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Two More Obama/Lincoln Points

[ 88 ] November 28, 2012 |

A couple follow-ups to my post about Lincoln and Obama are in order, given the comments.   First, Corey Robin makes a good point:

Scott, you refer to “people who think that Barack Obama is precisely comparable to Abraham Lincoln and the PPACA precisely comparable to the 13th Amendment.” And you say, “Granted, I don’t believe these people exist (and this includes, I’m guessing, Speilberg and Kushner.)” Kushner has in fact made exactly those comparisons. Twice. Here on the Colbert Report (start 2:00): http://www.colbertnation.com/the-colbert-report-videos/421268/november-14-2012/tony-kushner-pt–2
And here on the Chris Hayes show: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/46979738/#49947351

I agree that Kushner brought up the comparison in the general sense.   What I meant by “precise equivalent” is that I don’t read Kushner as saying that Obama has had the same historical impact as Lincoln or that the PPACA has the same impact on American history as emancipation.   I read Kushner and Speilberg as merely saying that Lincoln, like Obama, was a moderate and a pragmatist.  On this point, Kushner and Speilberg are clearly correct and Kilpatrick is clearly wrong.   It’s also perfectly accurate to point out that even the Civil War amendments represented compromises in which Republican moderates generally got more than radical Republicans.   As described ,to the extent that I object to Kushner/Speilberg my objections would be the same as Robin’s — they seem to downplay the extent to which the unique conditions that allowed moderate pragmatism to have radical effects  was created by the actions of the slaves themselves.   But Kilpatrick specifically rejects this critique.

Now, precisely because 1861 was such an unusual context I don’t think Kushner’s comparison of Lincoln and Obama is very useful.  Because changes that involve killing hundreds of thousands of people don’t provide a meaningful template for progressive change in ordinary political times, I don’t think a positive comparison is much more instructive than a negative comparison.   Compare Obama to Clinton, Carter, LBJ, FDR — fine, but Lincoln isn’t going to be particularly helpful.   But while the comparison is problematic I don’t think Kushner is saying that the PPACA is just as radical as emancipation.

In addition, a commenter has asked me to elaborate on my argument that “I’m not sure when the litmus test for being a Real Leftist became having a view of American political institutions that makes the complacent pluralists of the 50s look like Gramsci.”   What I’m referring to is the increasingly familiar argument that Democratic “spinelessness” is the primary variable explaining why the development of the American welfare state lags behind other liberal democracies.   On this view, there are no real institutional barriers to progressive change that the unfettered will of Democratic presidents couldn’t solve if they just wanted to, and because of this we can infer that they don’t want to.  Kilpatrick’s sneering about how Obama “dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes” is a classic illustration: the implication is that having to deal with conservative Senate Democrats is a choice Obama is making, and if he were a Real Man of Manly Will he could just raise the green lantern and make them do his bidding.

The main problems with this line of reasoning are that 1)it’s wrong and 2)whatever it is, it’s not any kind of left analysis.   Left analysis doesn’t ignore structural barriers.   The brute fact about American politics is that legislative enactments require passing an unusual number of veto points, and the malapportionment of the Senate means that having people like Ben Nelson and Evan Bayh as the pivot votes, amazingly enough, counts as an unusually favorable context.   For this reason, progressive reform, in the relatively rare cases where it’s even possible, requires buying off entrenched interests.  The Lincoln administration was a half-exception to these rules of American politics because of the context of the Civil War, not because Lincoln was a radical or a man of extraordinary will.   And even so, the Civil War amendments were all compromised, and partly as a result of this even the emancipation of slaves by forces did not prevent the confederate states from forestalling democracy for another century.    The idea that Obama could be Lincoln, or more than Lincoln, if he just wanted to is an unproductive fantasy that also rests on an inherently reactionary, bad-civics-textbook conception of American government.

Comments (88)

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  1. Erik Loomis says:

    To add one point to this, let’s note that Lincoln did push through a lot of his legislative agenda.

    Something he could only do because the South seceded.

    Even with all those enemies to his agenda gone–22 senators, not sure how many representatives, Lincoln had to fight like hell and compromise to pass legislation.

    If the entire South seceded today, Democrats could also pass better legislation.

    • Johnny Sack says:

      I’ve got it! Let the South and Mountain West secede, and then, putting a gun to Delaware/Maine/Vermont/Rhode Island’s collective head, all states consent, per Article V, reforming the Senate to reflect population, and then cripple the South in war and let them back in after it’s ratified on the condition they accept it. Done.

      • RedSquareBear says:

        I say we just do what we should have done in 1861: Recognize the succession as legitimate, declare war, conquer the south, annex it, dissolve the old state lines and make it one big state called, simply, “The South”.

    • J.W. Hamner says:

      That was going to be my point. It seems to me that a lot of the extraordinary circumstances of the Civil War amendments involved the fact that they were essentially an intra-caucus debate.

      They had a 2/3rd majority in the Senate just counting Republicans.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        I don’t think you could get the 14th or 15th Amendments past either the House or the Senate now. You could MAYBE pull the 13th Amendment, but there would be a lot of hemming and hawing about whether it could constitute an unconstitutional interference with contract and the rights of employers.

        And you’d get a number of Dems who would vote with the Republicans against the Amendments, and that’s just the way it is, because you want to be competitive in those conservative areas, don’t you?

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          I just want to note that HP, having angrily denied the obvious implication of his comments that things have gotten worse under Obama, is elsewhere in the same thread asserting that many Democrats in 2012 are not merely to the right of some mythical Golden Age of the Democratic Party, but to the right of 19th century Republicans. But he would never suggest that liberals should withdraw support from such a party, heavens no!

  2. Johnny Sack says:

    Maybe we can at least wait until he’s out of office for the Lincoln comparison so I can stop taking shit from my wingnut family members.

  3. FlipYrWhig says:

    I think the way that the would-be left critics square the circle and salvage the left-ness of their critique of Obama’s spinelessness is to assume a dormant progressive citizenry. That way Obama is failing to engage The People, whose progressive power, once properly tapped, would overawe the recalcitrant senators and cow them into voting for big progressive change.

    Sometimes the way it works is for Alternative Obama to twist arms LBJ-style: you’re right, that’s not “left” at all, just Machiavellian. Other times, though, in the fable, Alternative Obama galvanizes the masses and (paradoxically at the same time) expresses their utmost will, which is to do big progressive things. That’s what all the talk about “the narrative” and “framing” tends to presume.

  4. Holden Pattern says:

    I am enjoying the ongoing series of posts on “Structural reasons why the United States will inevitably devolve into a banana republic, and there’s nothing that can be done short of complete collapse of the current state, so really, the best that can be done is either to spend your free time in a quixotic effort to make things better at a structural level or to till your own garden and just vote for the party that isn’t in favor of maximum unnecessary suffering, but in any event, you shouldn’t bother to criticize the party of marginally less unnecessary suffering because, hey, structure.”

    • Murc says:

      I’d be interested in reading some of these posts. Can you point me towards them?

      • Holden Pattern says:

        See Lemieux, Scott, passim. I mean, it’s working on me. I’m convinced that there’s nothing I can do to change anything, and I will in fact respond to any criticisms of the Dems with “it’s the structure of the United States political system… nothing to be done.”

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          See Lemieux, Scott, passim.

          “Passim,” in this case, meaning “don’t ask for specific cites, because I sure won’t be able to back it up.”

        • Murc says:

          I will in fact respond to any criticisms of the Dems with “it’s the structure of the United States political system… nothing to be done.”

          Well, this is just crazy talk. The Democratic Party has many failings that have nothing to do with the massive structural problems of the United States political system.

      • Both the posts Scott has actually written, and the ones Holden imagines he’s written, advise him to stop whining like a fan belt, and that’s really the extent of his ability to follow a point.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      you shouldn’t bother to criticize the party

      See, that’s where your passive-aggressive whining becomes actively dishonest.

      Also, I’d like some defense for the proposition that things have gotten worse since Obama took office.

      • Holden Pattern says:

        See, that’s where your passive-aggressive whining becomes actively dishonest.

        That’s rich, coming from someone who has repeatedly misrepresented my positions into something that it’s easier to sneer at.

        Also, I’d like some defense for the proposition that things have gotten worse since Obama took office.

        And I said that… where?

        You repeatedly explain how everything is just the problem of the structures of the US system, and how this is in fact the best of all possible worlds. I’m telling you, I’M CONVINCED. You’ve won. Nothing to be done to improve the situation.

        • Murc says:

          You repeatedly explain how everything is just the problem of the structures of the US system, and how this is in fact the best of all possible worlds.

