Sean Wilentz: We Are Witnessing the Degradation of Democracy

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton debate at Washington University in St. Louis on October 9. Sean Wilentz writes: This is not an election we are engaged in. It is something abnormal and abscessed. It is a national emergency. What we saw at the debate was not a display of partisan politics. It was a display of the destruction of partisan politics and its replacement by a spectacle of psychopathology. Saul Loeb/Pool/reuters

I love American politics. I love everything about American politics. I love the political parties, the plotting and maneuvering. I love the corny paraphernalia. I love the buttons, and I love the slogans.

Fifty years ago, a cousin of mine ran as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate from New Jersey. His opponent, Clifford Case, was one of the most popular public officials in the state, an exemplar of a political species long since extinct, the rock-ribbed Northeastern liberal Republican.

My cousin Warren didn't have a chance; and all the worse, 1966 was a heavily Republican year, with the backlash against the Johnson administration's handling of civil rights and the war in Vietnam.

On election night, my dad and I took the PATH train from Greenwich Village out to Newark, where Warren had his headquarters at the Robert Treat Hotel. We arrived, as best I recall, around 8 o'clock—but the crowd was already dispersing, and the band was packing up its instruments.

Warren lost by a million votes. But he had a great red-and-white button and a great slogan: "Wilentz makes sense." I still own and cherish my "Wilentz makes sense" button and even wear it occasionally, if only as a goof at family gatherings.

But it's not just a goof. My cousin Warren, a mover and a shaker if ever there was one, truly believed in the public service that accompanied his power and prestige. So did the rest of the Jersey side of my family, which included Warren's father, David, a Latvian Jew and immigrant who rose to become New Jersey's attorney general and one of the most powerful figures in the old Democratic Party and which included Warren's brother, Robert, who as chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court led one of the most creative and accomplished liberal courts in the country; and which included their sister, Norma, who became an outstanding philanthropist.

Nobody thought that Warren would win 50 years ago, except maybe Warren himself, somewhere in the St. Judish brain lobe all of us have. But it was honor enough to be nominated, even if that nomination meant taking one for the team.

That too has been part of American politics, because life goes on, and there are more battles to be fought and because nothing is ever foreclosed and because politics like everything else worth loving will break your heart or even demand you break your own heart from time to time, and because, anyway, we're all going to live a long time.

It's the attitude of the Happy Warrior, although one must remember that the original Happy Warrior was Al Smith, an enormously successful reformish Irish Tammany governor of New York who took as his theme song "The Sidewalks of New York"—East Side, West Side, all around the town—but who was also crushed in the 1928 presidential election after the most blatantly nativist anti-Catholic national campaign in our history.

I love American politics so much that I have steered my vocation to writing about its history. Last May, I published a book that, as much as anything, is a celebration of how parties and partisan politics have advanced the causes of equality in American history, from the aftermath of the American Revolution to Lyndon Johnson and on to Barack Obama.

That book got reviewed well enough, despite its unorthodoxy, although it also opened me up to a couple of high-profile personal attacks, worse, in fact, that anything my cousin Warren had to handle, not heart-breaking, exactly, but leaving some mild bruises.

But when those odd barbs and brickbats come, I reach into my dresser drawer, pull out a little cardboard box of valuables, and stare at the memento with all of its contradictory but ultimately fortifying meanings: "Wilentz makes sense."

Of late, though, my love for American politics has been roughed up, roughed up badly. The vicious spectacle of last Sunday's debate left me shaken, angry, barely able to sleep.

It wasn't the nastiness and desperation and charges and countercharges and hateful words of hatred. It wasn't what a friend called the clinically narcissistic "word salad" spewing from the cornered, desperate, damaged, violently dangerous Trump.

It was the sight of this abusive bully, who wears his ignorance as a prideful chip that he knocks off his own shoulder so to trigger his rage, it was the sight of this literally sniveling asshole stalking his opponent around the stage, menacing, like a wife-beating man in a poorly managed mediation session, conceding nothing about his betrayals and his bigotry and his tripled-down-on lies, lashing out with whatever came to his jangling messy mind that he thinks might injure or provoke or unnerve or disgrace, looking as if at any moment he might just sock her, but who will not sock her now because even he knows that would turn him into a loser and, besides, the menacing is enough.

I was, though, truly moved (as I tossed and turned in bed, all sorts of angry thoughts about my own life bubbling up too—such is Trump's perverse effect) by Hillary Clinton's composure and clarity and smile and steadfast sticking to the facts.

Over those 90 minutes, she stood not just for her liberal views (which I share), or for her long public service (which I admire), or for common decency (which, Gresham-like, has been cast out of every corner or lives by mounds of death-worship maggoty carrion).

She also stood up to all those she's rightly called deplorable. Walt Whitman described them during the 1856 campaign better than she or I ever could—not just the people around Trump but those cynical leaders and operators of the Republican Party who began creating this mess 40 years ago and more.

Walt loved lists, and this list of his was long:

office seekers, pimps, exclusives, malignants, conspirators, murders, contractors, kept-editors…creatures of would-be presidents, spies, blowers…body snatchers, bawlers, bribers…monte-dealers…carriers of concealed weapons, pimpled men, scarred inside by the vile disorder, gaudy outside with gold chains made from the people's money and the harlot's money, twisted together, the lousy combings and born freedom sellers of the Earth.

Standing up with grace against all of them and all of that, Hillary Clinton stood for democracy itself.

This is not an election we are engaged in. It is something abnormal and abscessed. It is a national emergency. What we saw on Sunday night was not a display of partisan politics. It was a display of the destruction of partisan politics, and its replacement by a spectacle of psychopathology.

What we saw on Sunday night had nothing to do with positions or ideology or maneuvering or the roughest rough and tumble. It was an attempt at rupture and degradation by a twisted would-be tyrant.

What we saw—or what I saw, anyway—was the attempted rape of something fragile and precious, something I dearly love.

Sean Wilentz is the George Henry Davis 1886 professor of American history and professor of history at Princeton. His most recent book is The Politicians and Egalitarians: the Hidden History of American Politics.