Meet Hillary's Historian: Professor Sean Wilentz, Partisan Jacksonian Democrat

05/19/2015 08:09 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2015
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WASHINGTON -- As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton has a tight circle of advisers who counsel her on economic policy, foreign affairs and politics in general. In Sean Wilentz, she also has something of a house historian.

Wilentz, a Princeton professor, was an outspoken supporter of Clinton during her previous presidential bid, and has remained close to her since, according to Clinton insiders. He has been helping Clinton understand where and how her potential administration, and that of her husband Bill Clinton, fit into the arc of progressive history over the last half-century or more, according to people who know both him and the candidate.

Wilentz, Princeton's George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history, was a guest of honor at a Ready for Hillary event in the Hamptons, one Clinton source said, and remains in close touch with Clinton.

The role of Wilentz is noteworthy because of the political perspective he brings as an expert on President Andrew Jackson, considered the founder of the Democratic Party. Jackson was a relentless partisan and a populist, who attacked the aristocracy on behalf of the working class. (The white working class, that is; Jackson was also viciously racist and genocidal in his treatment of Native Americans.)

Wilentz, reached Tuesday in Germany, where he is teaching a course and working on a new book, declined to discuss his conversations with Clinton or her campaign. He said the best way to understand his current thinking on politics is to read his essay, "The Mirage," published in 2011 in The New Republic.

The lesson that Wilentz has drawn from his study of 19th century politics, as well as the Reagan era, which he dates to the mid-'70s, is that partisanship is a necessary element of the political process, and that those preaching non-partisan or post-partisan politics are naive at best, and more likely guided by an agenda to benefit those already in power. Wilentz notes that the pre-Civil War South was an example of post-partisan politics in action, as the South lived under one-party, Democratic rule. The Confederacy itself, he argues, was the most robust attempt at government without parties in the last 200 years of American history. It was also, not coincidentally, a wildly unequal society, with a few families controlling nearly all the wealth, the rest of the white population subsisting on little, and millions of black people enslaved.

Wilentz was highly critical of President Barack Obama during his first campaign, and continuing into his presidency, for his message of post-partisanship and his relentless efforts to strike grand bargains with the GOP. Former Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), before Obama was even sworn in, had articulated the same critique in a more playful way. "I think he overestimates his ability to take people -- particularly our colleagues on the right -- and sort of charm them into being nice. I know he talks about being post-partisan. But I’ve worked frankly with Newt Gingrich, Tom DeLay, and the current Republican leadership," Frank said. "When he talks about being post-partisan, having seen these people and knowing what they would do in that situation, I suffer from post-partisan depression."

Instead, argues Wilentz, a clear-eyed partisan battle must be waged if a party wants to implement its agenda. If Clinton were to follow his counsel, the result would be a more combative administration than House and Senate Republicans have dealt with under Obama.

Our greatest presidents have been the fiercest partisans, Wilentz argued in a 2011 Stanford Lecture Series, titling his talk, "The True and Tragical History of Post Partisanship." His list of great partisan presidents: Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt (before his 1912 run on a third-party ticket), Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt and Bill Clinton. (Wilentz is also the author of a best-selling biography of Bob Dylan and knew the musician as a young child growing up in New York.)

Over the course of his career, however, Wilentz has been a better analyst of partisan political history than as a partisan operator himself. His 2007 and 2008 polemics against Obama on behalf of Clinton, mostly published in the New Republic, fell flat or backfired. And a more recent attack on Edward Snowden, Glenn Greenwald and Julian Assange was the subject of ridicule. (Which Wilentz told HuffPost he accepted "with pride," standing by his argument.)

In January 2013, shortly after Hillary Clinton suffered a concussion at home, Sidney Blumenthal, the journalist and former aide to Bill Clinton, wrote an email to her expressing concern. The message was later leaked after his email account was hacked. Sean Wilentz, Blumenthal assured Clinton, was thinking of her. Blumenthal added that he'd been doing some Clintonland matchmaking. "I've hooked up Sean, who flew to New Orleans for a few days, with James [Carville], who's giving him a tour of the music scene tomorrow, Thursday, and bringing him to the field of the Battle of NO. James is on the 200th anniversary commission and Sean, of course, is the Andrew Jackson expert," Blumenthal wrote.


During the 2008 Democratic primary, Clinton often positioned herself as the experienced politician who knew how to deal with Republican opponents, an approach that the advice of Wilentz would only reinforce.

The influence of Wilentz can also been seen in some of Clinton's more recent rhetoric. "Democracy can come undone. It's not something that's necessarily going to last forever once it's been established," Wilentz wrote in his book, The Rise of American Democracy. If people lose faith that politics is on the level, democracy itself can erode, creating what Wilentz often refers to as "a crisis of democracy." His new book, he said, is about the fate of democracy, a study of the arc of democratic politics and inequality.

"We've got to do a better job of getting our economy growing again and producing results and renewing the American dream so that Americans feel that they have a stake in the future and that the economy and the political system is not stacked against them, because that will erode the trust that is at the basis of our democracy," Clinton said in Aspen last June in remarks that HuffPost interpreted as influenced by Elizabeth Warren, but may in fact be more Wilentzian.

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