Race and the Making of American Political Science

Race and the Making of American Political Science shows that racial thought was central to the academic study of politics in the United States at its origins, shaping the discipline's core categories and questions in fundamental and lasting ways.

Race and the Making of American Political Science

Jessica Blatt

Mar 2018 | 216 pages | Cloth $55.00
Political Science | American History
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. "The White Man's Mission": John W. Burgess and the Columbia School of Political Science
Chapter 2. "All Things Lawful Are Not Expedient": The American Political Science Association Considers Jim Crow
Chapter 3. Twentieth-Century Problems: Administering an American Empire
Chapter 4. The Journal of Race Development: Evolution and Uplift
Chapter 5. Laying Specters to Rest: Political Science Encounters the Boasian Critique of Racial Anthropology
Chapter 6. Finding New Premises: Race Science, Philanthropy, and the Institutional Establishment of Political Science


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


A few years ago, the Journal of Theoretical Politics featured a startling announcement: The results of a new analysis of genetic and attitudinal data heralded "the end of ideology as we know it." The philosophers, the implication went, having only interpreted ideology, had been missing the point. Science was finally poised to offer a rigorous, empirical account of its wellsprings. Our ideologies were in our genes.

Specifically, an interdisciplinary team from political science and behavioral genetics claimed to have shown that most conventionally understood sources of ideology were instead a "cultural veneer" overlaid on a "potentially divergent underlying structure of genetic differences." Put simply, the idea was that in important instances our genes determine which of the available political preferences we are likely to choose. Even more simply, certain kinds of bodies are predisposed to certain kinds of politics.

The article (the title was, in fact, "It's the End of Ideology as We Know It") was part of a special issue dedicated to research on "genes and politics," or what practitioners call "new empirical biopolitics." This vein of political science research goes back to the 1970s but has only recently achieved greater visibility. A high point came when a 2005 article on the heritability of political attitudes made the cover of the American Political Science Review (APSR), the discipline's flagship journal, and attracted a respectable amount of media attention. Since then, a small but prolific group of researchers has been claiming to identify genetic bases for our attraction to liberalism or conservatism; levels of social dominance; likelihood to join political parties, vote, or employ particular decision strategies; gender differences in political behavior; feelings of political efficacy; receptiveness to populism; negative attitudes toward out-groups; and even "Machiavellianism."

Much of this work is ambitious, calling on us to radically revise our understanding of political life. For one writer, the "shopworn," "competing . . . paradigms of behavioralism and rational choice are in their last throes," to be replaced by a new, "sociogenomic" synthesis. The APSR's editor was particularly struck by the popular media attention accorded the 2005 cover article, musing that it might someday "emerge among the most important articles the APSR has ever published." And while few political scientists have rushed to retrain in genetics, the continued appearance of work on the biology of politically relevant differences in respected political science journals suggests that other editors and peer reviewers remain interested in this approach.

The 2005 study and others that followed have of course come in for criticism. Critics such as the geneticist Jon Beckwith and the political scientist Evan Charney fault "empirical biopolitics" for often reifying political categories in ways that do violence to the historical record. They also note that its claims often require us to resort to tortured logic to accommodate previously intelligible phenomena, such as the emergence within a generation of a solid, small-government Republican bloc in the American South (where support for the New Deal had been strong). Finally, critics point to methodological issues, including that these claims seem to rely on an outdated, genes-as-blueprint paradigm, rather than on newer understandings in which DNA is part of a dynamic, epigenetic system.

Moreover, while genes and politics researchers distance themselves from the suggestion of racial implications, the deeply racialized dynamics of American political life make racial implications hard to avoid. If preference for liberal policies is significantly genetic, the pervasive attachment of African Americans to the Democratic Party, for example, could seem to imply that racial distinctions, rather than being "socially constructed," map on to meaningful biological differences. Similarly, if genes and politics researchers are right, "gender gaps" in voting behavior constitute powerful evidence against feminist briefs for the social construction of gender. In short, all sorts of observed racial, gender, and other disparities might be biological in basis and, by implication, less susceptible to change than liberals (in thrall to their genes, no doubt) might like to believe.

Specific arguments aside, it is clear that this literature is part of a larger resurgence in biological determinism in the United States in the twenty-first century. That resurgence has taken the form of bald-faced racism, as in the newfound prominence enjoyed by white supremacists (the so-called "alt-right"). It also takes more benign-seeming forms, such as the commercialization of racially specific medicine, a thriving ancestry-testing industry, and the column inches given to deterministically minded science writers like Nicholas Wade. Many scholars fear that this cultural and scientific moment bodes a return to past follies, as when early twentieth-century eugenics advocates wrote confidently of hereditary "unit characters" for everything from "pauperism" to "ability in literary composition" and "thalassophilia" ("love of sailing"). Claims about innate social and political characteristics can also seem to open a door to the rehabilitation of long-discredited theories of innate race and sex differences or even a "backdoor" to ethically murky human engineering efforts.

This book focuses on the early years of U.S. political science, not its current state. I discuss the discipline's recent, partial embrace of biological determinism here because, just as it evokes an earlier, troubling moment in the history of science, it also recalls ideas central to U.S. political science at its origins. Now we are told that radical new research shows that "a correlation exists between political involvement and physiological predispositions" or that political liberalism is substantially determined by a genetic predisposition to "seek out new experiences." However, the idea that our politics are born into us—indeed, specifically that some people are innately cut out for self-government and progress while others are by their very constitutions more suited to traditional forms of authority—was in a real sense the precept on which U.S. political science was founded in the late nineteenth century.

The Victorian scholars who formalized the study of politics in the United States in the 1880s did not have the language of "genes." What they had was "race." John W. Burgess and Herbert Baxter Adams, who between them founded the first two doctoral programs in politics in the United States, taught that Anglo-Saxons were the bearers of a "Teutonic germ" of liberty. It was Anglo-Saxons who created, and were fit to enjoy, democratic institutions. It was also they who carried forward the potential of civilization. As for the rest, some might eventually be assimilated, but most were more suited to authoritarianism (at home) or colonial domination (abroad). The first U.S.-trained cohort of political science Ph.D.s learned that adhering to a priori fictions of equality and social contracts had only resulted in the disaster of the Civil War. Avoiding such a calamity in the future would require more reliable political judgment, based in a hard-headed appraisal of the truths of nature—particularly the truths about innate human difference. "Ethnology," Burgess affirmed, constituted "elevated ground," a "standpoint" from which researchers could get a clear view of the political world.

If "Teutonic germ" theory had been idiosyncratic, the resonances with "empirical biopolitics" would be telling enough. However, as I will argue, the racial ideas it invoked were central to the paradigmatic theory around which the discipline was coalescing, uniting scholars who disagreed about much else. What's more, these background racial assumptions long outlasted the specific tenets of "Teutonism." Well into the twentieth century, major political scientists understood racial difference to be a fundamental shaper of political life. They wove popular and scientific ideas about racial difference into their accounts of political belonging, of progress and change, of proper hierarchy, and of democracy and its warrants. And they attended closely to changing scientific accounts of human difference, viewing these as basic to their own work. The impulse to describe political differences as natural ones, then, runs deep, and won't seem to go away.

From Racial Soul to Independent Variable

The central argument of this book is that race thinking shaped U.S. political science at its origins far more profoundly than has previously been recognized. From the late nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, scholars of politics defined and continually reoriented their intellectual work in response to changing scientific notions of race and to the political imperatives of the racial order at home and abroad. Racial thought informed ongoing efforts to frame political science as a "real" science, and it was deeply implicated in major intellectual and institutional innovations as the discipline established itself within the American academy. This includes what may be the defining development for the study of politics in the United States: a gradual, and at times fitful, shift from a legalistic, historicist framework to liberal accounts of politics as the play of individuals, groups, and interests. In this sense, changing notions of racial difference were constitutive of a model of political life itself that continues to exert a powerful hold on our political imagination, outside the academy as much as within.

Some elements of this story have been told. For example, few if any recent considerations of late nineteenth-century American political science fail to note that it is rife with "essentially racist conclusions." However, these are usually treated as regrettable ephemera—either secondary to more central contributions or shameful mistakes that were eventually left behind, leaving little trace. This is changing, particularly with regard to scholarship on international relations, thanks to important interventions by Robert Vitalis, Brian Schmidt, and others. Nonetheless, much work remains before we can fully appreciate the role of racial ideas and particularly the role of race science in the study of American politics, and the ways in which the racialized premises driving the study of international relations shaped U.S. political science as a whole.

Race and the Making of American Political Science contributes to that project by examining how racial ideas figured in a number of settings in which pioneering U.S. political scientists sought to stake out their intellectual territory and define their methods. These include Burgess's Columbia University department in the 1880s and 1890s; the meetings, publications, and other activities of the American Political Science Association (APSA) in the decade following its founding in 1903; the pages of the first U.S.-based international relations journal, the Journal of Race Development (founded by George Blakeslee and G. Stanley Hall at Clark University in 1910); and, finally, in the 1920s, efforts by Charles E. Merriam and others to bring scientific methods to bear on political questions and to integrate the study of politics into an interdisciplinary social science matrix.

Chapters 1 through 4 show that, particularly at the discipline's early, founding moments, notions of "race" and "politics" were often so deeply intertwined as to be hard to distinguish. As political science began to take shape within the academy, leading practitioners put racialist premises at the heart of their accounts of democratic legitimacy and sovereignty, the dynamics of political change, and the propriety and limits of political reform. For the founding generation, led by Burgess and deeply influenced by German political philosophy, this took the form of the Teutonic "state." Burgess taught that American political institutions and particularly the American legal system represented the highest form to date of the development of the Anglo-Saxon "genius for liberty," and he framed political science as the task of understanding and safeguarding that development. Subsequent cohorts of political scientists distanced themselves from the legal focus and idealist trappings of Burgess's approach, seeking to bring greater realism and empirical rigor to their science. Despite these shifts, however, younger political scientists such as Woodrow Wilson and Henry Jones Ford continued to ground their accounts of political life in an evolving racial unity. Like Burgess and along with many of their contemporaries, Wilson and Ford treated political community as an aspect of racial life. They also saw "recognition" of racial difference—or what Ford called the "natural history" of politics—as fundamental to any "realistic" science or sound project of political reform. Similarly, members of both generations shared in a wider consensus that the legal and administrative principles appropriate to governing "backward" races abroad applied as well for the government of racial others at home.

If these ideas crossed theoretical and methodological divides, so too were they shared across political ones. For example, Burgess, along with many of his contemporaries, opposed McKinley-era colonial expansion on the grounds that it would expand government power and saddle the developing American state with new race problems when it could barely handle the ones it already had. The Wilsonian generation, by contrast, accepted both more active government and U.S. colonialism as pragmatic responses to new economic and geopolitical realities. Leading scholars active in the APSA and elsewhere sought to craft models of domestic and imperial governance that would accommodate American values to scientific knowledge about racial difference. For many of these writers, different levels of evolutionary progress meant that the "darker races," both at home and abroad, would most likely require a semipermanent subordinate status appropriate to each group's degree of evolutionary progress. Others saw racial evolution as a field for intervention and uplift. However, commentators on all sides of this debate agreed that what Blakeslee and Hall's pathbreaking international relations journal would dub "race development" was at the heart of the question.

That is, until roughly the beginning of World War I, multiple, distinct intellectual and political projects rested on the assumptions that "races" were the primary units of political life and that racial evolution was an appropriate framework by which to understand political change. Again, these projects differed in their political prescriptions and their degrees of optimism about the possibility of more egalitarian relationships between racial groups. However, in each of them the idea of essential racial capacities or traits marked both the grounds and the limits of that possibility.

Chapters 5 and 6 trace a break with this consensus, and the emergence of new understandings of both racial and political difference. After World War I, notions of organic unity were harder to sustain. One response came from "pluralists" such as Harold Laski, who put internal differentiation at the center of democratic theory. Many political scientists, too—particularly a group that coalesced around the brilliant academic entrepreneur Charles E. Merriam, the University of Chicago, and the Social Science Research Council (SSRC)—began to perceive organic, racialist accounts of political difference as "traditional" and "authoritarian" and to cast about for suitably scientific alternatives. Merriam and his colleagues were less centrally preoccupied with issues of white supremacy and colonialism than were many of their predecessors. Nonetheless, it was again to race science that this group looked for new accounts of human difference more suitable to a usable, empirical science of politics.

As they groped for conceptions of political life more consonant with the ferment they saw in interwar American life, Merriam and the group he gathered around him put great stock in the idea that scientific methods could anchor political judgment and point to possibilities for "social control" in the face of rapid social, economic, and political change. They correctly perceived, however, that for all its attempts, the discipline had thus far failed to break free of teleology, historicism, and what one writer called "race mysticism." To complete this break, they turned to new theories of race and historical change coming out of other fields. They showed particular interest in a critique of race-based "stage" theories of civilizational development that was being elaborated by the anthropologist Franz Boas and his students. From the Boasian critique, Merriam and others drew the lesson that the modern state was the product of contingency and change. This suggested that modern political processes and institutions could be studied on their own terms, independent of racial essences or deep historical-evolutionary analysis. It did not lead them to abandon the idea of innate racial difference. (Neither, incidentally, did it lead all of the Boasians to do so, at least not immediately.) It did, however, open up the question of additional bases for the differences, political and otherwise, between groups.

