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Journal of Policy History 12.4 (2000) 527-530



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Response to Byron Shafer's "Who, What, When, Where, and How"

Olivier Zunz


Responding to Byron Shafer's critique of Why the American Century? is a genuine pleasure, for few authors are as carefully read, understood, and undressed as I have been in the above review!


Why the American Century? is my interpretation of the United States's rise to world power. I argue that America's ascension was not simply the result of Europe's self-destruction. Rather, America's rise to prominence rested on an array of original achievements in science and industry and on a concurrent and deliberate reorganization of society. My primary time period is the fifty-sixty years preceding World War II, and my main topic is the ways American elites struggled to articulate a vision for the United States as a distinctive national community. In showing some of the challenges American elites faced in establishing a model over a course of a long half-century, and in recovering a sense of what issues they faced, I have reconstructed some of their debates and analyzed their struggles as they tried to create a democratic, capitalist, modern, mass society.

As is well known, historians and social scientists of the 1950s often celebrated American history by focusing on timeless American traits to explain and praise the American model. By contrast, since the collapse of the postwar consensus school, most historians of the United States have exposed the deficiencies of the American project. They have denounced the stifling effects of mass culture, the shortcomings of uninformed policies abroad, the rise of inequality, and the violation of civil rights at home. Moreover, the few historians who have attempted to place American history in comparative perspective have also downplayed the older exceptionalism. They have found more balanced answers by working, to borrow the words of Daniel Rodgers, outside the "analytical cage" of a given national culture.

In Why the American Century? I stand at a distance from all three schools. There are many fine lines here. Although I have remained implicitly, and sometimes [End Page 527] explicitly, comparative, I have focused on combinations of economic, political, social, and ideological processes that, despite counterparts in other countries, have combined to give American elites the means both to generate prosperity at home and expand their presence into the world. I am grateful to Professor Shafer for crediting me with a "fresh" argument about national distinctiveness. He may well be right. But, in truth, if I entered the discourse on exceptionalism, it is by accident. I came in as an outsider to these historiographical debates.

Reflecting on the steps I followed in constructing my knowledge-driven, market-oriented, pluralistic model for the American century, I am tempted to tell a story too neat to be totally credible. I conceptualized the parts of my argument on knowledge, class, and pluralism separately, and only painstakingly figured out some of their relationships. But despite the slow and haphazard process, I had a clear purpose in mind. My ambition was to connect the story of American social change, on which I have worked most of my life as a social historian, to that of American hegemony. I have sought a causal connection between the political economy of American capitalism and the country's rise to world power.

I see what I was doing as part of a larger trend under way among historians to make social history more relevant to politics. In the last few years, several historians have reassembled the heretofore separated fields of political history, intellectual history, business and labor history, and social history, under the broader heading of political economy. Works by Alan Brinkley, Ira Katznelson, James Kloppenberg, Thomas McCraw, and a few others have reconnected social change, ideas, and policymaking, reunited class and liberalism. The program of uncovering diversity, constructing identities, and denouncing inequalities, which still prevailed not so long ago, seems nowadays repetitive. New discoveries were within reach, I felt, if I could only disentangle some of the hidden connections between organization and knowledge, science and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1528-4190
Print ISSN
0898-0306
Pages
pp. 527-530
Launched on MUSE
2000-10-01
Open Access
No
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