It's Rick Perlstein vs. Judith Stein in a Three Round Fight

Historians in the News
tags: Rick Perlstein

It's not 1975's Thrilla in Manila, but as intellectual fights go, it's about as good as it gets.  On one side is Judith Stein, a professional historian who teaches at the City University of New York.  On the other side is the popular historian, Rick Perlstein.  Both are experts in the history of the seventies.  Stein is celebrated for her 2010 book, Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s.  Perlstein is, of course, the author of Nixonland and The Invisible Bridge

Here is a sample of the debate, which is featured in Dissent.  It began with Stein's review of The Invisible Bridge:

Round 1:  Judith Stein

This is a book about character and culture, not politics and policy. It is a mélange of presidential biography and popular culture, which Perlstein believes mirror each other. In his previous Nixonland, Perlstein defined American politics between 1964 and 1972 as a battle between the resented and the resentful. This interpretation married Nixon’s personality with political culture. In Invisible Bridge, Perlstein argues that the traumas of Watergate, the end of postwar affluence, and the energy crisis deepened and multiplied the divisions of Nixonland: “The 1970s were throwing up so many new ways for Americans to disagree.” Material changes were not the source of new divisions. Falling wages, declining living standards, and unemployment are simply backdrops for the cultural issues Perlstein believes are salient.

Although Perlstein claims that both Nixon and Reagan created social divisions, causation is murky: Reagan’s life reveals “how Americans divide themselves from each other.” Divisions also lie in the nation’s DNA. “Americans, being Americans, had always found things to passionately disagree about.” But a different future is in the wings. The marriage between presidents and culture will be transformed. Reagan, once a divider, becomes a feel-good leader. Unlike Nixon, he possessed a sunny, serene demeanor. So, according to Perlstein, American culture in the age of Reagan was bathed in innocent, feel-good optimism. Perlstein previews this future, but it is not yet hegemonic. The years from 1973 through 1976 are not Reagan’s America, because after Watergate and Vietnam, possibilities opened up that Americans would recognize that they were not an exceptional people, that they had sinned and needed to begin anew. This possibility was nipped in the bud by the Bicentennial celebrations in 1976 and a growing Reagan-inspired culture of optimism and innocence.

Round 2:  Rick Perlstein's Response

There is room for all sorts of history, which is why I’m glad we have Judith Stein—a historian who writes from 30,000 feet, examining in omniscient voice the impersonal economic forces that help determine humans’ lifeworlds. Others, like me, examine history largely from the perspective of the consciousness of ordinary people, as a way of grasping what seemed politically possible and desirable in any given moment; where those possibilities came from and how they changed; and how the masters of the universe gained (or did not gain) consent from masses of Americans to remake the world in the way they preferred. My methodological ideal is best captured in the late British philosopher R.G. Collingwood’s The Idea of History (1946). Collingwood argued that the most valuable thing a historian provides is a foundation for the empathetic “re-experiencing” of the thought and feeling of people in the past. At the same time, grasping what a Marxist would call “consciousness” cannot be accomplished without a sense, as Stein notes, of “[m]aterial changes.” Which is why I also, despite what Stein claims, write that kind of history, too. You need both—and more.

I reviewed Stein’s book on the 1970s in 2010, calling it a “[h]ighly original illumination of how the American Century collapsed.” But I also complained about how “her account is jumbled by a lack of contextual empathy for a historical actor’s partial view of his or her times.” I’ll repeat that here. Stein would have us believe that people chose the politicians they did based on merely “concrete” reasons—the kind the historian can discern from 30,000 feet. In her chosen example of Jimmy Carter, liberals liked that he defeated George Wallace in the Florida primary; laborites liked him because he endorsed the Humphrey-Hawkins bill; et voila: victory. It’s the most reductionist formulation I’ve read from a professional historian in decades. It sees historical subjects as a neoclassical economist would: as perfectly rational actors.

But most voters don’t act that way—even the highly motivated, well-informed ones who vote as delegates to national political conventions.

Round 3:  Judith Stein's Reply

Perlstein conceives of politics as a form of psychological fulfillment: people voted for Carter’s “invisible bridge” or Reagan’s “invisible bridge” in 1976. (Evidently, the nominated GOP candidate Gerald Ford did not offer a bridge.) This is a very pinched view of reality, a kind of postmodern false consciousness. And his examples of the three delegates at the 1976 GOP convention do not support his notion. In the book, he offered a different but equally vacant explanation. People voted for Carter for “spiritual,” not political, reasons. Were union voters more spiritual than nonunion voters? Poor people more spiritual than rich people? Such questions never come up because Perlstein moves on to the next figure of speech. Any individual may have a bundle of motivations for her ballot-box choice. But in 1976 the numbers revealed that the electorate returned to class voting. Carter did best among working-class voters and Ford among the more affluent. One should at least consider that the mundane effects of the recession of 1974-1975 had something to do with these results before reaching for media-infused psychological accounts.

Finally, Perlstein says that he was not explicit about his “theoretical aims” because he is writing for a popular, not scholarly audience. It is not a question of theory. And writing for popular audiences is not so different from writing historical monographs. Clarity is a virtue in both genres.

comments powered by Disqus