Along with many of his students and colleagues, Merriam saw tantalizing possible answers to that question in frameworks and technologies of human measurement coming out of psychology and biology. Several of them showed special interest in the large-scale, World War I army intelligence-testing program designed by Yale University psychologist Robert Yerkes, as well as in studies of racial difference carried out under the auspices of the National Research Council (NRC). In those settings, difference assumed a new form. What psychologists and race researchers seemed to be finding weren't essential group characteristics, exactly, but instead uneven distributions of traits (such as "intelligence") within and between populations. Moreover, racial differences were not the only kinds identified. The intelligence tests, for example, produced seemingly useful knowledge about intra-racial difference (such as the finding that white officers showed a higher "mental age" than white draftees).

These findings offered intriguing possibilities for understanding and managing difference within a pluralistic democracy, and a number of political scientists sought to capitalize on those possibilities. Many political scholars (most of them close to Merriam in some regard) found in "differential psychology" and "social biology" inspiration for a renovation of political science. If intelligence and other traits could be measured and mapped between and within populations, many reasoned, other, more properly political qualities might be treated in the same way. And if this were possible, a quantitative, methodologically rigorous science of politics might be poised to offer reliable diagnoses of what ailed the polity and to prescribe cures.

This hope was both intellectual and political. But it was also connected to local, institutional concerns—it was not lost on this group that psychologists and natural scientists had secured major funding for their efforts, and political scientists, for the most part, had not. Chapter 6 documents a series of attempts to replicate or latch onto the successes of those fortunate colleagues. Some of those experiments bore fruit in terms of both knowledge and institutional success—early research in political psychology is one example. Others, such as an abortive bid to bring the social sciences into research funding structures created to foster the natural sciences, did not pan out as hoped. However, I show that, successful or not, in the course of these efforts political scientists began to articulate new visions of political difference. (In many cases, they also secured sizable amounts of foundation money for political research.)

In short, as they engaged with innovations in anthropology, psychology, and the natural sciences, a number of important political scientists began to talk about politics in a new way and to elaborate new structures in which to do their work. Political institutions—once a reflection of the character and evolution of monolithic, racialized "peoples"—began to appear instead as the more or less contingent product of interacting historical, sociological, psychological, and biological factors. It wasn't always clear where those differences came from (biology, society, psychology, etc.), or how stable they were. But the job of answering those questions was properly left to other disciplines. Political science could busy itself with mapping, analyzing, and thinking about how to control them.

A Note on Race, Political Science, and Disciplinary History

As John Gunnell points out, when we are not tracing our origins to Plato or the Enlightenment, U.S. political scientists have traditionally consumed our own history in the form of intradisciplinary debates—narratives about how the perspective or methods with which we identify emerged from earlier, flawed ones, for example; or how the currently dominant tendency has overtaken some earlier, more promising one. These accounts certainly enrich our understanding, but, as Gunnell also observes, they are perhaps better understood as "events in the history of political science," rather than as satisfactory treatments of that history. Fortunately, in recent decades they have been supplemented by a rich body of serious, far-reaching disciplinary histories, with Gunnell as perhaps the leading scholar and with key contributions from Dorothy Ross, James Farr, John Dryzek, and Richard Adcock, among many others.

At the most basic level, this study is animated by questions of how racial ideas shape American political thought and politics, and vice-versa. For that reason, I make no pretense of offering a comprehensive disciplinary history. Instead, I focus here on a series of founding moments or transitions identified in previous historiography and on how in those settings political scientists addressed racial topics or, alternatively, addressed the kinds of questions to which "race" is often an answer. Racial ideologies tell stories about how the social world is configured, the sources of those configurations, and how permanent or susceptible to change they might be. To get at how these stories have figured in political science, then, this book looks primarily at political scientists' explicit and implicit accounts of the deep sources of political difference and hierarchy, the forces driving political change, and the bases of political solidarity.

In that sense, political science is as much the site of this study as it is its object. All the same, Race and the Making of American Political Science speaks to a number of historiographical questions about the discipline. Most obviously, it speaks to the place of race in the discipline's history (and, to an extent, in its present). The last decade or so has seen an explosion of scholarship on the ways in which anthropology, sociology, criminology, and other social sciences at once responded to and helped to shape racial ideology and the U.S. racial order. Vitalis and others writing about the racial entailments of international relations scholarship have brought political science into this conversation; a few more granular analyses of particular figures or institutions have begun to do the same for the study of U.S. politics. However, the role of racial ideas in U.S. political science's history more generally has not received extended, systematic attention until now.

