Beyond the Political History Paradigm: The new edited volume Shaped the State and Urban History

“Political history — a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics — was once a dominant, if not the dominant, pursuit of American historians,” professors Frederick Logevall and Kenneth Osgood noted in a controversial 2016 New York Times editorial. “But somewhere along the way, such work fell out of favor with history departments … As a result, the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” The two historians lamented what they perceived as the fragmentation of the sub-field into a cacophony of voices that made it difficult to separate “the signal from the noise,” to paraphrase Nate Silver. Responses came quickly on social media and the NYT printed nearly half a dozen letters to the editors both in support of and opposition to Logevall and Osgood’s argument.

About a year earlier the Miller Center at the University of Virginia held a conference, “Seeing beyond the Partisan Divide,” that brought together a host of scholars to “construct alternative frameworks for studying twentieth century political history.” Their efforts resulted in the recently published edited volume of essays, Shaped by the State (University of Chicago Press).

The conference preceded Logevall and Osgood’s editorial by almost a year and the edited volume followed it by nearly three. During this four-year interval, historians critically engaged the issue—and the contributors to Shaped by the State were no exception. Rather than push forward the traditional left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm which Logevall and Osgood’s framing of the argument implicitly promoted, Shaped by the State reveals the structures that have created our political reality and shines a bright light on the continuities that become apparent when we refuse to place “politics” in a binary framing.

17149339-abstract-word-cloud-for-neoliberalism-with-related-tags-and-terms-stock-photo
Neoliberalism word cloud courtesy of https://philebersole.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/the-assumptions-and-logic-of-neoliberalism/

What sorts of continuities do the authors discuss? Primarily, neoliberalism. In recent years observers have deployed the term to describe the current political and economic structure of the nation. As Kim Phillips-Fein notes in her historiographical contribution to the volume, neoliberalism as a concept now includes “the broadest dynamics of contemporary politics, and the emergence of a political sensibility that spans both political parties.”[1] The term, she argues, did not really come into broad usage until the 1990s, yet in many ways it is not new. Nor is neoliberalism tied to a particular ideology at least in regard to the left-right/blue-red/liberal-conservative paradigm; liberals and conservatives alike have harnessed their policies to this austere political vehicle. If historians only view political history under the left-right paradigm they surrender to “a hegemonic framework that reinforces artificial boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within boundaries and locates policy formation and political conflict within binaries rather than along spectrums,” writes Matthew Lassiter in the volume’s concluding chapter.[2]

Yet how can anything “neo” not be new, or at the very least an update of a historical concept or categorization? “Market forces” in American life, in political and economic rhetoric and policy are long established structurally; the language of ‘free markets”, particularly the idea that they represent a natural, unfettered requirement of democracy dominates American political discourse from its earliest days. For much of this history, these allegedly impartial forces of the market have nonetheless excluded large swaths of the population, notably non-whites and especially African Americans. Both Democrats and Republicans supported the discriminatory edifice constructed by the government during the 1930s; when the civil rights and Black Power movements forced change, Americans recast racism as a personal rather than structural problem, thereby obscuring the ways in which the larger system continued to marginalize groups. “Letting the ‘market’ decide became the meeting place of segregationist, liberal, and libertarian defense of white power,” Nathan D.B. Connolly writes in his essay.[3]

When viewed from this vantage point, the neoliberalism that many hail as a new development and also decry for hollowing out employment, diminishing government intervention, and privileging the wealthy and big businesses over the collective population resembles what Blacks have endured for centuries. “Indeed, to live as a ‘Negro’ under Jim Crow was to live in a so-called neoliberal age before the term had become fashionable. What we are experiencing today may simply be the black side of liberalism writ large, the blackening of the American polity as a whole. Whatever it is, there is nothing ‘neo’ about it,” asserts Connolly.[4] We are not in the middle of a new age, but rather an extension of the old one. Admittedly some aspects of our modern political and economic structures are new, but not the incentives that drive them, the parameters that bound them, and the foundations that uphold them.

In some ways, Shaped by the State is reminiscent of the seminal 1989 work, The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order (NDO) a collection of essays that announced the death of Roosevelt’s social welfare state and ushered in what has come to be referred to as the age of neoliberalism (though to be clear none of the essays in NDO specifically used the term). Its contributors dutifully considered how multiple viewpoints and movements have worked to undermine the New Deal political order that grew out of FDR’s New Deal, and, while critical of the New Right, also assailed Democratic leaders for “vacillating and half hearted efforts … to make good on the promises of equality and opportunity so essential to the legitimacy of their political order.”[5]

10898r
This mural dedicated to the New Deal at the Clarkson S. Fisher Federal Building & U.S. Courthouse, Trenton, New Jersey pictorially captures the problematic aspects of New Deal legislation i.e. the privileging of white labor and interests over those of others; photograph by Carol M. Highsmith, 2010, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

Editors Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer credit NDO for incorporating “multiple traditions” into the contest that is American politics and for taking conservative and populist ideas seriously, which in turn led to a more nuanced and considered understanding of American political history. However, while valuable analytically and certainly a landmark work in the field, NDO’s left-right paradigm, like a fog enveloping the land, obscured a great deal as well: “it tended to subsume other crises, structures, patterns, and experiences of citizenship and historical development within the framework of these relatively few, unitary political traditions and established big narratives around the concept of crisis.”[6] NDO’s contributors and editors succeeded in acknowledging the ways in which the New Deal structure abandoned the class consciousness that had made it such a force in the 1930s and failed to deliver the same rights and benefits to communities of color as it did their white counterparts. Yet they viewed these results in strict binary formation: “If the New Deal ushered in a Reformation in American political life, then arguably the reign of Ronald Reagan constituted a Counter-Reformation.”[7]

55932r
Vice President Rockefeller addresses congressional Black Caucus full employment forum, here Nelson is shaking hands with Representative Shirley Chisholm, Rep. Walter Fauntroy and others look on, photograph by Thomas O’Halloran, May 20, 1975, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress

NDO emerged just as the “transnational turn,” as it has come to be known, unfolded in the 1990s; contributors to the 1989 volume rarely considered how transnational forces shaped developments. Shaped by the State addresses this issue in several places. For example, Stuart Schrader explores the rise of the carceral state through the lens of New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller but places the notorious Rockefeller drug laws in an international context. The “aperture” of the burgeoning carceral state needs to be expanded such that historians better understand its “nascence, persistence, and effects,” Schrader insists. Long active in foreign policy circles, Rockefeller drew upon Japan as a model for his anti-drug legislation, yet it is also true that because the U.S. occupied Japan after World War II, the country’s drug laws descended from the United States’ own policies on the issue (which of course were predicated on very problematic racial logic of the time). “U.S. influence on postwar Japan baked racial inequality into [Japan’s] drug laws,” Schrader points out. Therefore the “inequality” of Rockefeller’s drug laws did not represent a “new” phenomenon “in New York in the years after the success of the civil rights movement.” Essays by Julie Wiese, Melissa May Borja, and Suleiman Osman also wade into transnational waters.

97815491483231Shaped by the State also aims to create a shared language. If the transnational turn of the 1990s sometimes downplayed the role of the state at the expense of transnational forces such as the flow of labor and capital across borders and regions, over the last twenty years scholars have reconsidered this position. Historians doing cultural and social history have incorporated the state as a central actor in their analyses, though many of these writers would not consider themselves political historians despite the state and politics occupying critical spaces in their work. As a result, no agreed upon lexicon exists to facilitate dialogue. As the editors argue, “the field lacks a set of organizing principles and theories, key questions and debates, and well established research agenda’s around which ‘traditional’ political historians and ‘unofficial’ political historians could make common cause.”[8] Shaped by the State attempts to do just this, or at least begin the discussion toward such an end while eschewing the red-blue/liberal-conservative scaffolding that often bounds it.

51ThUHwS2aL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Works like George Chauncey’s Gay New York, Nayan Shah’s Contagious Divides, and Matthew Lassiter’s The Silent Majority serve as models for the way forward; works that are inherently political and focused on the state and politics, but examine overarching structures rather than the ideological tribes that defined (and continue to define) our political culture. Chauncey explored the formation of gay culture in Progressive Era New York under scrutiny and later persecution by both liberal and conservative regimes. “[E]xclusive heterosexuality became a precondition for a ‘man’s identification’ as ‘normal’ in middle class culture….”[9] Shah examined how public health governance in San Francisco, again by both conservative and liberal leaders, surveilled, controlled, and discriminated against its Chinese population in the late nineteenth and twentieth century: “There is a persistent congruence between the public health logic of normal and aberrant and the racial logic of superior and inferior and their reconfiguration over time.”[10] Lassiter delved into the ways that suburban whites in the sunbelt during the 1960s and 1970s based their political identity and standing on property ownership, around which various rights and privileges were awarded even though they hinged on “structural mechanisms of exclusion that did not require individual racism by suburban beneficiaries in order to sustain white class privilege and maintain barriers of disadvantage facing urban minority communities.”[11]

51C+QhSlaJL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgThese historical classics attest to how central a role urban history plays in investigations of politics. Though not every essay in the volume speaks to urban history directly, most do, and critically. Andrew Kahrl’s exploration of tax assessment policy and the ways it has penalized black homeowners is one example; David Freund’s investigation into the rise of money orthodoxy during the Great Depressions speaks directly to the fiduciary struggles of metropolitan America during the 1930s and the solutions the state designed to address them—which, as discussed above, demonstrates more continuity across traditional political divides than rupture. Sarah E. Igo, Sarah E. Milov, and Rachel Louise Moran contribute essays on the rise of the administrative state, data collection and public culture, labor law and union complicity with employers regarding safety regulations, and the role of gender and family in the political history of regulation (particularly the notorious “nanny state” we hear so much about). Though perhaps not urban on their face, each of these contributions further urbanists’ understanding of the processes driving metropolitan life.

Perhaps one way to summarize the collection’s contribution to and debate with political history can be found in relation to the 2016 New York Times editorial. Columbia historian Merlin Chowkwanyun, a participant and attendee at the 2015 conference in Charlottesville (and, full disclosure, a friendly acquaintance of the editors), responded pithily to the arguments put forth by Lovegall and Osgood by pointing out that the best historians utilize numerous analytical frames, methodological approaches, and data types when delving into historical inquiry. They do not ignore elite politics, but rather incorporate them into their analysis. Co-editor Brent Cebul agreed, noting in an email to The Metropole that the goal is to revive “a more coherent, inclusive, and capacious sense of political history.” After all, as the edited collection attests, the very state that has shaped us rests on a much broader political project than right-left/red-blue paradigms.

Editor’s note: This month we will be featuring posts, interviews, and discussions from contributors to Shaped by the State and specifically its relevance to urban historians.

[1] Kim Phillips-Fein, “The History of Neoliberalism” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 351.

[2] Matthew Lassiter, “Ten Propositions for the New Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 370.

[3] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 82.

[4] Nathan D.B. Connolly, “The Strange Career of American Liberalism,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 86.

[5]Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Introduction,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), viii.

[6] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[7] Gary Gerstle and Steve Fraser, “Epilogue,” in Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980, Eds. Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), 294.

[8] Brent Cebul, Mason B. Williams, and Lily Geismer, “Beyond Red and Blue: Crisis and Continuity in Twentieth Century U.S. Political History,” in Shaped by the State, Eds. Brent Cebul, Lily Geismer, and Mason B. Williams, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2019), 4.

[9] George Chauncey, Gay New York: Gender Urban Culture and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890-1940, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), 14.

[10] Nayan Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown, (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001), 6.

[11] Matthew Lassiter, The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 4.

One thought on “Beyond the Political History Paradigm: The new edited volume Shaped the State and Urban History”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.