Race and the Making of American Political Science

Race and the Making of American Political Science

Race and the Making of American Political Science

Race and the Making of American Political Science


Race and the Making of American Political Science shows that changing scientific ideas about racial difference were central to the academic study of politics as it emerged in the United States. From the late nineteenth century through the 1930s, scholars of politics defined and continually reoriented their field in response to the political imperatives of the racial order at home and abroad as well to as the vagaries of race science.

The Gilded Age scholars who founded the first university departments and journals located sovereignty and legitimacy in a "Teutonic germ" of liberty planted in the new world by Anglo-Saxon settlers and almost extinguished in the conflict over slavery. Within a generation, "Teutonism" would come to seem like philosophical speculation, but well into the twentieth century, major political scientists understood racial difference to be a fundamental shaper of political life. They wove popular and scientific ideas about race into their accounts of political belonging, of progress and change, of proper hierarchy, and of democracy and its warrants. And they attended closely to new developments in race science, viewing them as central to their own core questions. In doing so, they constructed models of human difference and political life that still exert a powerful hold on our political imagination today, in and outside of the academy.

By tracing this history, Jessica Blatt effects a bold reinterpretation of the origins of U.S. political science, one that embeds that history in larger processes of the coproduction of racial ideas, racial oppression, and political knowledge.


A few years ago, the Journal of Theoretical Politics featured a startling announcement: The results of a new analysis of genetic and attitudinal data heralded “the end of ideology as we know it.” The philosophers, the implication went, having only interpreted ideology, had been missing the point. Science was finally poised to offer a rigorous, empirical account of its wellsprings. Our ideologies were in our genes.

Specifically, an interdisciplinary team from political science and behavioral genetics claimed to have shown that most conventionally understood sources of ideology were instead a “cultural veneer” overlaid on a “potentially divergent underlying structure of genetic differences.” Put simply, the idea was that in important instances our genes determine which of the available political preferences we are likely to choose. Even more simply, certain kinds of bodies are predisposed to certain kinds of politics.

The article (the title was, in fact, “It’s the End of Ideology as We Know It”) was part of a special issue dedicated to research on “genes and politics,” or what practitioners call “new empirical biopolitics.” This vein of political science research goes back to the 1970s but has only recently achieved greater visibility. A high point came when a 2005 article on the heritability of political attitudes made the cover of the American Political Science Review (APSR), the discipline’s flagship journal, and attracted a respectable amount of media attention. Since then, a small but prolific group of researchers has been claiming to identify genetic bases for our attraction to liberalism or conservatism; levels of social dominance; likelihood to join political parties, vote, or employ particular decision strategies; gender differences in political behavior; feelings of political efficacy; receptiveness to populism; negative attitudes toward out-groups; and even “Machiavellianism.”

Much of this work is ambitious, calling on us to radically revise our understanding of political life. For one writer, the “shopworn,” “competing . . .

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