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  • Post-1968 U.S. History:Neo-Consensus History for the Age of Polarization
  • Bruce J. Schulman (bio)

In 1967, amidst the political turmoil of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle, the New Left and the mobilization of movement conservatism, Richard Hofstadter wrote a new preface to accompany the 20th anniversary edition of his 1948 book, The American Political Tradition and The Men Who Made It. Somewhat sheepishly, Hofstadter reflected on the enterprise that had become known as Consensus History, an approach that current events and a decade of historical scholarship had seemed to undermine. Looking back at his younger self, Hofstadter explained that he had attempted to look at American politics from "outside the tradition itself." From that "external angle of vision the differences that seem very sharp and decisive to those who dwelt altogether within it had begun to lose their distinctness, and that men on different sides of a number of questions appeared as having more in common, in the end, than originally imagined" (p. xxvii). Put another way, the intense partisan rivalries and passionate ideological allegiances, the differences that seemed to separate Democrats from Republicans, liberals from conservatives, South from North, even whites and non-whites, masked an essential consensus—a set of shared assumptions, norms and structures that narrowed the range of policy outcomes and reinforced a particular set of power relations.

Although few contemporary scholars embrace the label, something like consensus history has made a comeback: "Neo-Consensus History" dominates the historiography of the United States since the late 1960s. Deploying a variety of methodologies and focusing on a wide range of historical actors, scholars of recent American history have attempted to "move beyond" red and blue, left and right, North and South, even in some cases black and white. In this historiography, an enterprise that spans intellectual history, political history, the history of political economy, urban history, and the history of race relations, the partisan competition and political conflict that attracts so much attention from pundits and defines conventional narratives of contemporary U.S. society is mostly noise. The editors of an anthology of new work in American political [End Page 479] history assert that dominant paradigms, ideas such as the New Deal order, the conservative ascendancy, and red-blue polarization, "obscure deeper forms of consensus around global capitalism, white privilege, patriarchy, and notions of American exceptionalism. . ."1

Of course, consensus history retains an unsavory reputation. Identifying a scholar with it has long been a kind of dismissive insult; the brand implies an uncritical, rah-rah celebration of American exceptionalism (a charge that applies to writers like Daniel Boorstin, though not to Hofstadter, who bemoaned the consensus he identified).2 Although consensus literally means agreement, for Hofstadter and other likeminded historians, it did not signal comity—or the absence of vociferous argument—but a set of structures that shape the choices of political actors and restrict the possible outcomes.

In recent years, several strains of scholarship that Hofstadter might recognize as neo-consensus history have taken root in the historiography of the recent United States: the carceral state interpretation, which frames the bipartisan embrace of mass incarceration as the defining feature of the modern American state and the bedrock of contemporary U.S. politics; a spatial analysis that locates in the suburbs a set of attitudes and policy preferences that cut across regions and partisan divides; the theory of neoliberalism, which not only dismisses the significance of partisan division within the United States but submerges differences among western industrial nations; and an intellectual history version associated most prominently with Daniel Rodgers that sees a common vocabulary and intellectual orientation bridging left and right. These neo-consensus histories illuminate structural phenomena much as Hofstadter's generation did, but consider broader sets of historical actors and work from deeper archival bases than the analyses of elite politicians and intellectuals that occupied the original consensus historians.

In different ways, these four scholarly trends advance a common enterprise: they identify forces more fundamental and enduring than the partisan and ideological conflicts that seem to dominate contemporary American politics. They also point out a paradox, a sort of cognitive dissonance. If Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative...