Ideas, Interests, and Institutions
How are we to understand the changing shape of American politics? What approach or approaches hold out the greatest hope of yielding genuine understanding of change? And because change has to be identified by reference to what has not changed, or changed less, the question also requires us to consider stability and continuity. The simplest-seeming political questions are the ones that can embarrass a political "scientist" most: How do things happen? What makes things happen?
The more seriously we take such elemental questions, the more it seems that humility is the appropriate posture. Political events swirling around us may be a recurring tide. But again, they may be some deeper current taking us in a particular direction. Or they may just be a passing ripple in our particular eddy of place and time. The vividness of personally living in the here and now -- our inescapable presentism -- is a standing invitation to mistake the ripple for the currents or the tide.
As if this were not enough, we are asking about ways to understand not simply the interplay of change and continuity but the dynamics that underlie such transformations. The term "dynamics" comes from the Greek word for power or force. To study the dynamics of American politics means to try to understand the inner workings of change, to seek to figure out "what makes things happen" ( Schattschneider, 1960:vii).1 Do we then verge on the preposterous arrogance of hoping to explain how history works?
The approaches discussed in this book do not presume to explain how history works. At most they offer successive and provisional approximations to partial knowledge. It is honest, perhaps liberating, to admit that our capacities to perceive and understand might not be up to the task of fully accounting for transformations in American politics. Humility involves accepting that likelihood, while still trying to advance our knowledge and understanding.