Some years back, while promoting his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers, historian Joseph Ellis offered this pithy comparison of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams:
“Jefferson tells us what we want to hear. Adams tells us what we need to know. [Adams] is the person who will always tell you the most unattractive truth that you know is true.”
Ellis went on to argue that Adams—quite unlike his successor to the presidency—is “the most unappreciated great man in American history.”
Could it be that those two statements are somehow related? That Adams’ relative historical obscurity is a direct consequence of his refusal to sugarcoat his deepest, darkest intimations about the new American republic?
Of course this is the case, and there is more wisdom in that connection than any of us could fully appreciate—not least in an election year like this one.
While one simplifies the Founding Fathers at one’s peril, it seems clear enough that the enduring preeminence of Thomas Jefferson in the popular imagination owes to how Jefferson was, at his core, a romantic dreamer. Writing that “all men are created equal” while holding some 200 human beings in bondage and singing the praises of the humble farmer while residing on a remote, lavish estate, Jefferson’s contribution to the American Revolution was to imagine a country and its citizenry as they perhaps should be, but not—by any stretch of the imagination—as they actually were.
Notwithstanding his timeless proclamations about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness—words that we invoke on an almost daily basis—Jefferson was, in so many ways, a hopeless idealist with a highly tenuous grasp of reality. Apart from the howling contradictions of his own existence, his vision for what might eventually turn the United States into a global superpower—a decentralized agrarian society removed from big cities and big banks—was curiously and profoundly out of touch with several key insights about economics and human nature.
We can admire Jefferson’s ideals all we want, but we should also realize how lucky we are not to have taken most of his policy prescriptions seriously.
In the end, America survived and prospered as a muscular, unified republic by heeding the advice of those who spoke in cold facts rather than warm fantasies—people who understood, for instance, that pure democracy could not be implemented without risking anarchy and mob rule, or that the surest means of establishing international credit was by incurring a national debt.
These are not terribly appealing thoughts—certainly no candidate could get far on them today—and yet they were, by and large, the secret to our success. America may owe its poetry and lofty principles to Thomas Jefferson, but its unshakable foundations were the work of combative, hard-headed realists like John Adams, James Madison and, of course, that plucky immigrant currently running roughshod on Broadway.
It is certainly ironic—as innumerable experts have pointed out—that Alexander Hamilton has become America’s new favorite founder at precisely the moment when many of his deepest political convictions—big government, big banks, a big national debt—have fallen utterly out of favor among most American voters.
Indeed, prior to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play—and certainly prior to Ron Chernow’s book—Hamilton was every bit as overlooked as John Adams, and for many of the same reasons: Like Adams, Hamilton built his legacy on telling unsexy truths about how a great country ought to be run, heedless of how unpopular such heresies might be and with an enormous skepticism for the intelligence and wisdom of the common man. (A personality trait that the musical wisely suppresses.)
It goes without saying that such an openly dismissive and elitist attitude toward the public would make it impossible for men like Adams and Hamilton to be elected president today, and it’s equally worth noting that when Adams was elected, in 1796, a whopping 2 percent of eligible voters cast ballots before the all-powerful Electoral College took over. (Hamilton, meanwhile, never held elected office in his life.)
And so we are brought to a most unwelcome, yet essential, conclusion: Historically, the men and women best-equipped to lead this great nation have been—by virtue of their unromantic and clear-eyed dispositions—those least likely to secure enough votes to do so.
Put simply: As a people, we will always opt for the candidate who tells us what we want to hear over the candidate who tells us what we need to know. We bitch and moan about how cravenly our presidential candidates “pander,” but of course that’s exactly what we want them to do: We want all of our dearest political convictions confirmed, not challenged, and we want to be reassured that we are on the right side of every issue. Invariably, it is the panderers who ultimately triumph on Election Day while the so-called “straight talkers” are increasingly left in the dust.
To a degree, this truism helps explain the supposedly inexplicable success of Donald Trump. For the plurality of GOP voters who adore him, Trump espouses all of their basest and most selfish suspicions about who is to “blame” for all the trouble in the world—principally, Mexicans, Muslims and the Chinese—while offering the most laughably vague and fantastical “solutions” to these (largely imaginary) problems: For all that anyone can decipher, Trump’s official agenda entails little more than waving a magic wand and bringing America’s enemies to heel.
For all of his odd (and occasionally admirable) digressions from traditional Republican orthodoxy, Trump’s overall shtick is to assure his minions they have done nothing to deserve their dire economic status and that all of their troubles can be willed away if they would only make Trump their party’s nominee.
Among Democrats the situation is more complicated, as the candidate who is most guilty of pandering to liberals’ sacred ideals is also the one most commended for “telling it like it is.” In point of fact, among all the major contenders on both sides, it has been Bernie Sanders whose essence as a potential president has warranted the most dramatic revision over the past year and change.
From the beginning, Sanders’ ace in the hole has been the notion that he—and not Hillary Clinton—is the one Democrat brave enough to identify the true sources of America’s glaring economic inequality (read: Wall Street and big banks) and to advocate for a “political revolution” to reverse the popular suffering those nefarious villains have caused.
Fair enough, but isn’t that a textbook case of telling voters what they want to hear? When speaking to a gaggle of class-conscious liberal Democrats—aka Bernie’s natural constituency—isn’t blaming wealthy speculators for virtually all of America’s ills just another form of preaching to the converted? Even if the charge itself is essentially true—and there is no doubt Sanders believes it to be true—what exactly is so courageous about pointing a finger at “them” in order to allow “us” to see ourselves as morally in the right?
In any case, Sanders’ real problem up to now has been his unwillingness and/or inability to square his wildest dreams about economic justice with the overwhelming arithmetical difficulty of enacting those ideals into law.
Bernie can bang on all he wants about how the greatest country on Earth should be able to provide health care and education for all of its citizens—a claim that, in effect, constitutes his entire stump speech—but so long as he continues to evade the obvious rejoinders—How much will it cost and why would Congress ever go along with it?—he is not telling us what we need to know.
If Sanders really wanted to make us uncomfortable—if he were to truly live up to his billing as the straight-talking-est candidate of them all—he would recognize the ways in which his opponent, Hillary Clinton, has been correct all along. He would acknowledge, for instance, that in order to change the system, you must work within (and with) the system, and that if you hope to get even half of what you want—in this case, some pretty enormous tax increases—you’d better be prepared to give something pretty sweet in return.
Here (to quote Joseph Ellis again) is where we find “the most unattractive truth that you know is true,” which is that when it comes to governing, compromise is not just a virtue, but a necessity. Unless Sanders intends to rule by royal decree—a most peculiar form of socialism if ever I saw one—his administration will have to operate like every administration before it: Through a series of bargains and quid pro quos, with a fair share of wheeling, dealing and needling to go along with it.
In what has become just about everyone’s favorite song from Hamilton—you know the one!—we are ominously and depressingly reminded:
“The art of the compromise / hold your nose and close your eyes / we want our leaders to save the day / but we don’t get a say in what they trade away / we dream of a brand new start / but we dream in the dark for the most part.”
That’s government, folks: A long, painful stumble through the darkness in search of the tiniest, faintest glimmer of light. An election is a choice between better and worse, not good and bad—as Bill Maher has said, “Perfect is not on the menu”—and we should be very wary, indeed, of any candidate who presumes to possess a magic bullet that can cure our imperfect system once and for all.
Hillary Clinton, for all her equivocations and unscrupulousness, seems to grasp the inherent intractability of the government she intends to lead, and her relatively modest expectations for success are—in their own way—a form of political courage. She is the only major player in this year’s campaign who has told her own supporters they cannot have everything they want, so they might as well stop pretending otherwise.
Could it be that Hillary, and not Bernie, is the straight shooter we’ve been looking for this whole time? Or would that be a truth that we simply could not handle?