          I’d like to see a post where Scott’s said this, because it would repudiate much of his body of work.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          That’s rich, coming from someone who has repeatedly misrepresented my positions into something that it’s easier to sneer at.

          I have made the mistake in the past of assuming that your arguments had actual content, yes. Anyway, your conflation of “people should only criticize Democratic politicians for the (many) things they’re actually responsible for” with “nobody should ever criticize Democrats” remains dishonest.

          And I said that… where?

          You said that the United States “will inevitably devolve into a banana republic.” Sounds like things have gotten worse to me, as does the claim that “nothing can be done.” Which I of course completely disagree with. American political institutions do not often allow optimal solutions, but they certainly do allow reforms that substantially improve people’s lives — such as the PPACA.

          how this is in fact the best of all possible worlds

          [cites omitted]

        • And I said that… where?

          You repeatedly explain how everything is just the problem of the structures of the US system, and how this is in fact the best of all possible worlds.

          Holy shit!

          I didn’t even edit that! I didn’t take out any sentences, or words, or move anything around.

          Holden actually wrote those two sentences one after the other.

  5. lev says:

    The film brings Abraham Lincoln to life in a way that comes close to Karl Marx’s unsurpassed description of the man. Lincoln was a figure, Marx wrote, “neither to be browbeaten by adversity, nor intoxicated by success, inflexibly pressing on to his great goal, never compromising it by blind haste, slowly maturing his steps, never retracing them, carried away by no surge of popular favor, disheartened by no slackening of the popular pulse, tempering stern acts by the gleams of a kind heart, illuminating scenes dark with passion by the smile of humor, doing his titanic work as humbly and homely as Heaven-born rulers do little things with the grandiloquence of pomp and state; in one word, one of the rare men who succeed in becoming great, without ceasing to be good. Such, indeed, was the modesty of this great and good man, that the world only discovered him a hero after he had fallen a martyr.”
    http://www.wsws.org/articles/2012/nov2012/linc-n12.shtml

  6. Bloix says:

    “the unique conditions that allowed moderate pragmatism to have radical effects was created by the actions of the slaves themselves.”

    In 1864, “moderate pragmatism” took the form of George B. McClellan, the Democratic nominee who supported continuation of the war and restoration of the Union, but not the abolition of slavery. He ran on the slogan, ““The Constitution as it is, the Union as it was” – that is, no amendments.

    The Democratic platform called for immediate negotiations to end the war and to re-admit the Southern states while preserving slavery. It expressly stated that the Emancipation Proclamation was illegal.

    The platform would have been an impossible program to carry out. And McClellan was a demonstrated incompetent at fighting the war. A Democratic victory would have sapped the Union army’s willingness to fight and would certainly have led to a negotiated peace and Southern independence.

    Lincoln believed that he would lose the election to McClellan. He won because Sherman took Atlanta at the end of July and Farragut took Mobile in August. These victories made voters, who were bone-tired of the war, willing to give Lincoln the chance to win it. If they had come three months later, McClellan would have been elected and the Confederacy would have won the war.

    So the idea that Lincoln was a “moderate pragmatist” who stood by while the slaves “freed themselves” is ridiculous. If moderate pragmatism had carried the day, African Americans would have been returned to chains and whips by the middle of 1865.

    The Atlanta Campaign and the Battle of Mobile Bay freed the slaves. They gave Lincoln the chance to carry out his radical program of forcing the revision of the Covenant of Death and Agreement with Hell that was the founding document of the Republic. Anyone who claims that the Reconstruction Amendments are products of moderate pragmatism, and not of the most radical reform, doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Of course, both Lincoln and McClellan were pragmatists and moderates. It’s just that the former 1)was trying to achieve much better goals, and 2)was much better at it.


      radical program of forcing the revision of the Covenant of Death and Agreement with Hell

      This wasn’t actually Lincoln’s program. Absent the war, he was committed to eradicating slavery under the existing constitutional framework, which included not interfering with slavery in existing states.

      • Bloix says:

        “Absent the war.”

        I’m sorely to tempted to respond, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln …”

        Okay, so Lincoln was not elected in 1860 on a platform of eradicating slavery, which could not have been done except by war. What was Garrison’s practical program for ending slavery? He didn’t have one. John Brown did, but his program could not have attracted popular support, to put it mildly. Anyone campaigning in 1860 on a platform of ending slavery would have been a fringe candidate.

        Lincoln’s election precipitated the war. His platform looked moderate, but the Southerners understood, correctly, that it meant the gradual elimination of slavery. So they seceded, and the war came.

