Nathan Kalmoe is Assistant Professor of Political Communication at Louisiana State University. This interview is based on his new book, With Ballots and Bullets: Partisanship and Violence in the American Civil War (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
JF: What led you to write With Ballots and Bullets?
NK: The short answer is that I sought to provide a broader, more representative view of ordinary Civil War Era voters than is typically found in most histories, and I wanted to consider what the violent extremes of that era might tell us about the nature of mass partisanship more generally.
I’m a political scientist who specializes in quantitative public opinion research in the modern United States, but I’ve been reading academic and popular histories on the Civil War Era for most of my adult life. In grad school, I began to see that my field’s narrow focus on the survey era of American public opinion (roughly 1950s onward) greatly impoverished our understanding of public opinion across a broader set of contexts, especially for how we understand the bounds of partisanship. At the same time, I saw opportunities to make unique methodological and theoretical contributions to our understanding of the Civil War Era based on my expertise in the political psychology of contemporary public opinion. In doing so, I was careful to consult closely with several historians of the period and to read extensively to ensure that I was appropriately respectful of work by historians and informed enough to identify where interdisciplinary interventions could be useful in each field.
As I read political histories of the war, I began to recognize that partisanship was central to the violence and its politics, both between the sections and within the North, which is the book’s focus. Of course, conflicts over enslavement and white supremacy were at its heart, but the political parties embodied those differences and served as the political instruments that mobilized mass warfare. Partisan coalitions, though newly formed, were powerful vehicles for collective war-making and electioneering during the war. That view of partisanship clashes with the relatively benign views of mass partisanship in my home discipline (due to the field’s myopic contemporary focus), and I saw an opportunity to cautiously integrate disciplines in a way that leveraged the insights from both for mutual benefit.
JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of With Ballots and Bullets?
NK: The Civil War experience shows the powerful extremes of mass partisanship clearly, but it also shows how bullets can, at rare moments, be an essential means of advancing democracy alongside ballots, not just a force in opposition to it. Partisan identities and leadership are far more powerful forces than U.S. social scientists have generally recognized–especially when fused with other potent social identities like race and religion–including the power to mobilize mass violence and rationalize almost any events to fit prior political beliefs.
JF: Why do we need to read With Ballots and Bullets?
NK: The book helps us better understand the mass politics of America’s most defining crisis, which still reverberates in our politics today. It also shows that ordinary partisanship can be far more powerful than political scientists generally recognize. The book combines insights and methods from history and political science to provide a new and expanded view of extreme partisanship. Taking a comparative approach to recognize similar types and processes, I also raise tentative questions about what Civil War partisanship can tell us about partisanship today – including the threats to democracy we face in the next few months and years.
In particular, I focus on 1) the surprising endurance of partisan voting patterns across party systems in the Northern electorate, despite new party coalitions, analyzing county and state election returns, 2) the rhetoric of the party press and party leaders more broadly in mobilizing war participation and sustaining their electoral coalitions, with systematic content analysis from a representative sample of Northern newspapers, 3) the effectiveness of Republican leaders mobilizing their voters into the Union military effort, more so than Democrats, as seen through enlistment, desertion, and death variations across partisan localities leveraging the service records of over 1 million Union soldiers, 4) the general insensitivity of voters to national and local casualties when casting their votes, with the exception of places that leaned toward Democrats before the war, 5) the general insensitivity of the voting public to the war’s monumental events, including the storied fall of Atlanta in 1864, and 6) the enduring partisan legacy of the war for decades effort in voting patterns, war memorialization, and veterans’ organizations. The results tell us much about partisanship in the Civil War and what ordinary partisanship can do more generally under extraordinary circumstances.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American Historian?
NK: I described my professional background and project motivations above, but I’ll add a few related observations here. My passion for the politics of the era was of no immediate use to my work in grad school. The public opinion subfield in political science focuses almost entirely on recent trends, and the study of American history in political science has some stellar practitioners but is generally shunted aside, to our detriment. The earliest ideas in this project were partly an effort to excuse all the time I had spent reading history when I should’ve been doing more relevant work (in addition to the joy of pursuing what I found to be most interesting)! It took another decade to find the data, the time, and the review of past work to bring the book together.
Disciplinary boundaries make it harder to do the kinds of integrative work I aimed for here, and, I would’ve accomplished this work better if I had benefited from greater integration. Luckily, I was able to draw on the expertise of several historians and history-focused political scientists to avoid some of the larger blunders I could’ve made in a project of this ambition. In some ways our more developed fields have moved backwards on this front. The 19th century political histories written in the 1960s and 1970s frequently engaged with cutting-edge public opinion research and often adopted quantitative methods and big-picture analysis like I pursue here. Likewise, mid-century political scientists were much more well-versed in early American history and drew on it much more heavily than American-focused political scientists today.
I’m gratified to see more history-focused work in political science, both to better explain important patterns and developments in the past and to consider the past comparatively to draw better inferences about how democratic politics works across broader contexts.
JF: What is your next project?
NK: My next project is a book called Radical American Partisanship: Mapping Extreme Hostility, Its Causes, & What It Means for Democracy, coauthored with Dr. Lilliana Mason. It analyzes many of the same violent and authoritarian themes found in With Ballots & Bullets. We assess the extent of extreme partisan attitudes and behaviors in the contemporary U.S. using more conventional public opinion methods of surveys and experiments, but with dozens of new questions and tests overlooked by the myopic focus of my field. The book is under advance contract with University of Chicago Press, and we aim to have it in print by the end of 2021.
JF: Thanks, Nathan!