Political Peoplehood: The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities

Political Peoplehood: The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities

by Rogers M. Smith


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For more than three decades, Rogers M. Smith has been one of the leading scholars of the role of ideas in American politics, policies, and history. Over time, he has developed the concept of “political peoples,” a category that is much broader and more fluid than legal citizenship, enabling Smith to offer rich new analyses of political communities, governing institutions, public policies, and moral debates.

This book gathers Smith’s most important writings on peoplehood to build a coherent theoretical and historical account of what peoplehood has meant in American political life, informed by frequent comparisons to other political societies. From the revolutionary-era adoption of individual rights rhetoric to today’s battles over the place of immigrants in a rapidly diversifying American society, Smith shows how modern America’s growing embrace of overlapping identities is in tension with the providentialism and exceptionalism that continue to make up so much of what many believe it means to be an American.

A major work that brings a lifetime of thought to bear on questions that are as urgent now as they have ever been, Political Peoplehood will be essential reading for social scientists, political philosophers, policy analysts, and historians alike.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226285092
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 09/11/2015
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 328
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Rogers M. Smith is the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, associate dean for social sciences, and chair of the Department of Political Science and the Penn Program on Democracy, Citizenship and Constitutionalism at the University of Pennsylvania.

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Political Peoplehood

The Roles of Values, Interests, and Identities

By Rogers M. Smith

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-28512-2


Stories of Peoplehood and the Spiral of Politics1

The enterprise of exploring stories of peoplehood rests on the view that interpretive studies of political ideas form a crucial part of the study of politics. Post–World War II American behavioral social science might almost be said to have originated in dismissals of this view in favor of philosophies of science that called for more attention to what political actors did rather than what they said, and for greater emphasis on quantitative measurement rather than on qualitative interpretation (Easton 1985, 137–41). Modern political science displays a wide variety of approaches, but some continue to think it unwise to give interpretive studies of ideas a prominent role in political science — even scholars in the relatively new school of "historical institutionalism" in which I place my work. Those judgments reflect understandings of science and politics that I respectfully regard as unduly narrow in important respects. Since readers should have the chance to decide for themselves, this chapter sketches the broader conception of politics presumed by all the ensuing ones.

I term that understanding the spiral of politics. Rather extravagantly, it purports to depict elements of how politics works, everywhere in the world and all through human history. But that sweeping claim is qualified by the acknowledgment that this depiction does not by itself answer any specific substantive questions about what drives political developments and what the consequences of political actions will be — the central empirical questions in political science. It is a mere heuristic framework, aimed at helping scholars to conceive better questions to ask and to judge the methods needed to answer them. I believe it is a framework that is particularly useful for aiding scholars to see how different kinds of research can connect with and inform each other, rather than proceeding in ways that are largely oblivious to or even hostile to each other. But even if the framework achieves all its purposes, it leaves the most important work still to be done. Still, it can suffice for its task here: indicating why it is reasonable to think that studying ideas, including stories of peoplehood, through qualitative interpretive methods is inescapable if we are to achieve rigorous analyses of political life.

Prior Approaches

The modern academy displays a rich array of analyses of narratives, stories, discourses, and ideas in many disciplines, including languages and literatures, communication and rhetoric, philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and political science. Many especially find inspiration in seminal modern works on communicative action by Jürgen Habermas (1985), on discourses and power by Michel Foucault (1979), and on social structures, contexts, and language by Pierre Bourdieu (1991). But while the arguments in the pages that follow are also influenced by these major thinkers (and closest in spirit to Bourdieu), they build more immediately on the works of American political science institutionalists who, as comparative politics scholar Vivien Schmidt has noted, have often been wary of "discourse analysis," fearing that such work is antiempirical and presents "reality as all words, whatever the deeds" (Schmidt 2008, 305).

That situation has begun to change in the last decade or so, but much more so in comparative political studies than in work focused on the United States (see, e.g., Béland and Cox 2011). To convey most clearly just what the spiral of politics view, informed by these kindred works, seeks to add to the study of politics, it will help to summarize two predecessors among the leading historical institutionalist studies of American politics: the approach to politics elaborated by Karen Orren and Stephen Skowronek in essays and their book The Search for American Political Development (2004), and Robert Lieberman's influential efforts to feature ideas within a historical institutionalist analytical framework (Lieberman 2002; 2011).

Orren, Skowronek, and Lieberman share with historical institutionalists generally, myself included, a skepticism that politics can best be studied on the model of classical physics, as a search for law-like regularities in political behavior that can explain political phenomena in all times and places. Most historical institutionalists believe that any such behavioral "laws" have to be formulated at so high a level of generality that they shed only faint light on specific political developments. Such scholars instead call attention to "the possibility that supposedly universal effects in fact only hold under particular circumstances," because they expect many specific types of political behavior to vary substantially in different historical political contexts (Pierson and Skocpol 2002, 699). They find support in, for example, the work of the multidisciplinary scholars who studied economic behavior in different societies by asking people to participate in various games, such as offering or accepting cash drawn from a researcher-provided pie. The patterns of choice varied widely across the different communities, in ways the researchers concluded had to be explained by varying local customary practices and economic structures (Henrich et al. 2005). Similarly, historical institutionalists think it is essential to understand how political life is structured in different contexts in order to understand the patterns of political behavior characteristic of specific times and places in any depth.