        The war changed everything. It made emancipation conceivable. And Lincoln was the one who conceived it, birthed it, proclaimed it, and put it in the Constitution.

        • Murc says:

          I don’t think Scott would disagree with you that Lincoln was necessary to end slavery, just as he would agree that LBJ was necessary to get the CRA and Great Society passed.

          But while necessary, Lincoln was not sufficient by himself, nor was he even the most necessary thing. Nor was he uniquely qualified.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          The war changed everything. It made emancipation conceivable. And Lincoln was the one who conceived it, birthed it, proclaimed it, and put it in the Constitution.

          This is true, but it doesn’t contradict the fact that Lincoln was a pragmatist and a moderate.

          • Erik Loomis says:

            It’s worth repeating for the zillionth time that Lincoln was basically a moderate Republican on nearly every issue.

            • Bloix says:

              And the “radical” Republicans wanted to dump Lincoln and nominate Fremont in 1864. If they’d succeeded, they would have guaranteed the survival of slavery for a hundred years.

              Lincoln was more radical than the radicals, because he accomplished results more radical than any of them ever could have done.

              • Scott Lemieux says:

                You’re just restating my position. To be clear, I don’t think “moderate” and “pragmatic” are insults. Lincoln accomplished far, far more than John Brown did, but it doesn’t actually follow from this that Brown was less radical.

                • James says:

                  Moderate kind of is. I don’t think it always should be, but in the context of Lincoln, as well as in our current political climate, moderate speaks to desires, rather than disposition or methods. Lincoln was pragmatic in method, and in the main he was conciliatory in disposition. On the whole he preferred gradualism, and liked carrots more than sticks.

                  But for all that he was a radical. He wanted to radically reshape the society in which he lived, and that he wanted to be as controlled about this as possible shouldn’t undermine how radical a reshaping he envisioned in his context.

                  There are fewer radicals around these days, but then there is also less call for true radicalism, of whatever disposition. We have enormous problems confronting us, as a nation and as progressives. But there is not currently any cause that I would pick up a gun and set to war, rather than concede on. On the whole, for myself, I’m happier not needing to be a radical.

              • Lincoln was more radical than the radicals, because he accomplished results more radical than any of them ever could have done.

                Since when is the accomplishment of results a measure of radicalism?

                Shall we say that Barack Obama is more radical than Jill Stein?

                • Scott Lemieux says:

                  As I said on the earlier thread, if your measure of radicalism indicates that Abraham Lincoln was more radical than John Brown, you need a new one.

          • Bloix says:

            One more and then I’ll shut up. Lincoln was a pragmatist. He knew how to get things done, better than any politician before or since, and he knew exactly what could get done, and what was for the moment, too much to ask.

            But he was not a moderate. His Cooper Union Address in 1860, which vaulted him into the leadership ranks of the Republican Party, was not the speech of a moderate.

            There’s a lot to quote from that speech, but I’ll limit myself to two passages.

            First, in situating John Brown’s uprising among other failed acts of violence,he says:

            “An enthusiast broods over the oppression of a people till he fancies himself commissioned by Heaven to liberate them. He ventures the attempt, which ends in little else than his own execution.”

            The oppression of a people. That was how he saw slavery. He knew unerringly what the evil of slavery was, and how it stood on the wrong side of history. And he also knew that grand and futile gestures could not end it.

            As Douglass said, at every step Lincoln went as far as he could possibly go, consistent with what the sentiment of the country would support; and he took the country farther than it would have ever gone without him. It was Douglass, not I, who called him “swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” and Douglass knew what he was talking about.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Opposing slavery and considering it immoral and oppressive wasn’t a radical position in 1860. Abolitionism perhaps could be described as radical, but Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist.

              • The Dark Avenger says:

                As shown in his letter to Horace Greeley, written in 1862:

                I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union

                • rea says:

                  Dark avenger–that letter also need to have the last paragraph quoted:

                  I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

              • rea says:

                “Opposing slavery and considering it immoral and oppressive wasn’t a radical position in 1860.”

                There are few, I believe, in this enlightened age, who will not acknowledge that slavery as an institution is a moral and political evil.

                Robert E. Lee, 1856
                Considering slavery immoral and oppressive was, at the time, the moderate pro-slavery position.

