- Politics As Usual?
In a recent defense of the embattled National History Standards, Gary Nash explained that the standards had tried “to strike a balance between traditional political history that stresses great leaders (who, children have traditionally learned, set everything in motion), and the new social history that attributes agency to ordinary people who were more than clay in the hands of the potters at the top.” 1 His description succinctly captured the prevailing image of political history—as a traditional, elitist, and distorted view of the past—that has eroded its once prominent place in college curricula, academic job markets, and the meeting programs of the major historical associations.
Just as students are avoiding political history courses, voters are deserting the polling booths. The 92 million who cast ballots in 1996, down from 104 million in 1992, represented only half the eligible voters, proportionately the lowest turnout since 1924. These parallel phenomena make American Political History: Essays on the State of the Discipline timely and pertinent. The book emerged from a conference held in 1995 to honor Vincent P. De Santis, professor emeritus of political history at Notre Dame University, and was edited by his former students John F. Marszalek and Wilson D. Miscamble. Collectively, the various contributors suggest that political history is undergoing a transition that will reshape its definition and presentation. The task of political historians has grown more complicated, requiring an expanded focus beyond white male elites to a consideration of the roles and contributions of all segments of society, the relationships between those groups, and their connections with the national leadership. Political historians, the editors assert, “now routinely ask questions and utilize approaches that their predecessors seldom considered” (p. 6).
Carl Degler opens with a short, broad survey of two hundred years of American political history leading to the recent “Republican Revolution,” which he points out was no revolution at all, since Americans have always been suspicious of centralized government. In this view, the growth of big [End Page 698] government since the 1930s was more of an aberration than the conservative reaction against it. Degler identifies only a few periods in which Americans willingly accepted an active federal government: the Civil War, the Populist and Progressive movements, and the Depression and Second World War. Since the end of the Cold War, the notion of limited government has regained popularity.
While providing historical context for the political shift to the right, Degler’s condensation of the past contains some significant omissions. There were Hamiltonian as well as Jeffersonian roots to American political history, with a shrewd Madisonian system of government grafting the two together. For all their suspicion of centralization, Americans of the early national period wanted a federal postal system that would extend to the frontier, federal rivers and harbors appropriations, roads and other internal improvements. Such contradictions still manifest themselves in western states where citizens celebrate their rugged individualism while benefiting from billions of federal dollars to pave their highways and water their golf courses.
Lamenting that smaller percentages of Americans turn out to vote than in other Western democracies, Degler attributes this apathy to outdated political parties that no longer meet people’s needs and to a federal government racked by constant struggle between the president and Congress. European parties, having developed later in the industrial era, offer greater ideological diversity; and European parliaments, by combining legislative and executive functions, and concentrating power in their lower houses, have managed to contain conflict to deal more effectively with pressing social issues. Degler judges Americans unlikely to approve any fundamental changes, since too much national self-identity is invested in the constitutional and two-party systems. To alter them would require a greater revolution than the political shift of 1994. This leads to his bleak conclusion that American politics will remain “only partly democratic, frequently deadlocked, while our social well-being, as measured against that of countries less rich than ours, will...