But unlike discourse analysts, Orren and Skowronek argue that to grasp how politics is structured, we should attend centrally not to ideas or discourses as much as to institutions. Ideas are not absent; these coauthors define institutions as organizations that are "carriers of ideas," in that they have purposes, establish norms and rules, assign roles to participants, and also have recognized boundaries (Orren and Skowronek 2004, 82–85). But Orren and Skowronek insist that institutions still "are not ideas," and they urge scholars to focus on institutions and their interactions much more than on the ideas the institutions transmit (83). Orren and Skowronek observe that whenever we study politics, we always deal with populations that have preexisting institutions of economic production and distribution, social institutions for marriage, families, cultural life, and institutions of governance, among others. They contend that these institutions, including the ideas they "carry," do most of the work of generating the aims, powers, and oppositions of political actors.

Their examples show that Orren and Skowronek believe that political coalitions, united in their policy aims, are formed out of the sense of goals, capacities, and conflicts that existing institutional arrangements foster among various political actors and groups. Those political coalitions — such as proponents and opponents of slavery in pre–Civil War America — compete to gain control of governing institutions, chiefly in the United States the three branches of the federal government, as well as the state and local governments. When coalitions acquire sufficient control over governing institutions to resolve policy issues enduringly in their favor, as when antislavery forces captured the Congress and the presidency via elections, then defeated the Southern states militarily, and then enacted the Thirteenth Amendment banning slavery, Orren and Skowronek deem significant political development to have occurred (136–43). But it is development rooted in aims resulting from preexisting institutional arrangements, in this case the economic and social practices and laws governing slavery, and it is development realized primarily through the actions and interactions of governing institutions.

Orren and Skowronek call these frequently conflictual interactions "intercurrence," and they contend that it is generally intercurrence that produces significant changes in governing authority (17, 113–18). As a result, they depict the battle over slavery by focusing less directly on economic interests, ideologies, or social movements, important as those were in shaping the actors controlling governing institutions, and more immediately on the ways in which the US Congress and the presidency opposed the state institutions of the Confederacy. Those struggles over slavery then gave way, in their view, to a contest pitting Congress, in the control of radical Republicans, first against the presidency of Andrew Johnson, then for a longer time against a conservative judiciary. Congress and the courts differed on how far other laws and practices should change after slavery had been constitutionally banned. This was the battle of Reconstruction, which Orren and Skowronek believe the judiciary won, backed by a coalition opposed to change, over proponents of greater racial equality (135–39).

Note that in this analysis, there is little sustained attention to ideas. Political actors and coalitions have goals, policy preferences, and normative commitments, but these are presented as relatively straightforward expressions of institutionally grounded commitments. Persons socialized within the economic, social, and legal institutions of slaveholding generally pursued proslavery goals. Those socialized in wage labor institutions generally pursued antislavery goals. Each side made arguments for its positions, but Orren and Skowronek do not contend that understanding those arguments is vital for understanding their conflicts, or slavery and Reconstruction developments more generally. Nor do they reject such research, and Skowronek in particular has since paid more attention to ideas (e.g., Skowronek 2006). But their earlier, highly influential formulations of their framework did not urge or elaborate extensive analysis of ideas.

Over time, Robert Lieberman has given ideas a more prominent place in his version of historical institutionalism than either Orren and Skowronek or he previously did (Lieberman 2002; 2011; cf. Lieberman 1998, 11). Arguing that "neither ideas nor institutions can rightly claim priority in an account that purports to explain significant change," Lieberman has proposed an approach focused on three "clusters": governing institutions (legislatures, executives, courts, bureaucracies); their broader organizational environment, including political parties and advocacy groups; and prevalent "ideological and cultural repertoires that organize and legitimate political discourse" (Lieberman 2002, 703, 709). These three clusters, Lieberman contended, generate "incentives and opportunities" and define "repertoires of legitimate moves for political actors," in ways that may produce "stability" or change-inducing "friction" over public policies (703). Those conflicts can lead political actors to "find new ways to define and advance their aims," and often they lead to compromises that move institutions and policies in partly novel directions (704).

Lieberman has used this framework to illuminate how and why pro–civil rights American legislators enacted laws in the 1960s that seemed to embody color-blind ideology, in response to "friction" between opponents and defenders of de jure segregation. But many racial egalitarians soon felt impelled by the logistics of administering those laws and by advocacy group pressures to adopt race-conscious measures to realize their goals. This shift then prompted them to elaborate new ideational defenses of those policies (2002, 705–8; 2011, 218–22).

