Writing at The Front Porch Republic, Andrew Bacevich argues that politics during the last three presidential terms have been defined by a “neoliberal consensus.” This consensus, Bacevich argues, is not unlike the consensus that Richard Hofstadter wrote about back in 1948. Here is a taste of his piece:
David Kennedy addresses this question in his recent review of Claude Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. (You may recall that we discussed this book in previous posts here and here.
Kennedy offers a very insightful overview of the way in which today’s American historians tend to write more about what happened in America and less about the meaning America. This, however, has not always been the case. Kennedy places Fischer’s book in the context of other works about America written by Francis Parkman, Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, Vernon Parrington, Gunnar Myrdal, Daniel Boorstin, H. Richard Niebuhr, David Reisman, Henry Nash Smith, Robert Bellah, Seymour Martin Lipset, and Robert Putnam. These writers made “the nation” the most important focus of the study of American history.
Why the move away from the nation? Kennedy explains, with some help from the late John Higham:
Unfortunately, historians have made no significant contributions to that body of work for nearly two generations (Bellah is a sociologist, Putnam a political scientist; Lipset, who died in 2006, was also a sociologist). Higham dated the termination of historians’ interest in national character to the 1960s and attributed it to two factors. One, he said, was “a profound revulsion, initially against the state”—the most obvious institutional representation of the nation—“for the inhumanities it perpetrated or protected at home and overseas. ” The second, and probably more dispositive, reason was a new historiography, largely European in its origins, dedicated to l’histoire totale and especially to the project of bringing onto history’s stage the stories of marginal or submerged peoples and communities, “rather than the uniqueness of any great community.”
That robust historiographical movement was further energized in the American case—where it was called “social history,” or “history from the bottom up”—by the striking emergence of black nationalist and separatist ideologies in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement’s legislative achievements, the dramatic rise of an articulate feminist movement, and the no-less dramatic resumption of immigration after the repeal of the National Origins statute in 1965. In light of these anti-authoritarian developments and quests for racial, ethnic, and gender identity, it became not merely unfashionable, but professionally suicidal, for historians to suggest that the encompassing character of a society was itself a fit subject for study. In the scholarly vernacular, historians became a guild of splitters, not lumpers. In the popular vernacular, they retreated to their many separate silos and gave up the quest for a synthetic principle that might impart some measure of coherence to their prolific but woefully hermetic studies of race, class, and gender. Diversity became the guiding mantra of contemporary culture and historical scholarship alike. What unifying elements might have historically contained, connected, or shaped all that diversity were questions that went unasked.
Read the entire review in Boston Review.
Last week we did a post on Claude Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. The post was triggered by Sarah Igo’s review of the book in The American Prospect. In that review, Igo connected Fischer’s argument for a “American character” with an older, but still very much alive, “consensus” view of American society.
Fischer recently contacted us at The Way of Improvement Leads Home with a brief response to our post, which he has graciously allowed us to publish:
I would plead guilty to trying to resurrect national character studies.
I’m not sure I would accept that as the same as “consensus” history. If consensus history is the story of the end of division and the emergence of harmony — something political scientist Robert Lane explicitly applauded in the 1960s — I don’t think Made in America qualifies. Indeed, one can read my account as quite the opposite: the empowering of women, minorities, and youth in the 20th century empowered them to demand, contest, and conflict with the old, white, male powers-that-be. Anti-consensus history!
Now go out an get your copy of Made in America!
Some of my students or former students reading this blog might remember me harping in class about the “Consensus View” of American history. Consensus scholars–the political scientist Louis Hartz and historian Daniel Boorstin come immediately to mind–tended to focus on the ideas that defined a uniquely American character. Those ideas usually boiled down to some form of economic (capitalism) or political (freedom) liberalism.
The Consensus view of America is still with us today and it experienced a bit of a revival in the wake of September 11, 2001. The followers of the late Samuel Huntington, author of the controversial Who Are We” The Challenges to America’s National Identity come to mind, but I am sure you can think of others.
In academic circles this view of American history was crushed by social historians and New Left historians in the 1960s and 1970s who began seeing national character as problematic. These historians focused more on diversity and pluralism. By concentrating their scholarly attention on African-Americans, women, the working-class, native Americans, farmers, and other people who were not part of the Consensus story, a new, more complex narrative of American life emerged.
The liberalism of Hartz, Boorstin, and others was also challenged by a group of historians–led by Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, and Gordon Wood–who suggested that it was actually civic humanism or “republicanism” and not liberalism that was at the core of the American character. Unlike the New Left historians, the historians of civic humanism did not deny the existence of a distinct American character, they just thought it rested in an intellectual tradition that found it roots in the city-states of Renaissance Italy and not in the liberalism of the English or French Enlightenment.
I decided to revisit this lesson in historiography because the Consensus view of American life is making another comeback in the form of sociologist Claude S. Fischer’s Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. (We have blogged about this book before). Here is a snippet from an excellent review of the book by Vanderbilt historian Sarah E. Igo:
Concerned as it is with the contours of American character as well as culture, it is hard to read Fischer’s book as other than an argument for consensus history. If Made in America is a reminder of the perils of that tradition, it also brings to mind what is compelling about it: clear storylines with the power to shape what Commager might have called the national imagination. There is an audience for such work and thus an opportunity for it to enter into public conversation and understanding. It is on this score that Fischer’s accessible book is most valuable, upending much conventional wisdom about American history, from the religiosity of the founding generation to the lack of community spirit in our own.