    • UserGoogol says:

      Moderation is relative. Both McClellan and Lincoln were moderate in a certain sense.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I see enthusiastic devotion to Marx and Marxism still carries the day on this blog, as I have always said. The author of more death and destruction in the 20th Century than anyone yet still widely admired among the Academic Left, and, more secretly in the Democrat Party Political Left.

  8. mch says:

    Perhaps what we should be talking about: not Lincoln, not the congress, not even the parties, but ourselves. How do we as citizens, apart from our vote in elections, apply the pressure that will put our Lincolns and congresses and parties into positions where they are forced, by circumstance (short of a new civil war, let us hope) to vote for legislation that we favor?

    You want a better Democratic party? (I sure do.) Join your local Dem committee. Want a more progressive and effective system of taxation? Educate yourself on detail, then: Use whatever platform you have or can create (dining room table, teach-ins you can organize, water-cooler talk, demonstrations) to spread the word, apply the pressure.

    The most interesting criticisms of the movie Lincoln I have read point to the groups that had created the pressure that educated Lincoln and congressmen and also, by educating fellow citizens, pressured president and congress to act.

    It’s called politics. It takes work.

  9. Bloix says:

    Frederick Douglass rendered a more clear-eyed verdict than Marx. I quoted this over at that incredibly annoying Crooked Timber post by Corey Robin, and I’ll quote a sentence again here, because it is so perceptive, so startling, and so beautiful:

    “Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.”

  10. somethingblue says:

    Just noting that “Spielberg” is so spelled.

  11. Connor Kilpatrick says:

    Hi Scott:

    “On this view, there are no real institutional barriers to progressive change that the unfettered will of Democratic presidents couldn’t solve if they just wanted to”

    Wow.

    That’s really what you took away from my essay?

    If so, I think you oughta read it again.

    Cheers,

    Connor Kilpatrick

    • Jason says:

      That’s really what you took away from my essay?

      If so, I think you oughta read it again.

      I’m not sure you should be encouraging that. I just read this bit again:

      Which part of this sounds anything at all like Barack Obama — the man who dives for cover whenever Ben Nelson sneezes? When did Obama ever promise to place the private health insurance industry “where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction”?

      Here you express contempt for Obama for making concessions in order to get legislation passed, and indicate that your preference is for absolutist tough talk. In so doing, you reveal that you either: have no inkling of of how legislation gets passed through the modern U.S. Congress; or that you may know but don’t actually care, because you’re in it for the bluster rather than actual policy outcomes. Either way Scott’s critique seems on the nose.

      • Connor Kilpatrick says:

        Scott & Jon:

        Hi again.

        The entire point of my article was that Lincoln and the early GOP were part of a political project–20 years in the making–with a very specific, progressive goal.

        Barack Obama and the 21st century Democratic Party are not.

        That’s it.

        Which is why I wrote:

        If we’re to find an antecedent for Obama and today’s Democrats, we’d have an easier time with a party like the Whigs and a president like William Henry Harrison — in whom some anti-slavery men and women had invested a good deal of misplaced hope. Try this: what does the Democratic party in 2012 stand for? Nobody knows. Nobody could tell you.

        Thus it is absolutely ludicrous to say that I’m asking simply for “ballsier” and “tougher” Democratic Presidents or subscribing to a “great men” view of history. Especially considering that I wrote:

        This isn’t to say that Lincoln and the Republicans were “great men of history,” Obama is not a “great man,” and therefore the lesson is that we must find new “great men” to elect. Instead, we should acknowledge the radicalism of these politicians and inquire instead into the rumbling movements that allowed them to get their hands on state power in the first place.

        Still confused? Let me be entirely clear: I am saying that we should not divorce Lincoln and the early GOP from the relatively radical 20-year project that was antislavery politics. For these men, there was nothing “moderate” about this endeavor. It was not “the path of least resistance.”

        This is why it feels as if you’re not actually engaging with what I’ve written. Which is unfortunate.

        Also, when Scott writes:

        they seem to downplay the extent to which the unique conditions that allowed moderate pragmatism to have radical effects was created by the actions of the slaves themselves. But Kilpatrick specifically rejects this critique.

        Once again, tells me that he’s not really paying attention, and just riffin’ on his own thing, considering not only that I wrote this:

        To accept that the Republican party and Abraham Lincoln were the political agents of this revolution is not to discount the hundreds of thousands of slaves who did, in fact, liberate themselves by escaping to Union lines and, eventually, taking up arms against the masterclass.

        And this:

        Du Bois’s “General Strike” was no doubt of extreme importance

        Most importantly, you seem to completely miss the fact that the entire essay was a response to Aaron’s–as I stated in the first graph, I agreed with most of what he said (which is why I called it “very good”) –who made Lincoln and the GOP into “nothings.” I was simply restoring their part in the destruction of slavery, particularly since the most current scholarship–including James Oakes’s exhaustive step-by-step account of emancipation–has pushed back against the tendency to downplay Republican radicalism (in both official “moderate” and “Radical” factions).

        Yes, what was happening on the ground–the “Great Strike”–made it possible for the GOP to enact a truly radical agenda.

        You want to call that “moderation” or “pragmatism.” Sure. Have fun with that.

        If you would like to learn more about the anti-slavery political project, you might want to start with Richard H. Sewell’s BALLOTS FOR FREEDOM.

        Oakes book will be out in December. I consider it something of a “case closed” as–I’m told–do many of his colleagues. I highly recommend that you read it.

        Cheers,

        Connor

        • Erik Loomis says:

          There is no case closed in the historical profession.

        • Vance Maverick says:

          Wait, the slam-dunk is an argument from authority which we can’t check because it won’t be published till December?

        • Jason says:

          Connor,

          I’m tempted to simply requote the passage from your essay upon which I was commenting–a comment that, despite the fillibuster-ian length of your response, you do not actually engage. But instead I will just point out that little in your response speaks to the points Scott was making, and that a parallel difficulty besets your equally lengthy response to davenoon’s post.

          I would also gently suggest that, however effective they may be on your home turf, encouragements to read this or that definitive work, along with a general high-handedness of intellectual tone, are unlike to impress in blogs and comment threads largely populated by aging academics who, for better or worse, have read a fair number of books.

          • Connor Kilpatrick says:

            You fellas sounds like a fun bunch!

          • Corey Robin says:

            Oh come on, Jason, get off it. Connor was responding to a statement of Scott’s alleging that he believed in the unfettered will of Democratic presidents. We all know that this is an ongoing concern of Scott’s; what you may not know is that it is not an ongoing concern of Connor’s. So when Connor asks Scott to read the essay again — and you respond with a quote that actually doesn’t at all confirm Scott’s allegation but merely states that Connor doesn’t believe Obama or the contemporary Democratic is radical (which makes no presumptions that all that is required in politics is presidential will; it’s just a characterization of their politics)– Connor is well within his rights to urge you to go back to his essay, read the statements he’s made that contradict the various allegations here. And there’s nothing wrong with him recommending that you take a look at some books that have offered a revisionist take on matters that many of you think are settled. He’s hardly arguing from authority; if you are indeed an aging academic, you should welcome someone who’s not an academic but has enough curiosity and interest in the historical questions to want to inject some new material into the discussion. And perhaps be a little bit more open to the historical questions that have been raised — rather than trying to shoehorn his post into one of your favorite hobbyhorses about the Democratic Party. Yes, he mentions that in his post, but that was very clearly not its purpose.

            • Scott Lemieux says:

              Corey — I cited the relevant passage (the “ducks when Ben Nelson sneezes” bit), and if it’s not a green lantern argument, I confess I have no idea what it does mean.

              I agree that this was embedded in a larger argument that Lincoln was radical where Obama wasn’t, which I also addressed and (rightly or wrongly) believe to be erroneous.

            • Jason says:

              Corey,

              As Scott says, there were two sides to Connor’s argument. One side is that Lincoln was a radical. The other side is that Obama is a contemptible empty suit. One might wish to ignore or downplay the second side, but it was utterly central to the piece as written. And Connor’s stated evidence for the second side was very poor: as I said, it bespeaks either ignorance of how the U.S. legislative branch functions, or a preference for cathartic bluster over actual progress on issues that (should) matter to progressives.

              I think it’s awesome when non-academics read academic books–otherwise what the hell’s the point? And revisionary books are great too. What I don’t like are grandstanding appeals to authority as a way of deflecting substantive criticism.

            • Jason says:

              Also, Corey, I’d encourage you to read Connor’s (really really lame) responses to davenoon in the other thread. Connor may be a good chap in general, but there ain’t a lot of clarity (or maybe integrity) on display here.