Lieberman has also come to stress over time that political actors must build coalitions to capture governing institutions and shape policies (Lieberman 2011, 214–15). But his approach has remained structured in terms of clusters of ideas, politically active organizations, and governmental institutions. Although this framework commendably treats ideas as political phenomena worth studying in their own right, I have worried that it can suggest that ideologies are "things that somehow exist apart from the parties, statutes, governmental agencies, and other governmental institutions" that they are acknowledged to shape (Smith 2006, 98). Consequently, contrary to Lieberman's intent, his approach may not escape the very real danger he has perceived in much ideational research; ideas can appear to be "free-floating bits of knowledge and conjecture, detached from considerations of structure and power" (Lieberman 2002, 700).

The Spiral of Politics

The framework employed here, elaborated in fig. 1.1, is indebted to Orren, Skowronek, and Lieberman, as well as to the extensive and varied modern literatures on ideas and discourses. Out of the conviction that the latter can strengthen the former, the spiral explicitly features the possibility that the formulation of ideas, including stories of peoplehood, can be a crucial stage in political development.

Like previous historical institutionalist approaches (and as Bourdieu has particularly stressed among discourse analysts), this framework presumes that political developments always take place in prestructured environments. In the spiral, these environments are depicted as composed of intersecting and often mutually constitutive contexts generating and shaping human political life. These include contexts comprised of human institutions, understood as formal governmental and nongovernmental organizations; practices, understood as customary forms of behavior; and ideas of many sorts, including empirical beliefs and normative values. Such human contexts can be categorized as economic, technological, social and ethnocultural, political and geopolitical, biophysical and psychological, and more. Other contexts include our broader physical environment, which contains forces that shape human practices and can bring about change via natural disasters and other events. These contexts are diagrammed as Stage 1 for heuristic purposes, though most persist, often with alterations, throughout the spiral the diagram portrays.

In Stage 2, the stage that is most pertinent for the concerns of this book, the framework highlights the fact that political actors shaped by these contexts inherit, modify, and elaborate ideas to guide political conduct. These ideas include notions of their own and other human identities; conceptions of interests, including but not limited to economic interests; ideologies and philosophies of how the world works and should work; and hopes, fears, affections, aversions, and aspirations.

In principle, the spiral of politics framework is agnostic about whether actors' political ideas are dictated by one or more of these prior contexts in deterministic fashion. But featuring this stage does signal a responsibility for scholars to consider the possibility that sometimes, political actors may do more than merely pursue the ideas and values in which they were socialized. They may engage in what behavioral analysts of public opinion and elections, including Philip Converse and Hans Noel, have called "creative synthesis" (Converse 1964, 211; Noel 2012, 157–58). They may display significant agency in the imaginative ways they reformulate inherited conceptions and elaborate fresh ones into ideational accounts that could not be predicted by grasping any or all of their preexisting contexts, and their new ideas may prove politically consequential. Although far from a champion of qualitative work, the rational choice scholar William Riker acknowledged this possibility in one respect: he called the task of crafting strategically effective discourses an "art" that he termed "heresthetics" (Riker 1986). Many others, myself included, have suggested that not just strategies for achieving ends, but also ends themselves, may be significantly reconceptualized as actors respond creatively to the problems they face (e.g., Smith 1992, 5, 16–30; Carstensen 2011, 156–62).

The central claim I make on behalf of stories of peoplehood is that in order to define their ends and to achieve their ends, political actors do forge such reformulated ideas of political groups, communities, and identities, and their new stories conveying those ideas are often politically consequential. This claim applies to all political actors and all groups that are acting politically, asserting their authority against that of rival government agencies and other associations. The predominance of nation-states in the modern world does mean that stories of political peoplehood are often advanced either as patriotic narratives of such nation-states or as accounts of self-perceived minority nations within them who aspire to greater autonomy or independence. When not focused on rival narratives valorizing existing nation-states, much research on stories of peoplehood concerns resistant groups such as Scottish nationalists (e.g., Leith and Soule 2011, 104–5), Palestinians (Matar 2011, 1, 17), and Catalonians (Miley 2007, 3, 23–25).


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Table of Contents


ONE / Stories of Peoplehood and the Spiral of Politics,
TWO / A Theory of the Politics of People Building,
THREE / Narrative Structures and the Politics of Peoplehood (with Meral Ugur Cinar),
FOUR / Personal Stories and Communal Stories in the Politics of Peoplehood,
FIVE / Individual Rights in American Stories of Peoplehood,
SIX / Contesting Meaning and Membership in American Peoplehood,
SEVEN / From Providentialism and Exceptionalism to a Politics of Moderate Peoplehood,
EIGHT / The American "Promiseland" and Mexican Immigrants,
NINE / Multiple Citizenships and the Legacies of Imperialism,

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