In the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, bestselling popular historian and former Editor-in-Chief of Newsweek Jon Meacham undertook a series of essays which he soon turned into a book. In The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels Meacham offers “a portrait of hours in which the politics of fear were prevalent—a reminder that periods of public dispiritedness are not new and a reassurance that they are survivable.” And he offers a plan for survival and overcoming: “In the best of moments, witness, protest, and resistance can intersect with the leadership of an American president to lift us to higher ground.”
The stories Meacham tells are familiar ones—intentionally so. By rehearsing episodes first encountered in grade school, Meacham hopes to convince fretful Americans that their own moment of redemption can soon be at hand if they follow the plan. A protest movement needs to force its righteous cause onto the national agenda and then elect a far-thinking President who will push transformative reforms into law. Meacham’s paradigmatic case is Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis setting the stage for the civil rights heroics of Lyndon Johnson.
As Meacham tells it, the forces of good in American history are incarnated in two forms: regular Americans embracing hope instead of fear, and Presidents with the courage to put themselves on the right side of history. The Presidents are the senior partner in this relationship. The Soul of America has never seen a conception of the presidency too big for its liking; the President alone assumes the mantle of leading the entire nation. Choice quotations from Jefferson, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, Truman, and JFK are trotted out to reinforce this way of thinking.
As a popular historian, Meacham knows it is ambitious Presidents who capture readers’ imaginations most readily. And, to be fair, a handful of Presidents have been transformative figures in American history, both in charting the nation’s policy course and in reshaping our Federal government. Still, it is remarkable just how completely Meacham is willing to present presidential politics as the be-all-and-end-all of American politics. The notion that what is important in our constitutional system is a balance between the President and other institutions is almost wholly absent. In short, Meacham is arguing that great Presidents made America great, and will do so again once the forces of hope vanquish the current occupant of the Oval Office.
Unfortunately, this way of thinking about American politics is almost certainly the dominant one today. Yes, the thinking goes, we have a Congress; yes, it is our representative legislature; and, yes, that is somehow important for our democracy. But let’s be serious: it’s the Presidents who really determine the country’s fate. Most people already believe this; Meacham is merely adding a literary flourish by declaring presidential politics the arena in which the struggle for America’s soul is fought.
Meacham offers the following apology for his focus: “The emphasis on the presidency in the following pages is not to suggest that occupants of the office are omnipotent. Much of the vibrancy of the American story lies in the courage of the powerless to make the powerful take notice.” But the construction here is telling: ordinary people must be regarded as adding “vibrancy” through their direct actions that “make the powerful” (read: the President) “take notice.” Between the people and the President, there is very little worth mentioning.
Every now and then, Meacham allows that something good has come out of Congress. But his acknowledgments are extremely begrudging. Praising the Pacific Railroad and Homestead Acts, he describes them as “signed by Lincoln,” who had very little to do with them. Looking at Radical Republicans’ triumphs over Andrew Johnson’s veto, Meacham spots “a lesson: If sufficiently developed and organized, public sentiment, as manifested in Congress, can prevail over presidential intransigence.” Again, the construction gives away the game: Meacham dismisses the idea that Congress added anything important, and instead assumes that its members were merely “manifesting” sentiment then at large in the land.
This way of looking at history is deficient and deforming. If we fail to understand the role that Congress plays in grappling with the great problems of our history, we fail to understand how deep-seated conflicts are actually coped with. We blind ourselves to the central importance of cooperation between people with fundamental disagreements. And we end up with a Manichean outlook in which good must vanquish evil for progress to happen—which Meacham’s book exemplifies to a tee.
What Makes Politics Work
Understandably, given the widespread horror at what happened in Charlottesville, Meacham is eager to emphasize the destructiveness of bigotry and hatred. He writes:
When the unreconstructed Southerner of the late nineteenth century or the anti-Semite of the twentieth believed—or the nativist of the globalized world of the twenty-first believes—others to be less than human, then the protocols of politics and the checks and balances of the Madisonian system of governance face formidable tests. Mediating conflicting claims between groups if one of the groups refuses to acknowledge the very humanity of the others is a monumental task.
There is undoubtedly something to this claim. If the citizenry is made up of two camps, each of which regards the other as an implacable enemy, Madisonian politics is indeed impossible. But Meacham’s description nevertheless conjures up an image that is false to our history. To act as if you can adequately describe someone as an “unreconstructed Southerner” or “anti-Semite” or “nativist,” and so capture their essence, is to lose sight of their complex humanity, which is rarely so withered as to encompass nothing but hatred. Our Madisonian system has thrived precisely because it has forced people who have viewed their political opponents as despicable or inferior to nevertheless confront the nation’s shared problems, together. The idea that “we can’t do American politics with racists” is mind-boggling in its presentism. That is the whole of American history!
At various points, Meacham allows that slow-walking social progress has proved politically indispensable to those Presidents he judges as being on the right side of history. Lincoln’s statements distancing himself from abolitionists in 1854 and from the idea of full racial equality in 1862 are judged to be in tune with the electorate, for example. Fair enough. But Meacham has nothing to say about the leading role that Congress plays in figuring out how to digest major changes without rending the social fabric. Weighing the relative political intensity of conflicting impulses is Congress’s institutional forte. But Meacham focuses exclusively on the balancing that a President does in his own heart.
When he reflects on the lack of civil rights progress in the late 19th century, Meacham offers this judgment: “A succession of largely unmemorable presidents served after Grant; none successfully marshaled the power of the office to fight the Northern acquiescence to the South’s imposition of Jim Crow.” In this way of thinking, the nation is a canvas on which the President must leave his mark; if he fails to right some wrong, posterity will rightly rank him as uninspired or ineffectual. Of course it is good fun to rank our Presidents, but it is a lazy pleasure. In reality, not all Presidents are playing the same game. Congressional politics determine the live political possibilities of a given moment; Benjamin Harrison could not have become Lyndon Johnson if only he exerted himself.
Meacham’s sense of the President’s centrality comes out most clearly in his account of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which he attributes mostly to LBJ’s balls of steel. As Vice President, Johnson had understood what Meacham sees as the key to making progress; he explained to presidential speechwriter Ted Sorenson that the key was to put opponents “in the position almost where he’s a bigot to be against the president.” Once President, what allowed Johnson to see the Civil Rights Act to passage was his unparalleled skill at whipping votes, in which effort he was aided by then-Senator Hubert Humphrey and, after some skillful manipulation, Republican Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen. When the bill passed, Robert Kennedy told Johnson: “It’s just a miracle.” Meacham demurs: “But it wasn’t really—it was the result of incredibly intense work by the president to force the triumph of hope and history over political calculation and fear.” This is an appealing story arc: Johnson finds the courage to defy his fellow southerners and change American history for the better. But it is just bad history. In reality, the process that culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a decade in the making. Johnson certainly played some part as Senate Majority Leader, but the modest bills that became law in 1957 and 1960 suggest that more than his formidable whipping skills was needed. The key to the passage of the more ambitious 1964 act was the very different process created by Mike Mansfield, Johnson’s successor as Majority Leader. Mansfield understood that if civil rights were going to stick, it would be because their opponents had been allowed to make their case in full and avail themselves of every last parliamentary tool of opposition. Once they were given that chance and nevertheless faced total defeat, they could credibly tell their constituents to respect the new law of the land, whether they liked it or not. In other words, rather than seeing opponents as mere obstacles to progress, Mansfield treated them as dignified human beings placed in an exceptionally difficult political moment who deserved the chance to fight hard for what they and their constituents believed.
The triumph of civil rights was not brought about, as Meacham would have it, by Johnson’s ability to brand his opponents as irredeemable bigots or to twist arms until he got his way. Quite the opposite, in fact. And the virtue of that subtler congressional process carries lessons for our own time. If we want to keep political losers as cooperative compatriots, it is important not to reduce them to mere bigots. For what can a respectable people want to have to do with bigots? And what can the man being branded a bigot want to have to do with those so branding him?
This point is reinforced by Meacham’s brief account of the triumph of gay marriage. Although it has little to do with his main narrative, Meacham’s conclusion cannot resist praising President Barack Obama for his magnanimity in reflecting on the triumph of gay marriage after it won constitutional status in Obergefell v. Hodges (2015). Obama declared:
Opposition in some cases has been based on sincere and deeply held beliefs. All of us who welcome today’s news should be mindful of that fact; recognize different viewpoints; revere our deep commitment to religious freedom. But today should also give us hope that on the many issues with which we grapple, often painfully, real change is possible.
Here is a social change that was indeed teed up by a movement, but was pushed across into national public policy not by Congress or even by a President but by a narrow majority of the Supreme Court, which declared that for the entirety of U.S. history there had been no legitimate basis for denying same-sex couples the right to marry. Obama paused to ask that the victors “recognize” the concerns of the losers, but that hardly dignified their opposition as worthy of admission into political contestation. The idea that this is a shining example of social change working its way through our political process is mind-boggling. It is more properly regarded as a result that forsakes the political process as a legitimate mechanism of change, and which relocates our central conflicts to our high court—with disastrous effects for our belief in the separateness of politics and law.
U.S. History as a Manichean Struggle
Meacham’s eagerness to conceal the complexities of politics is understandable in light of his overall polemical objective, which is a bifurcation of our historical inheritance into light and dark, hope and fear, “right and wrong.” “The message of Martin Luther King, Jr. … dwells in the American soul; so does the menace of the Ku Klux Klan,” he writes. “History hangs precariously in the balance between such extremes. Our fate is contingent upon which element—that of hope or that of fear—emerges triumphant.” Call it U.S. history as Star Wars.
Meacham-Yoda tells us, “Fear is about limits; hope is about growth. […] Fear pushes away; hope pulls others closer. Fear divides; hope unifies.” That all sounds very fine, but it does not have truth on its side. Acting together, enduring together—especially in the face of fearsome challenges—unifies. Merely hoping together creates weak ties.
Meacham nevertheless wants his historical homilies to stir his readers toward hope above all. “If the men and women of the past, with all their flaws and limitations and ambitions and appetites, could press on through ignorance, superstition, racism and sexism, selfishness and greed, to create a freer, stronger nation,” he intones, “then perhaps we, too, can right wrongs and take another step toward that most enchanting and elusive of destinations: a more perfect Union.”
By “press on through,” Meacham no doubt means “progress in spite of being dragged down by.” But, though it makes us deeply uncomfortable, it would be more accurate to say that our ancestors often “pressed on through”—in the sense of “were fueled by”—their selfishness, ambition, greed, and even racism, which after all is an empowering frame of mind for those on the right side of it. People animated by their animus often make history. The accomplishments of many of our most celebrated titans of industry and political leaders were often inextricably bound up with their resentments.1
It would be convenient if only the qualities of character that we recognize as admirable were responsible for forging what is good in our nation. But that is a fairy tale that leads us to believe that the present generation’s righteousness might remake the world in its hopeful image if only they elect the right President. This is not so much a millennial fantasy as a millenarian one.
Those of us skeptical that righteousness is on the cusp of total victory—in the hearts of our fellow citizens or ourselves—need to recover an appreciation of our system’s ability to channel and politicize conflicting impulses, including fearful ones. This isn’t simply a story of “overcoming”; it is a story of figuring out how to live together. This sensibility is what creates an enduring political system. Were our republic’s survival contingent upon the friends of progress always (or mostly) triumphing over its enemies, we surely would not be here today. Our republican institutions’ great strength is their ability to keep real, flawed, intemperate people talking, not to gradually filter the evil out of our national soul.
Since Meacham is arguing that fear is the root of political evil, he naturally comes around to Senator Joe McCarthy. “Thoughtful people correctly gauged the McCarthy threat,” he writes, before approvingly citing comparisons of McCarthy and Hitler. He characterizes McCarthy as “showcasing largely unfounded accusations of Communist subversion” and treats him alongside the John Birch Society’s conspiracy theorists without bothering to acknowledge that communists had in fact penetrated various parts of the Federal government. Without a whit of circumspection, Meacham denounces the Birchers for believing themselves “to be engaged in an end-times struggle between good and evil.”
Meacham’s own failure to avoid that peril is especially disappointing because these are, in fact, unusually trying political times. If we rely on the interpretive lens offered by The Soul of America, our current difficulties can only be understood as symptoms of a national turn toward fear and anger—a collective embrace of the dark side. But Americans in 2019 are no more hate-filled or desirous of a demagogue than in times past. Our problem is that we have forgotten how to treat conflicting values and policy goals as anything less than existential threats. When that deficiency is combined with the assumption that only a social movement propelling a President to greatness can save us, it leaves many people with deranged ideas about the importance of winning the next election, such that there is no room in politics for pursuing any other goals.2
The stories we most need, then, are not about the forces of hope vanquishing the forces of evil. We need illustrations of how conflicts have actually been kept from exploding, and sometimes resolved. Those stories, which would put Congress center stage, are harder to tell and less narratively satisfying than Meacham’s yarns of heroes and villains. Legislators doing their jobs seldom seem heroic, but then politics properly understood is not supposed to replicate the glories (or depredations) of war. As the art of the possible, politics is a game for satisficers who can sniff out a sustainable balance between societal forces in a particular moment. That kind of balancing act is what success looks like in our Madisonian system—and what ought to be regarded as the true soul of our political tradition.
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