American Political Thought: An Invitation, Ken Kersch

Reviewed by Loren Goldman


Ken Kersch's book is meant to be a companion to college courses in American political thought, yet it also stands on its own as a compendious overview of the subject. A substantive introduction and conclusion bookend seven chronologically organized chapters spanning colonial settlement to the present day, each of which closes with questions for further study. Instead of focusing on “great” thinkers—the organizing thread of Richard Hofstadter's The American Political Tradition, for example—Kersch surveys a panoply of voices within each his historical period. In his introduction to American Political Thought, Kersch presents liberalism and civic republicanism as the two dominant perspectives that inform American thought, and he pithily discusses tensions, complications, and refinements of these broad conceptual families. At the same time, he attends to various nationalisms—religious and secular, gendered and racialized—that fall under the aegis of “ascriptive Americanism” (p. 20), in Rogers Smith's phrase, and that problematize the more abstract conceptual stories told about this political tradition.

The substantive chapters move briskly, each running roughly 30 pages and covering roughly 30 years of history, with an impressive array of thinkers and themes included. Chapter 2 concerns the longest temporal span, from European colonization to the early republic, with a heavy emphasis on the Puritan legacy as well as the divergent visions of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton as framing devices, drawing out the “multivalent—and sometimes contrapuntal—character” (p. 53) of the ideas of the era. Chapter 3, on antebellum political thought, presents the populist tendencies of Jacksonian America as a response to the antidemocratic exclusions of the founding generation. At the same time, Kersch also emphasizes the development of sovereign individuality in American transcendentalism, pro-slavery thinkers and abolitionism, Christian moral reform, westward expansion, women's rights (unfortunately all too briefly), and nascent industrial capitalism. Slavery and abolition move to the center of discussion in Chapter 4, which covers secession, the Civil War, and Reconstruction and points forward to the antiregulation jurisprudence of the Lochner era.

Chapter 5 steps into the twentieth century, emphasizing the nation's transformation in light of greater industrialization, mass democracy, and race and gender and providing acute treatments of pragmatism, progressivism, Black political thought, and revanchist white nativism. Chapter 6 turns to the New Deal Liberal order, foregrounding centralizing transformations in federal power and stressing the recalibration of thinking about race and welfare in light of changing domestic and international politics, as well as the identification of consensus as the supposed core of an American way of life. Chapter 7 examines the consequences of the activist New Deal state as it played out in the Civil Rights Movement, the New Left, and modern American conservatism. Chapter 8, finally, takes up postmaterialist movements, identity politics, third way (neo)liberalism, and the New Right, among other more recent developments.

Kersch's conclusion draws together the book's myriad strands to describe American political thought as “porous and mutable,” defined by certain touchstones such as questions of identity and the distribution of power, with a cognizable heritage rooted in liberalism, republicanism, and Christian theology, but nevertheless always “alive and changing” (p. 218).

It is easy to cavil some of Kersch's choices: there is, for instance, only one mention of Montesquieu (p. 11), while four full paragraphs are dedicated to Leo Strauss (pp. 14–16); likewise, salutary and unexpected presences such as Helen and Scott Nearing (pp. 202–203) and DJ Kool Herc (p. 222) make other absences (like Benjamin Tucker, the eugenics movement, and Gloria Steinem) all the more surprising. Such quibbles, however, do not detract from Kersch's achievement of having written an extraordinary survey in light of the nation's rich, messy, and continuing historical development. Subtitled “an invitation,” this work is not intended as a comprehensive treatment, but a true companion for thinking across the grain of American political thought. It deserves to be read by scholars and students alike.

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