The recent debate over the balanced budget amendment was marked not only by an abundance of posturing but also by a profound ignorance of history. President Clinton failed to use his bully pulpit to educate the electorate about the federal government's historical need for a flexible borrowing authority. Congressional Democrats used scare tactics, demanding for Social Security an inviolability they know cannot last, rather than pointing Congress toward the institution of a capital budget. Republican leaders abandoned the practicable, resorting instead to simplistic panaceas.
As in much recent American political discourse, partisanship and ideology overwhelmed compromise and policy. Small wonder that conventional wisdom has Americans fed up with politics. But, in truth, Americans of late have had little exposure to politics as it classically was: the art of the possible. Over most of the course of American history--the onset and aftermath of the Civil War stand as the singular exceptions--the political process brought together conflicting intraparty interests in a common quest to gain national power, encouraged the necessary accomodations to avoid crippling conflict, and abetted the evolution of innovative policies, often through the enactment of gradualist statutes. Within national society and culture, politics reconciled conflicts that arose from differences of income and wealth, of race, religion, and national origin, and of section and occupation. In doing so, politics made government possible.
But politicians today exhibit little interest in our political history and in the examples of good and poor governance it provides. And they are not alone. Just as the state has fallen into ill repute with many Americans, so political history, which focuses on public policy, the state, and the uses of the state, has fallen out of favor among most academic historians.
The intellectual interests of most of those academicians, many of them children of the Left, have flowed instead to social history--to the history, in the current phrase, of "race, class, and gender," and of ethnicity and the family. Courses have proliferated on the history of women, gays, African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans. Those offerings have resulted in important gains in the amount of academic attention paid to previously neglected groups of Americans. But there has been an accompanying loss of attention to American society as a whole, especially to the politics through which that society has governed itself and adjusted to social changes. Coupled with the Right's disdain for the efficacy of the state, that loss is a significant one.
A Canon Divided
The current hostility of social historians to political history reflects, in large measure, a generational bias. Within the academy, until recently when they began to retire, most of the outstanding practitioners of political history belonged to the generation born about the time of World War I. That generation--John F. Kennedy's generation--was exposed successively to the trauma of the Great Depression, the inspiration of the New Deal, the danger of World War II, and the difficulties of the ensuing and uncertain peace. Historians of that generation took an interest in active and creative government, in democratic leadership, and thus in political history and statecraft.
The same interest had characterized the eminent historians of the two decades or so before World War I. Frederick Jackson Turner and Charles Beard, for example, were both committed progressives who strongly influenced their profession through interpretations of the national past. Both were born when the memory of the Civil War was alive and fresh. Both men spoke to that conflict in major works: Turner in his book on sectionalism, Beard and his wife Mary in their interpretative history of the United States.
But after World War I, with the American rejection of the League of Nations and …