Hidden American Power: The Laissez-Faire State Revisited

I won’t say that I’ve had difficulty deciding what to write about for this first post. I will say, though, that I had a conversation this afternoon that solidified things for me. So, what do I want to write about? America, that’s what.

My inspiration conversation was a bit one-sided, I should say. I’ve found myself feeling a bit like an anthropologist during my first few weeks in Blacksburg. This is my first time in a completely new place, so perhaps that’s how it always goes—observing, tentatively participating, being completely baffled by something foreign, and starting the whole process all over again. That’s what I was doing this afternoon as I experienced large-scale college football for the first time. I listened to the people around me, politely nodded, and dutifully wore maroon. One of the bits of listening I did was the conversation in question, where I learned that Americans just want to do what they want to do, that we are a freedom-loving people who have a spirit that no foreign body or a government that seems to be expanding its bounds can quash. We have a Constitution, we have our Founding Fathers, we are free.

All through the potato chips and kick-off this conversation sat in the back of my mind. Even before this the careful craftiness of the assigned readings struck me. I started with William J. Novak’s article The Myth of the “Weak” American State before continuing onto our text, The Pursuit of History by John Tosh. While reading Tosh, I kept highlighting and taking notes, saying things to myself along the lines of “Wow, that theory is exactly the practice I just read about in Novak!”

Novak’s argument focuses on two points that the Tosh reading complements: first, the fact that there is a collective social memory that defines the American “state” as unique from any others—this “American exceptionalism,” as political scientist Stephen Skowronek calls it,[1] claims that America exists as an underdeveloped state unlike those found in, especially, Europe. Second, that the frame of study through which historians explored American statehood in the past has been limiting and hasn’t quite fit the American situation.

To my new friend this afternoon, America stands as a beacon of freedom in the midst of oppression. As Tosh pointed out, this is the result of social memory fixating on a foundation myth in which our brave and forward-thinking forefathers threw off the shroud of English despotism and created a nation that shied away from big government, a government that existed in part to ensure the liberties of its new citizens.[2] In my opinion, the American foundation myth isn’t wholly negative—it plays a large role in the positive nationalism that defines our state. It gives Americans just that, a foundation upon which to base their national identity. It’s the blind belief in the infallibility of this founding that can cause dangerous nearsightedness. As Tosh points out, robust nationalism can be responsible for repression and suppression in many negative ways.[3] Was this form of nationalism responsible for the development of a belief that America was, historically, a “weak” state? In part, perhaps. In another way, the historiography of American statehood was equally at fault.

The most interesting interplay between the Tosh and Novak works, though, comes when you look at the aspect of Novak’s piece that addresses how American statehood has been studied in the past. In his opinion, the development of the American state had been inappropriately studied through the same lens as European states. More importantly, through a lens that was developed during a time when European states were seen as “corrupt,” despotic, and totalitarian.[4] There simply wasn’t one clear way to compare the development of the American state when considered within the same analytical framework of 19th-century European statehood.[5] As Tosh discusses, though, history is an extremely nuanced field of study and draws heavily on other disciplines.[6] To define History as a humanity, a cultural subject, of a social science deprives it in one way or another of its multifacetedness.[7] Novak seemingly agrees, consulting theories of modern sociologists and political scientists in their application to this discussion. Indeed, it is sociologist Michael Mann who most succinctly explains the difference between the “strong” American state and the totalitarian European states that historians so long tried to differentiate from. “The American state,” he says, “…is organized against despotic power.”[8] This point is precisely where the issue of a “strong” versus “weak” American state is explicable—through revisionist history developed and studied by newer practitioners, the historic examples of despotic European states can be set aside, and the literal and implied reach of American government explored.[9] Again according to Mann, the strength of the American state lies in its “infrastructural power,” which is easily overlooked since it is horizontally dispersed throughout many aspects of society.[10] By shedding the weights of tradition, that faith in the power of precedent and respect for what has come before, these historians are able to more fully discuss the roles that power has played in American statehood.[11]

After experiencing my first Virginia Tech football game, I finally understand the concept of Hokie Nation. I understand why everyone proudly walks around with turkey-like-but-not birds emblazoned on their chests. The collective social memory of the Tech diaspora is strong enough to convince seemingly sane people to stand in a stadium and do the Hokie Pokie. Similarly, American belief in the laissez-faire mentality of the founding fathers has influenced centuries of citizens, to the point that deeply entrenched peripheral power is lesser than a hierarchical, totalitarian type of power. Until recently, the history of the study of history indicates that historians were approaching this topic through a limited window, failing to fully grasp the content with which they were working. Modern historians have teamed with other disciplines to begin approaching this in a new and unique way, and have offered alternative theories that, perhaps, better highlight the nuances of American statehood.

 

 

[1] William J. Novak, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” American Historical Review (June 2008), 756.

[2] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History (London: Longman/Pearson, 2010), 4.

[3] Tosh, 17.

[4] Novak, 754-756.

[5] Novak, 761.

[6] Tosh, 52-53.

[7] Tosh, 52-53.

[8] Novak, 763.

[9] Novak, 757.

[10] Novak, 763.

[11] Tosh, 13-14.

1 Comment

Filed under Historical Methods Assignment

One Response to Hidden American Power: The Laissez-Faire State Revisited

  1. What a terrific post! Who knew that experiencing one’s first Hokie football game as an anthropologist would bring the nuances of American exceptionalism and the complexities of historical interpretation into focus like this? The Hokie Pokie will never be the same!

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