Monday, December 12, 2005

Last spring, I mentioned Michael Holt, political historian and Whig specialist, and his explicit comparison of his own political party, the Democratic, with his subject of study, the American Whigs. Holt felt that the two parties' shared elitism, fondness for activist, technocratic government prescriptions, and essential pacifism linked the two across centuries and the nominal lines of political descent. While I dislike Holt's contemporary politics quite a bit, and recognize that the central problem of Whiggish evangelicalism makes hash of his argument on at least one front, in the main I have to concur with his general idea. It has the virtues of elegance and counter-intuition, and great predictive power in both parties' increasing proclivity towards false-banner military candidates - Taylor, Scott and Harrison in the Whiggish case, and Clark & Kerry in the latter-day Democratic Party.

Sean Wilentz, a historian and, incidentally, one of the New Republic's small horde of editors, has written a book on the antebellum rise of "democracy" which argues the opposite case. The reviewer, Fred Siegel, sums up exactly the basic problem with both, opposing arguments:

In his Times piece, Wilentz seems to suggest that there are historical plumb lines that, when dropped into the past, can place all that is admirable along a single alignment.

Now, in Wilentz's defense, Siegel seems on a second reading to be conflating a number of articles written by Wilentz with the argument of the book reviewed, such that an injustice may have been done to the historian. I've never been all that interested in "democratic" political histories, as they tend to reduce strong and stirring political conflict and chaos into annotated phone-books with the thin consistency of under-cooked oatmeal, so there was never really a chance that I'd read Wilentz's book on my own hook. I don't know, I might borrow a copy from the library if I have the time next year, just to see how much of this "lineage of descent" argument is in the book, and how much has been ported into the review from political articles of punditry, Cleopatra-like, enrolled in a rug.

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