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Volume 11, No. 6September 2001
Michael Kazin, professor of history at Georgetown University and co-author, with Maurice Isserman, of America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s (Oxford, 1999).
"Hardly anyone takes politicians seriously when they talk or write about their principles; this is one of the more lamentable developments of our cynical age. In his Party Ideologies in America, 1828-1996 (Cambridge, 1998), John Gerring studies party platforms and other campaign tracts to demonstrate how firmly and consistently each party, beginning in the Age of Jackson, adhered to a set of beliefs. He also explains when and why the pols changed their collective minds. Without a whiff of jargon, and with a good deal of wit, Gerring marries the study of 'discourse' to the study of political power. Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001) is the best book yet written about the local insurgencies that dumped liberal Republicanism into the dustbin of history and made the GOP the party of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich. McGirr's tight, but not exclusive, focus on the swelling tide of conservatism in Orange County, California, during and after the 1960s is a model of how to craft a historical monograph. Her book is proof that the history of the right in the modern United States has finally come of age."
Angela D. Dillard, assistant professor of history and politics at New York University's Gallatin School of Individualized Study and author of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner Now? Multicultural Conservatism in America (NYU, 2001).
"Michael F. Holt's The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War (Oxford, 1999) contains almost everything anyone could possibly want to know about the twenty-two-year history of the ill-fated Whigs, including the less-than-charmed presidential careers of William Henry Harrison, who died after one month in office; Zachary Taylor, who died halfway through his first term; and Millard Fillmore, who only seemed dead. Holt focuses on major national and sectional debates, including those over territorial expansion, the proper role of the federal government, and the Compromise of 1850. Perhaps more significant, he also provides a detailed account of the often overlooked impact of state and local caucuses, internal factions, and rival interests. Held together by an aversion to the 'executive despotism' of Andrew Jackson and the un-bridled national populism unleashed during his tenure, the Whigs incorporated an ideologically diverse range of adherentsincluding anti-Masonic elements, Southern defenders of states' rights, and cross-regional supporters of the Bank of the United States. These are the sorts of details that should be the meat and potatoes of an analysis of the Whigsor any other political party."
Lisa McGirr, assistant professor of history at Harvard University and author of Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001).
"As the last presidential election made very clear, political party competitionhow and why particular parties win and losedepends in no small part on who gets to vote and which votes get to count. In his monumental The Right to Vote: The Contested History of Democracy in the United States (Basic Books, 2000), Alexander Keyssar reminds us of the fundamental importance of the laws that shape and structure political participation. Keyssar charts the evolution of suffrage over three centuries, debunking the popular conception that democracy in the United States advanced without setbacks or periods of contraction. He also provides abundant evidence of moments when elites, fearing the empowerment of a growing and seemingly menacing working class, sought to shrink the franchise through property and literacy requirements and 'pauper exclusions.' Party politicians, too, often worked to shrink or expand voting rights for partisan purposes. The history of political parties in the United States would be impossible to understand fully without a comprehensive history of suffrage. Thanks to Keyssar, we now have one."
Christina Wolbrecht, assistant professor of government at the University of Notre Dame and author of The Politics of Women's Rights: Parties, Positions, and Change (Princeton, 2000).
"An exciting recent development is the explosion of work on women and political parties, a long-ignored topic. One of the best books is Rebecca Edwards's Angels in the Machinery: Gender in American Party Politics From the Civil War to the Progressive Era (Oxford, 1997). Edwards examines the ways in which party appeals in the period before women's enfranchisement relied on themes of manliness and femininity. Family, motherhood, and the home were central symbols in party debate; candidates ridiculed opponents as effete and womanly, while asserting their own strength and masculinity. Edwards's work enhances our understanding of the golden age of American parties and demonstrates that gender was central to the party system even before women had the right to vote. I also recommend Anna L. Harvey's Votes Without Leverage: Women in American Electoral Politics, 1920-1970 (Cambridge, 1998). Harvey addresses the long-standing puzzle of the declining organizational strength and political influence of women in the years after suffrage. Her controversial thesis is that parties used their institutional advantage to incorporate new female voters into the party system before women's interest groups could make the shift from legislative lobbying to voter mobilization. Parties were thus effective at mobilizing, and then neutralizing, women's votes. In the late 1960s, new women's groups finally forced the parties to begin paying attention to women's issues."
Rick Perlstein, author of Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus (Hill and Wang, 2001).
"In anthropology, they call it the 'betwixt-and-between': the telling liminal moment when one settled state begins passing into another and the architectures of social structure and social change are laid bare. In political science, the jargon is more simple: It's the 'off-year election.' Two excellent recent studies, Philip A. Klinkner's The Losing Parties: Out- Party National Committees, 1956-1993 (Yale, 1994) and Andrew E. Busch's Horses in Midstream: U.S. Midterm Elections and Their Consequences, 1894-1998 (Pittsburgh, 1999), give the 1958s, the 1962s, and the 1994s of U.S. history their due as social dramas in which, respectively, the forces of Southern Republicanism, Democratic liberalism, and anti-Clinton rage began gearing up to change the country for good. By showing how the most interesting things in politics often happen when most people aren't paying attention, both books succeed in knocking us out of our settled ways of thinking about politics."
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