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Someone Else's Utopia

Someone Else's Utopia

Do political elites really drive change in America? Timothy Shenk’s new book explores why many of America’s political reformers have failed–and why that’s a good thing.

Frank J. DiStefano

Timothy Shenk’s Realigners presents itself as a book about how political elites drive change. It offers a progression of short political biographies of activists, thinkers, and reformers throughout American history. One would be forgiven for expecting a book about who built America’s political coalitions, and how they did so, to contain lessons on how we can do it again. Except Realigners is actually something different: a history of how American political reformers failed. It’s a terrific book, but not for the reasons one might think.

Shenk writes in his first chapter that his book seeks to examine America’s political class, those walking what he calls the line between the rulers and the ruled. He means not political functionaries but those hoping to harness the machines of politics to break the status quo, and he calls them “realigners.” Despite some hopeful talk in his final chapter, Shenk’s assessment of their journeys to turn the ship of politics toward new courses is somewhat bleak.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Each story in Realigners travels a similar trajectory. It starts with a romantic young reformer gripped by the promise of changing America from within. It ends with that person either marginalized and forgotten, the idealistic mission still far from reach, or coopted by the system, tainted with pragmatism, youthful idealism abandoned. Shenk starts with James Madison and the birth of American party politics, moving through Martin Van Buren, Charles Sumner, Mark Hanna, and his daughter Ruth Hanna McCormick. There’s W.E.B. Du Bois’ trajectory from young socialist to giant to marginalized old man banished from his country. Then Walter Lippmann, the Keyserlings, and Phyllis Schlafly. Finally, it’s Barack Obama. Different eras, different goals, and different philosophical commitments, but always a similar path from idealism and hope to what Shenk views as failure.

The best part of Realigners is its storytelling. Each chapter focuses not on an abstraction but a life, one making an intellectual and moral journey through America. Each biography, although brief, packs in impressive knowledge. Shenk writes well with crisp, clean prose—a delight to find in academic history. The figures he explores are also compelling. He shies away from usual suspects like Jackson, Lincoln, and the Roosevelts, anchoring his work in less ubiquitous but no less important figures like Sumner and Lippmann. Most important, Shenk avoids the seduction of statistics, tables, and abstractions, viewing politics instead as a battle over ideals. That alone make this a worthy book.

Somewhat regrettably, the book too often projects back modern politics onto figures grounded in different versions of America. It’s impossible to genuinely understand why a figure from history made controversial decisions if we treat them as merely archaic versions of our modern political archetypes instead of what they were—Federalists, Jacksonians, Free Soilers, or Whigs. Shenk’s Whigs are too often implicitly cast as simply their era’s pro-business conservatives, when their pro-business policies were intricately tied to moral reform and modernization. Historical populism and progressivism get blurred as factions of a common movement, a regular trope since the modern Left has roots in both, when at the time their adherents often considered themselves politically opposed. The book could have worked harder to explain the intellectual journeys of its subjects on their own terms instead of ours.

Realigners also too often presumes its subjects are operating in a vacuum of perfect choice, instead of acting and reacting to a turbulent America. Madison’s journey between Federalism and Democratic-Republicanism took place during a time of swirling ideas about the precarity of a new republic and the bloody revolution in France. The Jacksonian fights that Van Buren navigated played out as working people sought to gain power and opportunity while pushing into the frontier. The cause of abolition was intricately linked with the moral explosion of the Second Great Awakening. The Progressives were reacting to the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution and the rise of expertise and social science. None had the freedom to simply impose their ideas of the perfect good as an abstract philosopher, but were political actors reacting to ideas, fluid events, and the constraints of the politics of their era. Little of this historical context appears in Realigners.

For these reasons, the book is at its best when its subjects are rooted in 20th-century politics, where Shenk is obviously most comfortable. It’s unlikely to be an accident that many of the featured figures began their careers in socialist politics and devoted themselves to issues of class and identity—Shenk is co-editor of Dissent magazine.

The most difficult part of Shenk’s book, however, is that it isn’t really about realigners. In choosing subjects to demonstrate his point, Shenk shies away from people who sought to forge fresh political coalitions from scratch like a Henry Clay or William Seward, or people who sought to invent new philosophies with wide appeal like a Herbert Croly or William F. Buckley, Jr. As for Van Buren, the book sticks to his political evolution rather than his role in inventing the very idea of the modern political party as he forged Jackson’s idiosyncratic impulses into a lasting philosophy. Shenk selects people who entered political life with deeply held ideological beliefs they hope to impose through politics. In other words, they are not realigners—people hoping to forge new coalitions by finding new common ground among diverse people. They are reformers who seek allies to implement the solutions to which they’ve already committed.

A realignment is far more than just moving demographic groups or factions from one political party to another. A political realignment, as Shenk recognizes in his first chapter, is the reshuffling of Americans into new coalitions to debate and solve new problems for a new age. It is a redefinition of what America’s parties fundamentally represent. A realigner aims to unite people with different perspectives and interests around a fresh common vision for the future.

A reformer is the opposite. To the extent that they seek coalitions, it’s to find allies who will help them achieve in full what they already believe. A realigned coalition will inevitably be made of many such reformers, their visions stitched together into a broader movement capable of winning a majority. It can never, however, perfectly reflect any one such belief, nor should it.

In a working democracy of millions of different people, nobody is supposed to ever get everything they want. A working democracy isn’t even supposed to produce a result perfectly efficient and rational according to any one abstract vision. The point of democracy is to produce something everybody can live with. It creates coalitions that temporarily unite a vast nation with different priorities around an urgent common goal. Nobody gets their personal utopia, but nobody ever has to live trapped inside somebody else’s utopia, either. This is the idea around which all democratic legitimacy is based.

Shenk appears to believe his reformers failed because they never saw the entirety of their visions enacted. He sees ignorance, personal weakness, and money and corporate power as fatal impediments that he hopes his book will inspire future reformers to overcome. I see in these same tales not failure but inspiring success. Reformers are supposed to inject new ideas, energy, and perspective into a democracy. They are not supposed to get everything they want because nobody in a democracy ever is. They are meant to challenge the consensus and perhaps help push a diverse nation of millions a little closer to their ideals. In these terms, Shenk’s reformers succeeded beyond imagination.

Charles Sumner helped bring about the abolition of slavery—an achievement almost unthinkable only a decade before he and his fellow abolitionists made it happen. W.E.B. Du Bois helped pave the way for the civil rights revolution that would come in his twilight years. Walter Lippmann saw many of the sorts of policies he championed during his early life implemented through the Progressive Movement and New Deal. It’s true that none of them got America to adopt wholesale his or her revolutionary program. All of them helped push it just a bit more toward their idea of the good. In a nation of three hundred and fifty million souls, that’s astounding and inspiring. It is the definition of democratic success

We all know that democracy is messy and imperfect, inefficient and slow. But it takes everybody’s interests into account, protects against foolish fads, thwarts nightmares in the name of utopia, and provides the stability necessary for people to thrive. Since we’re at another crossroads in which foundational change is needed in our republic, Realigners provides timely lessons about how efforts to reform our diverse democracy might work. Reformers might not be realigners, but their ideas become the tinder that set new political eras alight.

Frank J. DiStefano is a writer living in Washington, D.C., and author of The Next Realignment: Why America’s Parties Are Crumbling and What Happens Next (2019). He has been a congressional aide, presidential campaign official, and Washington-based attorney.

Image: A mural by artist Carl Morris depicting agriculture workers for the Eugene, Oregon Post Office; painted in 1942. (Wikimedia Commons)

Book ReviewsCultureDemocracyPolitical PhilosophyUnited States