This may be because U.S. political science is often tightly identified with liberalism. Bernard Crick's early, pathbreaking history of the discipline depicted American political science as shot through with a liberal "moralism" that sought, in his words, to "take the politics out of politics." For Ross, political science, like the American social sciences more broadly, was born of a liberal, exceptionalist impulse to "naturalize the historical world." Gunnell in turn sees "defining, explaining, and evaluating the United States as a democratic society" as "the defining mission of political science"; for Adcock, U.S. political scientists served to "Americanize" European liberalism by adapting it to the social and industrial realities on their side of the Atlantic.

This focus on the liberal and democratic strains of U.S. political science is warranted and revealing. At the same time, it may obscure the ways in which illiberal ideologies, too, mark our history and shape our practice. Ido Oren explores this theme, showing that at important moments major U.S. political scientists have only taken issue with authoritarian or even fascist regimes when those regimes came into conflict with the American state. Race and the Making of American Political Science shows that racial ideologies underwrote authoritarian and exclusionary doctrines within political science and also that racialism shaped the technocratic strains of American liberalism that Crick and others find at the heart of U.S. political science.

If the identification of political science and liberalism may have discouraged attention to the discipline's racial commitments, so too may the fact that it has often been set apart for its relative inattention to racial topics. Specifically, critics take the discipline to task on the grounds that for much of its history, and to a degree still, U.S. political science has failed to take "race" seriously as an element and product of political life. In Rogers Smith's gloss, after a late nineteenth-century "period of explicit disciplinary racism," students of politics in the United States "devoted less attention to race" than did their counterparts in other disciplines, and certainly less than was warranted by the profoundly racialized dynamics of U.S. politics.

This narrative captures an important truth. There is no question that for much of the twentieth century the political science mainstream failed to view racial oppression and hierarchy as problems that fell within its bailiwick. In 1970, Mack Jones and Alex Willingham found that political scientists excluded both the African American experience and systems of racial oppression from "fundamental political questions about the nature of society." The following decade saw African American political scientists arguing that the study of race was "an academic graveyard" in a field for which African American politics were largely "invisible." In 1985, Ernest J. Wilson III published an article titled, "Why Political Scientists Don't Study Black Politics, But Historians and Sociologists Do." Twenty-two years later, he coedited a book on how and why, despite progress, "African American issues" were "still at the margins" of political science. Similar patterns have been documented for people of color more broadly.

For Smith, this marginalization of racial topics dates to around 1920, when the "explicitly racist" scholarship of the founding generations began to give way to the idea that "race" was "pre-political," "generated at root by biology and/or economics and/or culture and/or history and/or often unconscious or at least informal social psychological process and social activities." This conforms to the findings of a 2011 discipline-wide task force that found that political scholarship still "tends to treat identity as given and outside of analysis" rather than "as a core analytical category for understanding important aspects of political behavior, social movements, and the development of public policies." That is, Jones and Willingham's observation of almost half a century ago—that political scientists to a troubling degree fail to treat "race" as integral to the realm of "politics"—still holds.

In one sense, the story this book tells runs counter to this narrative by showing that the racialism of political science's founders marked the discipline more profoundly than we have acknowledged. In my account, the "explicit disciplinary racism" that Smith and others have noted in fact signaled a deeply racialized worldview that helped to give form and content to the practice of political science at its origins. At a deeper level, however, my account documents the origins of the disconnect these critics note. That is, if "race" was expelled from "politics" to some "pre-political" sphere, it was not because race suddenly came to seem insignificant. Rather, this shift was connected to an intense engagement with the idea of race.

This part of my account also situates political science within a broader process of the coproduction of racial politics, race science, and the social sciences more broadly. For George Stocking Jr., the Boasian turn in anthropology in many ways constituted the condition of possibility for the social sciences as we know them. Specifically, he argues that the social sciences themselves only achieved their modern form when the holistic, organic, "shuttling" between "nature" and "culture" that characterized Victorian race theory was replaced, in large part through the efforts of Boasian anthropologists, with a meaningful distinction. In this new paradigm, the social appeared as something like an autonomous domain, built on a substrate of biological possibility and constraint. The latter, too, was more clearly delineated, meaning that just as "the social" achieved independent status, the life sciences saw their own questions and territory sharpened and defined in the same process. If this shift in racial thought was key to bringing into focus the modern projects of anthropology, sociology, and even biology, my account suggests that it played a similar role for political science, contributing to new conceptions of the discipline's purpose, methods, and scope—a scope that, not incidentally, often excluded "race" by consigning it to those other realms.