The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

A Case Study in Comparative History: Populism in Germany and America

KENNETH BARKIN

In a recent symposium on populism, J. Rogers Hollingsworth suggested that historians go beyond its leaders to study rank-and-file Populists for answers to the persistent and perplexing questions about the movement.1 That course may well prove productive, and no doubt it should be pursued. But another line of inquiry which holds at least as great promise for enlarging our understanding of populism lies in the comparative approach. Bogged down as we are in disputes among the movement's interpreters about the radicalism of the time, and even about the social backgrounds of the interpreters themselves, this may be the correct moment to turn to a comparative approach. The kinds of fresh insights and suggestive questions that can be drawn from intelligent comparisons might well free us from the constrictions of the present terms of the debate over populism. Comparative history can also give meaning to events and currents that, from a more traditional focus, require no commentary.

Critics of the comparative approach complain that it neglects historical uniqueness while exaggerating superficial resemblances. But such objections are valid only in the case of inferior products; for the best comparative history, as both Marc Bloch and G. R. Elton have observed, draws attention to differences rather than similarities. Research in comparative history may ultimately enhance theories of America's uniqueness; more important, the nature of America's distinctiveness will be precisely defined. At the very least, the comparative method allows us to test the validity of traditional hypotheses. At its

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