Social History and the Populist Moment: Contesting the Political Terrain

By Andrews, George Reid | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

Social History and the Populist Moment: Contesting the Political Terrain


Andrews, George Reid, Journal of Social History


How ironic that a field of study originally conceived as "history . . . with the politics left out" has become the focus of heated political opposition and debate.(1) But it is not hard to understand why this happened. Control of the past - or more precisely, of interpretations of the past - is of central importance to a political movement that proposes to lead us back to that past. And as Peter Stearns suggests in his contribution to this collection, social history does in fact have a political content. Conservative criticisms to the contrary, that content is not primarily Marxist or socialist; rather, I would argue, it is a more populist vision, defined by social historians' strong sympathy with the non-elite groups whose stories we seek to tell. And in a second ironic twist, that vision is based on the very ideals and values of American democracy - freedom, liberty, equality, opportunity - the alleged absence of which in our work the conservatives so roundly decry. Social history treats those ideals and values, not as holy incantations handed down by mythic patriarchs, but rather as vital, living ideas around which popular movements have mobilized and struggled for their collective interests, and as the (usually implicit, sometimes explicit) standard against which the progress of our two-centuries-long experiment in democracy must be measured. This is an approach which is at best uncongenial, and at worst positively threatening, to conservative readings of the past and proposals for the future.

Social history in the United States originated in, and still devotes most of its attention to, the study of disfranchised groups: workers, slaves, women, immigrants, racial and ethnic minorities. Our research has made abundantly clear the difficult and often oppressive conditions which members of those groups faced during most of American history: their inequitable participation in the division of national wealth, and their exclusion from the full privileges of citizenship. It thus makes clear the multiple ways in which the central ideals and principles on which the Republic was built were compromised and violated for large portions - in most times and places, the majority - of American society.

One would think that this history would be of at least passing interest to those devoted to the founding principles of our Republic. If one values those principles and wants to see them realized, one wants to know, indeed needs to know, how they have fared historically, on the ground. And interestingly, the conservatives have made little effort to contest the truth or accuracy of social-historical findings. Rather, they argue, we are looking in the wrong places and studying the wrong things. We're not writing the kind of history they want. They prefer a pageant of American triumphalism, of American success and achievement. Not for them social history's relentless catalogue of struggle, conflict, disappointment - and of democratic achievements: emancipation, women's suffrage, universal public education, widespread upward mobility and the rise of a "mass middle class," to mention just a few of the topics addressed by our research.(2)

Could it be that it is the social historians who are the true conservatives, in the sense of conservators of the nation's past, and the conservatives who are the ahistorical revisionists, trampling roughshod over the historical record? Could it be that it is social historians who take more seriously the ideals of citizenship and democracy, recording both the violations and the achievements of those ideals? Why are conservatives so indifferent, indeed actively opposed, to preserving the memory of popular struggles to fulfill the promise of American democracy?

The answer to this last question may be found in the social, economic, and political conditions of the 1980s and 1990s. These have been years of immense stress in American society, caused by a sweeping process of economic restructuring, compounded by the confusions of the end of the Cold War. …

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