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Response to Review of American Political History: A Very Short Introduction

Mark Power Smith deserves a compliment for his fair-minded review of my book, American Political History: A Very Short Introduction. He understands that the book because of its nature was aimed at the non-specialist reader, so when he declares that the book presents a ‘concise, readable narrative of American political culture’ and that I have ‘a flair for revealing details’, I cannot complain.

Smith raises in his review two critical points about my approach to political history that should be considered by all American historians. His first point is that the focus of the book is primarily on political elites and the expansion of the American electorate over time. He sees the book as presenting a ‘progressive’, story of uninterrupted, growth. The book, misses, he believes, that American ‘freedoms have grown in fits and starts, periods of progress have accompanied period of decline’.

Smith is correct in that the primary focus of the book’s narrative is national politics, partisan politics, and party leaders. This narrative is framed around four major themes: the intensity and continuity of partisanship; the steady expansion of the electorate to be more inclusive; the continuation of debates over the role and power of the federal government; and the importance of the Constitution. Smith in his 3000-word review, about the word length I was allotted for each chapter, does not discuss the first theme of the book, the intensively partisan nature of American politics. Contrary to hopes of the authors of the Constitution, political factions emerged early. American politics became a ‘blood sport’. From the outset American campaigning for elected office included negative attacks on opponents; conspiracy theories; and appeals, at times, to the worst fears and prejudices of voters. Campaign literature and partisan newspapers in the 19th century were full of talk about the machinations of the Bavarian Illuminati, Masons, and Catholics; and this rhetoric continued into the 20th century with Jews, Communists, and One-Worlders added to the mix.

In noting this feature of partisan politics, I wanted to show the general reader that things have not gotten worse in American politics today; things were always bad in this regard and in some ways political rhetoric is actually a little more restrained than in the past, although given the internet and blogosphere this should be not be exaggerated. Yet with all this intense partisanship and accompanying negativity, political debate in American took place within an Anglo-American republican tradition that emphasized the importance of the rule of law and the written Constitution.

Reflecting this tradition, especially as it was articulated by 18th-century English Whig thought, the American constitutional founders feared, as I write in the book, ‘the domination of some men over others. Power in itself was a natural aspect of government and could only be made legitimate through a compact of mutual consent’ (p. 3). Governmental power, the framers saw, served as a referee in adjudication for various sectional, economic, and social interests, while the coercive powers of government remained relatively weak. One of the major themes of the book, and what I see as a modest scholarly contribution, is showing how the tensions between the adjudicatory and coercive power of government played out in American politics.

This feature of American democracy is critical to understanding the nature of U.S. politics and suggests a prescription for democratic movements in other countries. The book was written shortly after the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and the importance of the rule of law as essential to a vibrant democracy was in the back of my mind. One of the lessons worth taking from American Political History is that even in the midst of the American Civil War, the north continued to hold elections on the national, state, and local levels. Obviously, framing political debate within a constitutional framework did not prevent a civil war, although both sides argued that their cause was upholding the constitution. This point is related to a sub-theme found throughout the book: democratic politics is one of compromise. This was not an argument for political opportunism, but instead a call for ‘principled pragmatism’ in politics. Partisan polarization characterizes most American political history, but great moments in this history have come when partisan leaders have been able to reach compromise. For this reason, I argued that ‘Moral absolutes and democratic politics are not easily reconciled’. Too often, voters and, I might add, many academic historians, like to see the world in terms of moral absolutes, the forces of light pitted against the forces of darkness. Of course, those who see politics in such Manichean terms, view themselves on the side of light.

In presenting an extremely short history of American politics from the framing of the Constitution through today, I was confronted with the problem of how to tell this story as concisely as possible. I focused on national politics, while giving some attention to the importance of social movements in shaping this politics. In particular, the influence of the anti-Mason, abolitionist, temperance, women’s, religious, labor and black civil rights movements were discussed within the framework of how they affected national and state politics. The importance of states as laboratories of reform, often involving grassroot movements, appear throughout the book.

The primary focus of the book, however, as Smith correctly observes, was on national politics. The reasons for this were two-fold: the intended audience and historical importance. The audience for the book was the non-specialist – students and general readers, not only in the United States, but internationally. In boiling down the material to make a compelling narrative, I confronted such questions as whether to spend a few more lines on the critical election of 1800 or to devote instead a few lines to artisans making a 500-pound cheese wheel for Jefferson. This great endeavor of crafting a cheese wheel for Jefferson might have captured the artisan political culture of the day, but it would have been at the expense of a decisive shift in American politics.

This decision was more than just crafting a readable narrative for a reader picking up this concise book wanting to know something about American political history. It was a determination on my part deciding what was important for the reader to know. This decision was informed by my own experience as a teacher in the college classroom over the course of 30 years. The decline of political history and civics from grade school through university education has coincided with a decline in what students know about American politics and institutions today. This struck home a few years ago when I was teaching a U.S. Survey from 1865 course. On the first day of class, I threw out what I considered to be a soft-ball question to make the students feel comfortable. I asked, ‘Who was President during the Civil War?’ Not a single student in the 40-person class knew the answer, even though they tried. Many thought the president was Ulysses S. Grant. Without some basic knowledge of Lincoln’s presidency, or knowing he was president during the Civil War, any understanding of the Emancipation Proclamation, for instance, seems impossible.

A successful democracy requires an informed citizenry. This involves some minimal understanding of national politics. Professor Smith claims that this makes the book as ‘a history of political elites – the decisions of congressmen (and at times, a white male electorate) than popular movements, which worked outside the formal process’. Why decisions by congressmen or the white male electorate is classified as ‘elitist’ is questionable. Nonetheless, the interplay between popular social movements and political/policy outcome is a complex and not easily explored with great nuance in a very short introduction to American political history.

Professor Smith equates national politics with ‘elites’. Of course, any history of American politics needs to include representation of popular political movements. In the end, however, political history is a story about political power, how it is gained, held, and wielded. The struggle for political power in any regime is contested. In a democracy, political power is held mostly by public officials, either elected or people appointed by them. Within a democracy this struggle is conducted through elections, the courts, three branches of federal government, and a federal system. Historians interested in power should be compelled to look at national politics, even if it has been largely about dead white men until recently.

The expansion of the electorate in American history sets the context for this struggle for power. Voting rights and the protection of these rights for blacks, women, and minority groups came through the popular struggle, reform activists, and the courts. Smith believes that American Political History conveys a linear progression of this expansion. He complains that I take the ‘Progressive’ movement at the turn of the century as too ‘literal’. He believes that in ‘in modern eyes’ the Progressive movement was ‘incredibly reactionary’. He points to the Wilson administration ‘passing numerous laws to promote racial segregation, for example making intermarriage illegal in Washington, D.C.’. Most of the administration’s actions were through bureaucratic fiat, not legislation. He writes, ‘Critchlow only dedicates a couple of sentences to race during this era, saying Wilson’s administration was “marred”’ by its pro-segregationist policies. He adds that I needed to ‘interrogate’ the term ‘Progressive’ so as to reveal the illiberalism of progressive reformers and how this continues today with increasing and ‘consistent incidences of increasing repression and popular resistance to it’.

There is a sizeable literature on the illiberal nature of American democracy. Indeed, this seems to have become the raisan d’ être for many historians. This literature on illiberal democracy, as well as an older literature on the liberal tradition, informs American Political History. Both of these literatures are reflected in the book. Including these perspectives should not give substance to a charge that the book ignores the contradiction or illiberal tendencies with American democracy. Nor should it provide a reviewer grounds to charge me of as being a kind of apologist for ‘progressive reform’ – an accusation I have heard not before. American Political History tried to convey to the reader that ‘progress’ has been made in creating a more inclusive electorate, civil rights, and equal opportunity. The book does not suggest in any way that there have not been setbacks in this struggle or that perfection has been arrived at. Indeed, the book concluded, ‘In the twenty-first century, America, it seemed was entering into a new era marked by political and financial volatility and international turmoil. Many American voters appeared increasingly disenchanted with both political parties and anxiously awaited … new solutions in a world far different from the eighteenth-century world of the American founders’ (p. 133). In short, I don’t think Americans have reached the ‘promised land’ and probably will not in the immediate future.