insiders to get nominated and rejecting public financing in order to get elected.

The intellectuals' rapture over Obama, their eagerness to align him with their beatified Lincoln, has grown out of a deep hunger for a liberal savior, the likes of which the nation has not seen since the death of Robert Kennedy in 1968. The eight years of George W. Bush's presidency only deepened the hunger; and last year it overtook a new generation of voters as well who, though born long after 1968, yearned for smart, articulate, principled liberal leadership. Along came Obama who, despite his inexperience--or, perhaps, because of it: he seemed so uncontaminated by the arts that he practiced--fit the bill, his African heritage doing more to help him by galvanizing white liberals and African Americans. Although Obama's supporters at times likened him to the two Kennedys, and at times to FDR, the comparisons always came back to Lincoln--with the tall, skinny, well-spoken Great Emancipator from Illinois serving as the spiritual forebear of the tall, skinny, well-spoken great liberal hope from Illinois.

The danger with the comparison does not have too much to do with the real Barack Obama, whose reputation will stand or fall on whether he succeeds or fails in the White House. The danger is with how we understand our politics, and our political history, and Abraham Lincoln. That the election of an African American to the presidency brings Lincoln to mind is only natural. But the hunger pangs of some liberals have caused them to hallucinate. Obama's legendary announcement in Springfield was the purest political stagecraft, but it was happily regarded as a kind of message from history. One hears that Obama, like Lincoln, is a self-made man--but Lincoln, unlike Obama, started out in life dirt poor, and lacked any opportunity to attend an elite private high school and then earn degrees at Columbia College and Harvard Law School. One hears that the rhetoric that carried Obama to the White House is Lincolnesque, which it most certainly is not, either in its imagery or its prosody. One hears even that Obama is not just an extremely talented and promising new president but, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes, that he is "destined"--destined!--"to be thought of as Lincoln's direct heir."

Who does not wish Obama well? But such hallucinations make it difficult for historians to keep the intricacies of political history front and center, or to acknowledge Lincoln's peculiar gifts as a political leader and a political president. It would appear that those intricacies and those gifts need to be salvaged from the mythologizing and aestheticizing glorifications, from populist fantasies born of forty years of liberal frustration. Lincoln himself might have understood the problem, given his familiarity, inside the Whig Party of the 1830s and 1840s, with powerful anti-party and anti-political sentiments that foreshadowed the Mugwump mentality of the Gilded Age....

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Corey Mondello - 7/10/2009

True liberal/leftist ideology is not welcomed with open arms in neither the Democratic nor the Republican Political parties.

Unfortunately, most Americans are too uneducated in the history on their own country, and are willing to be led around by their "leaders", that they are never going to really know who the “enemy” is of “We the People”.

Generally, it is the US government and the corporations that control them. This is why many of the Founders warned of this happening and had rules about corporations and how much power they could wield, as to deter their ability to become one family or one “party” ruled country.

As if we do not live by two laws; the politicians and the people. I call this; Royalty and common folk.

All one has to do is listen to the many politicians who claim that allowing government to help with medical care will be the down-fall of America, yet, they themselves are paid by the taxes of America and their health care is paid into by the very same taxes.

That is not Socialism that is the two-tier system of “old” Europe; the King v. the common folk, who have no voice, because those who would speak for them will not speak against their own selfish characters.

Hannah Fisher - 6/29/2009

There is a laxity about these sorts of 'commentary' articles that really annoys me. The author gives the impression that anti-politics is confined to 'left-liberals' and is possibly even unique to America. That concern for the ethical conduct of politicians and politics in general is something confined to little bunch of Bostonian universtity-educated intellectuals.
You have to seriously have your head in the sand (or perhaps in history books) to not acknowledge that:
1. anti-politics is as pervasive across the 'right' as the 'left' of political voters;
2. it is also so widespread across established democracies in the world that there is a growing mountain of studies and books trying to understand what its all about; and
3. while this anti-politics is by no means homogenous including different attributions as to the source and hence solution to bad politics, it is still possible to discern a clear and common general theme and that is ethics: people (right and left) with anti-political views do not have respect for the way in which politics is conducted 'as usual' and many specifically sheet this to the ethics of politicians (like Palin et al) and/or their parties, others (like rule-oriented liberals) are more inclined to attribute this to systems (hardly surprising).

Mugwumpery - defined by the author as a 'disdain for 'politics as usual'' - in other words, is not peculiar to either America, nor to left-liberals. So your argument looks more like evidence of that bad-old partisan divisionism that the rest of the world has heard so much about.
But thats not my only beef. Because it really annoys me when someone who clearly aligns themselves with the honors and necessities of 'politics as usual' - OKA conservative 'realpolitiks' - tries to have it both ways by not just complaining about the idealism of those who think that things could be done differently (gosh how tweibbley brave) but then have the audacity to complain that those who espouse sympathy with those views are not perfect enough according to those ideals. Never mind, of course, that the main point that those very same 'left-liberals' are trying to make is that the problems with politics are systemic. That the game of politics is stacked not only against change (some Frenchman even described it as 'a state of domination'), but the game itself is stacked against those politicians/parties who refuse to play by its ethically 'dirty' rules. The real wonder then is not that Obama did used some campaign techniques that are akin to 'dirty' money politics and - gee - played by the skewed Democratic Party rules - in his bid to win the Presidency, the real wonder is that he managed to get in while still doing some things differently - ie things more akin with the left-liberal idea of an improvement in political ethics.

Moreover, there should be no wonder that there are highly frustrated publics the world over in democratic polities. In my view, it is evidence that there is a serious problem with non-responsiveness of political power structures to their publics - a logjam of political power techniques and their legal architectures that has meant the publics are left either fuming, despairing, withdrawn or utterly cynical about politics. The sooner political apologist like the author, recognise this and stop trotting out this factional poopycock instead, we may get one step closer to fixing what is increasingly obvious our broken democratic political system.

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