Monday, June 7, 2010

Dispatches from the Historical Society Conference, Day 3: Plenary Session on America's Enduring Two-Party System

Randall Stephens

The Historical Society's 2010 conference came to a close at George Washington University with a final plenary session on Saturday night dealing with the nature of America's two-party system. (Listen to the audio file embedded below. It will take a moment to load. The quality is not the greatest, but the words can be made out OK.) Heather Cox Richardson (University of Massachusetts Amherst) introduced Michael Barone (American Enterprise Institute), who spoke on “The Enduring Character of America’s Political Parties in Times of Continual Change.” These two parties, ancient in the world of modern politics, have long diverged sharply, said Barone. Some deeply consistent themes have defined the Democratic and Republican parties since the mid-19th century. The two distinct parties represent very different constituencies and have, since the 19th-century, upheld rather distinct political ideas. For instance, Barone described the outsider aspect of the Democratic Party, which tended to represent immigrants, saloon keepers, and many on the margins. The party of Roosevelt, populated by interest groups and factions, Barone remarked, lacked the cohesion of the Republican Party.

Commenters Sean Wilentz (Princeton University) and Leo Ribuffo (George Washington University) both praised Barone's extensive knowledge of political history, but each had serious critiques of Barone's key arguments. Ribuffo thought Barone overemphasized the differences between the parties. The two parties were, argued Ribuffo, less like a donkey and an elephant and more like kissing cousins, even incestuous cousins at times. Wilentz argued that Barone had not paid appropriate attention to class. Wilentz and Ribuffo also questioned Barone's insider-outsider thesis. The white democracy of the South hardly fit that pattern. At other points the commenters took issue with the continuities Barone saw.

The lively discussion was a fitting end to an intellectually engaging, vibrant conference that gave attendees much to ponder about the state of the profession and the future of historical inquiry.

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