YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

February 28, 2016

“The dangers of apathy”

From the Sam L Slick collection of South American posters

From the Sam L Slick collection of South American posters

I am reading an eye-opening book on US political history by two Cornell professors that is literally blowing my mind.

Glenn C. Altschuler and Stuart M. Blumin’s Rude Republic: Americans and their politics in the 19th Century (Princeton UP, 2000) seriously contradicts what I had been taught in graduate school. According to my dissertation adviser, Alexander Saxton in his course on American mass media, American political culture drastically changed from an 18th C. “politics of deference” to a 19th C. “mass politics” (the latter implying protofascism or communism?)

On the contrary, the Cornellians argue that 1. The Constitution was an aristocratic document that discouraged democratic participation; and 2. The politics of deference persisted more than had been documented until the Civil War direct involvement of the American populace in matters of life and death and preservation of the Union; and even after the tumultuous period following the Civil War, most Americans remained detached from politics (preferring respectability and separation from dirty, increasingly urbanized machine politics), a condition that they hint persists today, implying that it was a struggle against apathy to gain support for the New Deal, the New Frontier, and the Great Society.

I have looked for reviews, but the tiny number I found distorted their arguments. None mentioned their opening salvo that the Constitution was “aristocratic,” discouraging political participation; and all suggested that mass political involvement was intense (perhaps focusing on the Civil War).

I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it explains a lot; e.g. conservatives produced a Midwestern radio series “The Dangers of Apathy” that I used to play on Pacifica to make fun of the Right (I regret this now); Watters’ World on Fox’s The Factor displays the ignorance of young people regarding knowledge of US leaders and their issues; both political parties appeal to “family”: the social democratic Left tries to extend “the family” (the preoccupation of most Americans) so that it encompasses Big Government solutions to “income inequality,” while the conservative Right seeks to recover the patriarchal family to solve the problems of education and crime in minority neighborhoods; while all factions seek to unify Americans to defeat polarization in One Big [Familial] Union. (See https://clarespark.com/2013/09/17/the-illusion-of-national-unity/.)

(update 3-2-2016: I have finished  the book and found some sentences  worth quoting, as they emphasize the revisionist character of their research: “Political historians of the nineteenth century have augmented their tabulations of voter turnout with other evidence of popular political participation, especially in the party-directed campaigns that preceded presidential elections. What they have been less attentive to is the evidence of qualified participation and of outright rejection. They have, for the most part, heard the cheers but not the sneers, and have taken very little note of silence…Large numbers, we believe, embraced the institutions and rituals of self-rule hesitantly, limiting their political engagement to brief periods, distancing themselves from the wire pullers and office seekers who ran the parties to their own advantage, and resisting the intrustion of politics into the more sacred precincts of family, church, and community…Political engagement–increasingly partisan engagement–was for some a serious business, for others an amusement or temporary diversion, and for still others an intrusion. (p.270)”

In 2016, the tide seems to have turned.

Women's March on Duma, February Revolution 1917

Women’s March on Duma, February Revolution 1917

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