Sean Wilentz

Sean Wilentz teaches history at Princeton and is the author of Bob Dylan in America, which Doubleday will publish later this year.

Recent Articles

Discovering Tocqueville

Tocqueville didn't get everything right about Americans, but understanding him as a real, flawed observer makes his achievement more impressive.

(Musee du Chateau de Versailles/Gianni Dagli Orti/The Art Archive)
Tocqueville's Discovery of America by Leo Damrosch, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 304 pages, $27.00 When the energetic, young French liberal aristocrats Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont toured the United States in 1831 and 1832 ostensibly to study America's prisons, their minds, not surprisingly, often turned to more alluring subjects. "In addition to a very fine library, our host has two charming daughters with whom we get along very well," Tocqueville wrote to his sister-in-law from a well-appointed home in Canandaigua, New York. "Suffice it to say that we gazed at them even more willingly than at their father's books." The visitors found the young women of the New World more boldly coquettish than their French counterparts but also fiercely unwilling (again, unlike the French) to follow through. Compounding the problem, Beaumont and Tocqueville did not stay anywhere for too long, which gave them too little time either to make or to gain a strong impression. "It's...

Close of an Era

Several new books on the rise and fall of conservatism look at the secrets of the movement's decades-old success -- and modern-day failures.

The Conservative Ascendancy: How the GOP Right Made Political History by Donald T. Critchlow, Harvard University Press, 359 pages, $27.95 Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again by David Frum, Doubleday, 213 pages, $24.95 Grand New Party: How Republicans Can Win the Working Class and Save the American Dream by Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam, Doubleday, 256 pages, $23.95 No matter who wins the presidency in 2008, an entire political era, dating back to 1974, appears to be ending. Neither the era's central political figure, Ronald Reagan, nor Reagan's Republican successors managed to undo the New Deal or the basic reforms of the 1960s. Yet by skewing the progressive tax system, politicizing the federal judiciary, and otherwise moving the country to the right--and by helping to bring the Cold War to the edge of resolution--Reagan dramatically affected the sum and substance of politics at home and abroad. Despite an interruption in the late 1970s and a temporary reversal in the 1990s,...

Among the Bear-Baiters

I'm writing this while enjoying one of the most satisfying moments of my day, one of the most satisfying moments known to humanity. It's morning. I prefer to take a sip, even two, from my favorite old oversized coffee cup, with a glazed blue-checker band, before firing up. My lighter has been acting up lately, but the pack of Winstons is nearly full -- and, hooray, the flame doesn't sputter as it did last night. The deep pull, after hours of sleeping abstinence, is ambrosial. The large box of Nicorette, planted on the desk corner at New Year's, doesn't have a chance, not today. It used to be said that tobacco smoking was a habit. These days, the plainer word is addiction. But is smoking also a hobby? Most addictions start out as hobbies. And don't people refer loosely to their hobbies as addictions? Like: The guy's a real computer-game addict or she's hooked on shopping. There once was a time when we smokers freely indulged ourselves anywhere we pleased. But then, on or around July...

Build an "A" Team

My advice, President Kerry, is that you assemble a political "A" team, install it in the West Wing, and fight like hell against the right over the next four years. "We ought to have two real parties," President Franklin Delano Roosevelt told speechwriter and adviser Sam Rosenman in 1942, "one liberal and the other conservative." Now we have two parties. Less like the blue and the red than like the blue and the gray. You won the election by realizing this and defeating the GOP attack machine. But being a successful candidate and being a successful president are two different things. Look at Jimmy Carter, or at Bill Clinton (first term). Excellent men, fine Democrats, smart campaigners, who, as president, had a lot of bad luck they didn't deserve. But politically, they mainly kept “B” teams around them after they'd won. (Carter did bring in some aces like Hendrik Hertzberg, but they weren't enough. And Clinton wised up around the time he got around to running for his second...

Boomerang Effect

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' decision to stay the California recall election makes clear as never before that the entire effort to recall Gov. Gray Davis can only be understood in light of the Florida recount struggle of 2000 -- and of the larger efforts by the Republican Party to undermine democracy in order to seize and control power. The court's decision creates some powerful ironies for the GOP, as well as for its supporters who have argued that Bush v. Gore was correctly decided. During the Florida debacle, the U.S. Supreme Court, led by Justice Antonin Scalia, justified its halting of the vote count and its virtual declaration of George W. Bush's victory on the basis of the rights of voters and equal protection under the law. But now, on the basis of those exact same principles, the 9th Circuit has ruled that the California recall vote must be delayed. Enraged Republicans, with their radio talk-show minions out in front, are now in the position of opposing, at least in...