        • Scott Lemieux says:

          You’re confusing means and ends. The ACA of course was the culmination of a decades-long process to move in the direction of an important progressive goal: universal health care. (I’ll grant that this is less important than the emancipation of slaves, but what wouldn’t be?) It was not the optimal way of attaining this, but the realities of American political institutions (despite the clear implications of your silly Ben Nelson comment) mean that the elimination of the American health care industry was not something Obama could have accomplished no matter how mean he was to Ben Nelson. And absent southern secession, Lincoln would have done significantly less to end slavery in existing states than Obama did to broaden access to health care.

          I also note that LBGT rights, apparently, are to you a goal so trivial that they don’t merit any discussion at all, despite the historic achievements of the last 4 years.

        • The entire point of my article was that Lincoln and the early GOP were part of a political project–20 years in the making–with a very specific, progressive goal.

          Barack Obama and the 21st century Democratic Party are not.

          That’s it.

          Then your tough-guy act about Barack Obama being insufficiently manly and confrontational was meaningless.

          Okay.

        • rea says:

          a president like William Henry Harrison — in whom some anti-slavery men and women had invested a good deal of misplaced hope.

          Whatever are you talking about here? Are you saying that Obama’s first term was the equivalent of dying in office after 30 days?

  12. jon says:

    Lincoln was clearly an abolitionist, even in and before his first election. But he was also a gradualist, and perserverated about it. He had other, overriding objectives, like keeping the country and his coalition together.

    He had no necessity to push through either emancipation or abolition. Emancipation was a tactical move that strengthened Lincoln’s hand and put additional pressure on the South, but it did not win the war nor did it tip the balance.

    Lincoln could have won the war and not have pushed through the Thirteenth Amendment. He chose to take on that difficult task and to see it succeed. Perhaps he was a racist who simply wanted to remove a future cassus belli. That alone places him well ahead of current politicians who are content if the whole mess doesn’t melt down on their watch.

    Lincoln was a cheese paring lawyer through and through, and steeped in sordid back room political dealings. However, he set out to keep the territory and federal government intact, and expanded his brief to liberate african americans when that became both possible and expedient. As a political figure he was not Moses. Nor was he Lenin or Robespierre. And he certainly didn’t do it all by himself or in a vacuum. And he also did not have the tools or perspective or the current day. What the film helps to establish, is that Lincoln achieved as much as he could for emancipation, as rapidly and as fully as he could, while not preempting the larger issues of the ongoing war and the affairs of state.

    In what ways did Lincoln betray or delay the abolitionist cause? Did he miss an opportunity? Did he delay? Perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation should have freed slaves in the Northern States (over which he had functional jurisdiction) as well as the South (where his brief was rather limited). While Lincoln did famously say that he would not free any slaves if that could hold the country together, he never said that he did not want to free the slaves. And at that moment in time, who could have, or would have, done more than Lincoln to advance racial equality?

    • Scott Lemieux says:

      Lincoln was clearly an abolitionist, even in and before his first election.

      No, he wasn’t. Abolitionists favored the abolition of slavery in existing states. Lincoln believed that this would have been not merely imprudent but unconstitutional. People seem confused about this, but the belief that slavery was immoral did not itself constitute abolitionism.

    • rea says:

      Perhaps the Emancipation Proclamation should have freed slaves in the Northern States (over which he had functional jurisdiction) as well as the South (where his brief was rather limited).

      It waa actuallly just the opposite, considering that the constitutional justifiction for the Proclamation was Lincoln’s war powers as commander-in-chief.

      • Scott Lemieux says:

        Right. Lincoln’s belief that the federal government was not empowered to eliminate slavery in existing states was still being reflected in the Emancipation Proclamation itself.

  13. Jason says:

    Connor,

    I’m tempted to simply requote the passage from your essay upon which I was commenting–a comment that, despite the fillibuster-ian length of your response, you do not actually engage. But instead I will just point out that little in your response speaks to the points Scott was making, and that a parallel difficulty besets your equally lengthy response to davenoon’s post.

    I would also gently suggest that, however effective they may be on your home turf, encouragements to read this or that definitive work, along with a general high-handedness of intellectual tone, are unlike to impress in blogs and comment threads largely populated by aging academics who, for better or worse, have read a fair number of books.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Now, let’s not pretend the roadblocks facing the Democrats in 2008 were anything approaching the ones Republicans faced in 1864. They had to pass three constitutional amendments, fight a war, and conduct a decades-long hostile occupation of half the country to enact their agenda. Democrats had to quietly change one Senate rule.

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