Friday, March 16, 2007

Smith critiques APD but still celebrates Bensel in review of The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century

The American Ballot Box in the Mid-Nineteenth Century, (Cambridge University Press, 2004) by Richard F. Bensel is reviewed by Adam I. P. Smith, University College, London at Reviews in History, maintained by the Institute of Historical Research, London. Smith's interesting review and Bensel's response can't be posted here in full, so here is just a taste. This will be of interest not only to election scholars, political historians and the many Bensel fans, but to legal historians interested in the relationship between APD and history. Notwithstanding his criticism of APD, Smith finds important contributions due to Bensel's APD-based methodology. Smith begins:
The American Ballot Box is the latest of a series of important books by Richard Bensel, one of the leading practitioners of ‘American Political Development’ (APD), a subfield within the discipline of political science in the United States. Two other leading APD scholars, Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek, recently published what amounts to a manifesto in which they defined their subfield as the search for ‘connections between politics in the past and politics in the present’. It aspires, Orren and Skowronek argued, to build ‘theories of politics that are more attentive than others available to specifically historical processes of change and the political issues that those processes pose’ (1). Although within the politics of American political science, APD scholars are methodologically allied to comparativists, the subfield is concerned, as its name implies, only with the past politics of the United States. When they speak and write about their methodology, APD scholars have two negative reference groups in mind. The first are their rational-choice theorist departmental colleagues to whom they feel the need to defend the entire project of historicizing past politics. The second group are historians, who, in the imagination of political scientists, are generally theoretically impoverished and narrow in focus. Political historians in history departments, for most of whom the ‘search for patterns’—that is, the identification of what is distinctive and what common about historical phenomena, and the effort to classify and identify linkages and processes of change—is the basic aim of their research, may well raise a quizzical eye-brow at such claims. Notwithstanding the slightly paranoid tendency—elaborated most fully by Orren and Skowrenk—to provide an intellectual ‘creation myth’ for APD which largely ignores the contribution that historians have made to the study of past politics, political scientists like Bensel have in fact made a substantial contribution to the revival of political history in the last fifteen years or so.

In The American Ballot Box, Bensel tackles one of the critical questions preoccupying a generation of political historians: how to explain the apparently very high levels of political participation in the Civil War era. From the perspective of a historian, Bensel’s approach to this familiar issue neatly illuminates some of the distinctive strengths and weaknesses of APD.

The crux of the analytical problem Bensel tackles is the extent to which the mid-nineteenth century electorate responded rationally to public policy choices. Were voters informed and engaged in the political process, weighing up party platforms and listening critically to stump speeches? Did this era of near-universal white manhood suffrage represent, in the words of Walter Dean Burnham, a ‘lost Atlantis’ of participatory democracy? Or did popular partisanship merely reflect ethno-cultural identities? The ‘New Political History’ of the 1960s and 1970s was essentially an application to the study of politics of the new social history with its quantitative methodology. To the new political historians, the mass parties of the 1830s onwards were coalitions of ethnic and religious groups in American society. This ethnocultural approach fitted well with the ‘critical election’ theory that influenced a generation of political historians—and despite recent challenges displays a remarkable resilience (2). Historians like Joel Silbey painted a compelling picture of nineteenth-century politics in which voters’ partisanship remained fixed over many years until a ‘critical election’ signified a realignment of the electorate. For Silbey and many other historians, the purpose of electioneering was essentially to get known supporters to the polls (3). Elections were determined by whichever side did the best job of getting the vote out....
In methodological terms, Bensel’s contribution is that he tackles this old question using a surprisingly under-used source; the testimony from witnesses at special hearings conducted by Congress into disputed elections....Using this particularly rich source base, Bensel has created a more detailed and colourful description of the practice of voting than any other recent historian. Since, unlike most historians who have tackled this topic, Bensel is content to rely only on this one type of evidence, he does not concern himself with the campaigns but only with polling day itself. If this seems an unduly narrow focus, it is also a welcome corrective to most of the rest of the literature, which, because it draws on campaign ephemera and newspapers, tends to assume that the electoral process on polling day was a reflection and culmination of the preceding campaign. Bensel, in contrast, draws attention to such factors as the physical setting of the polling place, the sociological composition of the crowds, and the laws regulating the elections as factors that might have influenced voters....
Bensel’s roots in APD, rather than in a history department, are evident in the self-confidence with which he makes a bold argument on the basis of a narrow source base. But his familiarity with the theoretical literature on democratization generates some extremely valuable insights....Bensel might have written an even more valuable book if he had drawn more explicitly on the literature on comparative democratization....The most important contribution this book makes is to add weight to the view that nineteenth-century American democracy was fundamentally different in its underlying assumptions from that of the twentieth century. It was not pluralist but was based on a very clear concept of communal identity.

For the full review (recommended) click here. For Bensel's response, click here.