Sean Wilentz: After taking on Obama supporters, they pound back

Historians in the News

[Cass R. Sunstein is a contributing editor at The New Republic and teaches at the University of Chicago. Over the years, he has offered informal advice to both Senator Clinton and Senator Obama; a long-term law school colleague of the latter, he has acted as an occasional, informal adviser to his campaign.]

The Compact Oxford Dictionary of Current English offers several definitions of the word "smear." One is "coat or mark with a greasy or sticky substance." Another is "damage the reputation of [someone] by false accusations." Neither of these definitions perfectly fits Sean Wilentz' discussion of Barack Obama and his supporters, published on The New Republic's website last week. But Wilentz has certainly produced a smear.

Wilentz does deserve considerable credit--this is one impressive smear. Saying nothing about Obama's career or positions, Wilentz announces that there is a "delusional style" in American political punditry, typified by support for inexperienced, unqualified candidates on the basis of the delusional belief that those candidates have good "instincts." In Wilentz' view, the presidential candidacy of George W. Bush was merely the latest beneficiary of the delusional style.

Is Wilentz actually trying to make a claim about American history? Or about American journalism? Sure, American political commentary has had its fair share of delusions, but the idea of a general "delusional style" is much too vague and abstract to be illuminating. There is no such "style" in American politics. (Wilentz is playing here on Richard Hofstader's illuminating, substantive, and influential 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics.") Wilentz is right to say that some members of the press were excessively generous to Bush's candidacy, perhaps because they preferred him to the not-terribly-fun Al Gore. Many of Bush's supporters, in the press and elsewhere, have been disappointed, but they were hardly deluded.

But Wilentz's real goal is not to act as some kind of press ombudsman, or to identify a previously unrecognized "style" in campaign reportage. It is to condemn the (hardly unanimous) press support for Barack Obama, who turns out, astonishingly, to be the new George W. Bush. An enthusiastic supporter of Hillary Clinton, Wilentz thinks that The Boston Globe editorial board, David Brooks, and Fareed Zakaria (among others) support Obama not on the basis of reason, but because of "nothing more than enthusiasm, based on feelings and projections that are unattached to verifiable rational explanation or the public record." In Wilentz' account, the delusional "Obama-awed commentators" have failed to learn the true lesson of the Bush Administration, which is that the last time America opted for intuition-based governance, it produced a "catastrophic presidency."

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Michael Green - 1/8/2008

I do not think that Mr. Sunstein is the most objective observer. But in one place, he misses badly, either because he doesn't know any better or he is too determined to attack Sean Wilentz in return. The media were indeed "deluded." They were deluded because they thought it was fine to make up unfavorable stories about Al Gore and protect George W. Bush. That is a delusion about the duty of the media.