The Third Electoral System 1853-1892: Parties, Voters, and Political Cultures

By Paul Kleppner | Go to book overview

9
Beyond the Third Electoral System

The materialist conception of history has a lot of [friends] nowadays, to whom it serves as an excuse for not studying history. Just as Marx used to say, commenting on the French "Marxists" of the late seventies: "All I know is that I am not a Marxist."

Friedrich Engels ( 1890)

We need not push the literal phrasing of these demurrers too hard. Marx disclaimed interest-group economic determinism, the "vulgar" notion that shared economic characteristics axiomatically generated social groups that behaved cohesively. Engels ridiculed the use of dogma as a substitute for the study of observable behaviors: "Too many...simply make use of the phrase 'historical materialism' (and everything can be turned into a phrase) only in order to get their own relatively scanty historical knowledge...constructed into a neat system as quickly as possible."1

Marx and Engels aimed their reproaches at those "Marxists" whom they judged not to have assimilated correctly the main principles of their theory of historical materialism. However, as much of Marxian social analysis, both of these strictures contain insights of broader and continuing relevance. Applied more generally, they alert us to the inadequacies of monistic and monolithic explanations of complex phenomena. They warn as well of the tendency to transmute analytical constructs into vacuous slogans and to employ the latter as virtually all-encompassing "explanations."

We can use these insights to deal with two general areas of controversy concerning both the substantive findings and the analytical significance of that genre of political history denoted by the phrase voting-behavior studies.2 The first of these controversies involves a con--

____________________
1
Both of the observations by Engels are in his letter to Conrad Schmidt, 5 August 1890, in Lewis S. Feuer, ed., Marx and Engels, pp. 396-97, all emphasis in the original.
2
I do not mean to designate by that term all of the works that have made use of quantitative voting data. Some of these are progeny of a star-crossed marriage between statistical complexity and traditional conceptual frameworks, and they manage to reflect the worst of both worlds. My use of the term here is restricted to a relatively small number of studies that have self-consciously and primarily aimed at analyses of the attitudinal bases of party oppositions. That should be recognized as a delimited and arbitrary application of the label. However, the studies to which I refer are also those regularly cited by commentators as prime examples of the misnamed "ethnocultural school." To be specific, under the label voting-behavior studies I include Lee Benson, The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy; Ronald P. Formisano, The Birth of Mass Political Parties; Richard Jensen, The Winning of the Midwest; and Paul Kleppner, The Cross of Culture. In addition to these monographs I also include two conceptually influential essays by Samuel P. Hays: New Possibilities for American Political History, pp. 181-227, and The Social Analysis of American Political History, 1880-1920, pp. 373-94. Other works might also have been included under the rubric; but in my judgment these items collectively constitute the core studies of the so-called ethnocultural interpretation of political history.

-357-

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