Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 1996

Department 1

Civil War Era Studies

Department 2



Americans have had a highly complex love-hate relationship with politics, especially with political ideology. Recent books on the state of American politics underscore the resentment Americans feel at governments that have grown bloated and indifferent. And the groundswell of complaints about congressional "gridlock" and budgetary "train wrecks" seems to show that Americans are particularly impatient with political ideologues who insist on letting their philosophies, economics, or values get in the way of consensus and problem solving. Yet tumbling out of every newspaper, radio, and television, now as never before in this generation, is evidence of Americans' possession by political polarizations defined by some as "culture wars" and by others as "diversity," by some as "pluralism" and others as a "dictatorship of virtue."

The truth is that despite our supposed contempt for politics we are a passionately political people and derive our identity as a nation from not a single race, religion, ethnicity, or even language but from a set of political documents (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and political principles (a highly democratic form of republic). Almost as if we fear the potentially destabilizing effect of ideological conflict on a nation held together only by ideas, we take refuge in a paradoxical denial of our passion for politics. We pretend, as Louis Hartz pretended in his memorable The Liberal Tradition in America (1955), that all Americans are really united in a common liberal consensus. Or, if we are historians of antebellum America, we pretend, following the lead of Lee Benson in The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy (1961), that American political conflicts have been the product of ethno-cultural considerations rather than ideology. [excerpt]