Politics As Psychological Fulfillment: Judith Stein Responds to Rick Perlstein

Politics As Psychological Fulfillment: Judith Stein Responds to Rick Perlstein

Part three of our debate on the rise of the right.

California Governor Ronald Reagan visits Richard Nixon at the White House, 1971 (NARA)

To read Judith Stein’s review of Invisible Bridge, click here.

To read Rick Perlstein’s response, click here.

Rick Perlstein’s explanations of Invisible Bridge do not alter my evaluation, but his response makes explicit a few issues that were only implicit in his book. Perlstein defends his disjointed style by explaining that disjointedness “is the theme.” But disjointedness is not historical interpretation. Every period “feels” that way at the time. The point of a historical perspective is to pick apart the significant from the insignificant. And, although he does not acknowledge it, Perlstein chooses. He gravitates toward cultural and irrational explanations of politics.

Perlstein conceives of politics as a form of psychological fulfillment: people voted for Carter’s “invisible bridge” or Reagan’s “invisible bridge” in 1976. (Evidently, the nominated GOP candidate Gerald Ford did not offer a bridge.) This is a very pinched view of reality, a kind of postmodern false consciousness. And his examples of the three delegates at the 1976 GOP convention do not support his notion. In the book, he offered a different but equally vacant explanation. People voted for Carter for “spiritual,” not political, reasons. Were union voters more spiritual than nonunion voters? Poor people more spiritual than rich people? Such questions never come up because Perlstein moves on to the next figure of speech. Any individual may have a bundle of motivations for her ballot-box choice. But in 1976 the numbers revealed that the electorate returned to class voting. Carter did best among working-class voters and Ford among the more affluent. One should at least consider that the mundane effects of the recession of 1974-1975 had something to do with these results before reaching for media-infused psychological accounts.

Finally, Perlstein says that he was not explicit about his “theoretical aims” because he is writing for a popular, not scholarly audience. It is not a question of theory. And writing for popular audiences is not so different from writing historical monographs. Clarity is a virtue in both genres.

Judith Stein teaches history at City College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Her latest book is Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories for Finance in the 1970s.