Larger Pictures

Heather Cox Richardson

The Saturday night plenary session of the Historical Society conference got me wondering about the larger contours of history. The main speaker was Michael Barone currently of the American Enterprise Institute, who delivered a presentation on “The Enduring Character of America's Political Parties in Times of Continual Change.” Leo Ribuffo of George Washington University and Sean Wilentz of Princeton commented. (Listen to full lecture and comments here.)

Barone revealed his past career as a pollster (he was a vice president at the polling firm of Peter D. Hart Research Associates from 1974 to 1981). He outlined the percentages of the vote for each party in elections spanning the twentieth century to point out that elections were decided by quite small margins. To win, parties had to mobilize pivotal constituencies: quite small populations that determined the electoral votes of large states or regions to swing elections one way or another.

Ribuffo responded to this analysis by pointing out that Barone’s numbers imposed an order on electoral politics that simply wasn’t there. Elections were often decided by quirky contingencies that no one could have foreseen.

Wilentz also poked holes in Barone’s analysis. He pointed out that Barone had utterly neglected a discussion of the role of class in determining voting patterns. Any analysis of American politics without that element included was simply missing the point, he suggested.

And listening to these three distinguished scholars, I couldn’t shut up the voice in my own head whispering that the role of ideas in politics was absent from this particular discussion. Surely the parties stand for something, and people vote according to their beliefs about what the parties will do in office.

Each of these arguments has merit, and is probably, at some level, right. So how can they be reconciled to produce a definitive account of American political history? Or is it the nature of deep historical research to produce a number of accounts from which individuals pick as most important the ones that resonate most closely with their own unique experience?

This is a different question than that of the postmodernists, who ultimately argued that there was no such thing as “truth” or “history” because each perspective was different and equally valuable. The question of reconciling the different perspectives of cliometrics, contingency, class, ideology, and so on, is fundamentally a question of what constitutes good history.

Forced to think this one through, I would throw my weight behind the idea that all of these different factors matter in general, but that individual ones take the lead in different eras. They also might matter in every era, but answer different questions. For me, though, the question Barone, Ribuffo, and Wilentz raised remains an open one.