Coming to Agreement: The state of urban public life in American History

by contributing editor Daniel London

We live, Daniel Rogers tells us, in an Age of Fracture – and judging by the headlines and your Twitter feed, it is easy to agree. Our debates seem to be characterized by an incapacity, and often an unwillingness, to find common ground across economic, cultural, and political lines. We are faced with a classic question of political theory: under what conditions and to what extent can a community defined by deep pluralism agree on the forms, functions, and outcomes of public life? Intellectual historians can open our public sphere to more open-ended deliberations by examining societies faced with similar dilemmas, contextualizing and de-naturalizing our often rigid assumptions about what constitutes our interest and who belongs within the circle of ‘we’. Unfortunately, an overview of extant research into one relevant terrain for such inquiries –the late 19th and early 20th century American city – reveals how much work is needed before such ground can be fruitfully explored for our own purposes.


George Bellows, “New York” (1911) (Wikimedia)

Why should we look to the turn of the last century for historical insights, when our dilemmas seem so clearly a product of the Post-War era – of the decline of the New Deal order and the rise of conservatism? Books such as The Origins of the Urban Crises and Running Steel, Running America have been invaluable for explaining the racially-riven metropolitan landscapes we have inherited. Intellectual historians have helped us better understand the varied strands which shape so much of contemporary thinking, from Chicago-School economics to Evangelical Christianity to Geertzian anthropology. However, we should not be too quick to exclusively rely upon the recent past for historical insights. A growing number of historians argue that the post-war era was an exceptional period in global history in which economic growth, full employment, redistributive policies, and decreasing inequality went hand in hand. As these conditions fade in our lifetimes, the New Deal (or in the European case, the Social-Democratic consensus) increasingly appears as a mere interruption of a longer Gilded Age. As we return to the conditions of the 1880s, the historiographical value of the late 19th and early 20th centuries begins to change – not as mere preludes to “modern” conditions, but as modernity itself.

This insight applies to the social characteristics of the fin de siècle, as well as its economic dimensions. Many of the issues cities faced in those decades – growing inequality, immigration, multiculturalism –are in many ways more akin to those facing our own urban centers than those of the 1950s or even the 1970s. Concerns over inter-group cooperation and trust in trying economic conditions, so much the focus of contemporary social theorists and cultural critics, are prefigured by the conceptions of self, community, and political economy developed in the works of Jane Addams, Alain Locke, and George Hebert Meade. And the way new forms of communication and reportage influenced how urbanites defined public problems and solutions should be of great interest to those concerned with the effects of the Internet on reinforcing or loosening our prejudices.

It is for all these reasons that understanding and explaining the public life of cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries holds so much promise for gaining insight around contemporary deliberative challenges. Unfortunately, while the operation and development of the public sphere has been extensively theorized, the state of historical research into this sphere’s urban iterations remains relatively uneven and unsystematic. You can get a sense of this by a quick overview of three major interpretive schools that have addressed this subject, all of which hold vastly different conclusions as to the origins and outcomes of urban deliberations during this time.

Works in the first school argue that major elements of Progressive-era statecraft (at least its most Social-Democratic elements) derived from successful cross-class mobilizations to uncover a ‘common good’ through public-sphere deliberations. Class-bridging dialogues in settlement houses, the socializing effects of newspaper publicity, the efforts by public intellectuals to break down divisions between the academy and the polis, and shared exposure to negative social consequences within the dense confines of the city all helped formerly divided groups uncover and clarify shared problems, interest, and goals. At its best, urban life appears in these works as a fluid sphere in which class, ethnic, and religious identities were overlapping and in flux. John T. Fairfield’s The Public and its Possibilities: Triumphs and Tragedies in the American City and David P. Thelen’s The New Citizenship; Origins of Progressivism in Wisconsin, 1885-1900 embody this perspective.

Another body of scholarship argues that the Progressive era was marked by the kind of fragmentation and divisions that seem to characterize our own time. Phillip Ethington makes this contention in his study of San Francisco politics in the second half of the 19th century. He claims that while antebellum San Franciscan civil society divided along class, ethnic, and racial lines, the Republican norm dominating public sphere deliberations delegitimized political claims made upon these bases. In his reading, the language of populism – of ‘the people’ or even the “common good” more generally – worked against social politics. By the post-war era, however, political entrepreneurs eager to capitalize on growing social divisions within the polity began to appeal more directly to different segments of the polity on the basis of group identity. Under this emergent pluralist paradigm, political interventions on the basis of group-needs, along with cultural tolerance for ethnic minorities, was justified. However, such a paradigm ensured that the public good was a lowest-common-denominator, zero-sum aggregation of interest groups that left out radical ideas and segments of the population whose demanded them (like labor unions, racial minorities, etc). This pragmatic, consensus-driven school of the American polity dates back, of course, to Richard Hofstadter’s Age of Reform.

A final school believes that deliberations over a shared “public good” during this time were stymied from the outset by the interference of middle-class reformers, whose hegemonic impulses hobbled the kind of fundamental reforms that might otherwise have resulted from such discussions. In the view of David Huyssen and Shelton Stromquist, these reformers preached a vision of social reconciliation that made no allowances for political mobilization based on what we would today call ‘identity politics’ – particularly race and class. However, these reformers ignored how their own actions and beliefs were decisively implicated in the maintenance of racism, inequality and exploitation. They refused to see the world around them in class terms or pursue policies that would more fundamentally alter class power, such as breaking apart monopolies or encouraging union growth. Furthermore, their emphasis on ‘civic virtue’ as a requirement for civic inclusion provided them with ample justification for race and ethnic-based exclusions. Suspicious of a discourse of “common good” or even broad-based populist mobilizations, these authors seem to advocate for a confrontational and partisan political culture.

It should be clear from this overview that these three schools differ on a number of fundamental points. The public sphere is alternatively shaped by bottom-up civil-society interactions, top-down machinations, or middle-out mobilization. The results of these interactions vary from altruistic mobilizations of citizens whose private identities and interests have been sublimated into a transcendent ‘public good,’ pragmatic assemblages of groups motivated around material interests, or a stifling period of bourgeoisie hegemony. Furthermore, contending schools often draw upon similar policy points to make their case! Utility regulation is seen by some as a triumph of popular consensus, others as an example of pluralist compromise. Some see charter reform as a triumph of pluralistic mobilization or civic uplift, others as a class conspiracy to marginalize working-class neighborhoods. Of course, it is quite possible that these three paradigms of inter-group communication were occurring simultaneously within the city. But until a more systematic and comparative lens is applied to the historic public sphere, we will not be able to tease out how and whether different deliberative patterns – pluralist, populist, militant, consensus – led to fundamentally different consequences. And without these insights, our ability to assess our own patterns of political dialogue is hampered.

Where role can intellectual historians play in this revised study of the urban public sphere? Up until now, many works in this vein focus on a Benderian play of ideas in public, tracing the conversations through which the meaning of a concept was transformed over time. This is important work, but I also think a dash of conceptual history directly targeting three constitutive elements of public life itself – communication, commonality, and community – is needed. How were these terms theorized and practiced by different actors in different contexts? How did their meaning and usage correlate with different patterns of self-identification, affiliation, group relations, and mobilizations? And how did these concepts reflect and shape broader dynamics in American social, political and economic life?

The study of the public sphere is too important to remain locked in a zero-sum battle between ideal-type Habermasian rationality and Fraser-esque swarms of militant counter-publics. We need open-ended, systematic, and above all historical insights if we are to learn whether and how, in the words of Craig Calhoun, “public communication can be something different than the mirror of mere power politics, the mere expression of personal experience, or mere reproduction of cultural traditions.” Perhaps this is impossible: but I’d rather hear that from a historian’s monograph than a social-theorist’s manifesto any day.

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