Wednesday, January 12, 2011

James J. Connolly's "An Elusive Unity"

James J. Connolly is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Middletown Studies at Ball State University and the author of The Triumph of Ethnic Progressivism: Urban Political Culture in Boston, 1900–1925.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, An Elusive Unity: Urban Democracy and Machine Politics in Industrializing America, and reported the following:
Page 99 gets to the nub of An Elusive Unity’s argument about U.S. urban politics as well as any single page could. The book traces American efforts to reconcile democracy and diversity, a process that unfolded principally in cities during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The 99th page falls in a chapter examining class and city politics. It features an 1886 episode in which Chicago’s United Labor Party (ULP) hurled a series of insults at the Chicago Citizens Association (CCA). The CCA had proposed that the two groups cooperate in a push to clean up local politics. The ULP responded dismissively, implying that the well-heeled men who headed the CCA cheated on their taxes and had a propensity for bribing public officials. The labor leaders also called for stricter enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, suggesting that it was a subject on which the men in charge of the CCA might well provide detailed information.

The point, of course, was that labor activists were the real reformers. Leading businessmen complained about political corruption, high taxes, and municipal inefficiency not because they had the interests of ordinary people at heart, but because they wanted to increase their own power and profits. Only labor spoke for the true people.

The ULP’s belief that it had cornered the market on civic virtue in Chicago highlights a key point of the book. As late as the 1880s, many, if not most Americans remained uncomfortable with political pluralism—the idea that public life was comprised of contending groups, each with claims and interests that could be legitimately accommodated. Labor, in Chicago and elsewhere, would soon learn the hard way that the ideal of a unified people worked poorly in polyglot urban settings.

Still labor’s aggression was one of the factors that prompted reformers to think of public life in more pluralistic terms. They accepted the idea that politics could legitimately involve give and take among competing interests, an approach pioneered by nineteenth-century party politicians. But full-throated expressions of pluralism would never earn unanimous support in American public discourse. Even today there exists on both ends of the political spectrum a pronounced unwillingness to imagine one’s opponents as having legitimate ideas or interests.
Read more about An Elusive Unity at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue