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American Identities in a Divided America Outline The 1950s sense of unity The (Dis)integration of national identity? – John Higham’s argument (1974)

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Presentation on theme: "American Identities in a Divided America Outline The 1950s sense of unity The (Dis)integration of national identity? – John Higham’s argument (1974)"— Presentation transcript:


2 American Identities in a Divided America



5 Outline The 1950s sense of unity The (Dis)integration of national identity? – John Higham’s argument (1974) What happened to homogeneity? – Technology and the question of American character An increasing sense of division?


7 The “homogeniety” of the 1950s Homogeneity? The 1950s Cold War Consensus Class convergence (?) Liberals All John Kouwenhoven and David Potter

8 David Potter, People of Plenty 1954 US shaped by special circumstance Excess land, food, Grew faster than other economies 1776-1950. National traits shaped by plenty Optimistic, “can-do,” future orientation Mobile - opportunity seeking Work will bring success Reject state as solution Embrace and develop advertising

9 Kouwenhoven Focus on architecture & material culture A National Style - design characteristics Vernacular, not high style Grid Improvisation within a structure Process not product Modularity

10 1960s: Critiques of Kouwenhoven and Potter White Americans Civil Rights Movement Social class Women? Ethnic minorities Tend to assume national unity and describe it, rather than prove it exists Shift toward studies of smaller groups Community, not the nation Diversity, not unity


12 John Higham, “Hanging Together” 1974 American Historical Association presidential address Against backdrop of shift to micro-histories (ethnic-labor-women, etc.) Searching for general patterns to explain unity But young scholars focusing on diversity

13 Higham 1. Primordial unity 17 th c. Americans bound to neighbors, to kin Linked to a specific place Not necessarily an ethnic feeling Settler communities in mid west Distinct Indian tribes (not Pan-Indian ethnicity) “modern ethnic group is a federation of primordial collectivities”

14 Higham, pp 7-8 2.0 Ideology Ideology is not tradition Ideology not mythology an explicit system of beliefs that provides – A shared identity – A common program of action – A sense of history – A standard for self-criticism

15 Higham 2.1 Religious ideology Evolves from 18th century Specific beliefs for each denomination – Endless debate and splits, e.g. about transubstantiation Inclusive truths – Free choice of Xtian faith, but should be Xtian – Providential guidance of the nation toward a better society - I.e. Kingdom of God was secular Ritual form: the camp meeting

16 Higham 2.2 Political ideology Also evolves from middle 18th century Multiplicity of groups Checks & balances Collective mission to improve nation Passion for individual liberty Against strong central power Ritual forms: political conventions

17 Higham 3 Unity through technology Developing from early 19th century Embrace of rationalization Diffusion of technical values

18 Higham 3.1 “In subjugating matter through the aid of mechanism, human beings come more and more to resemble God.” Substitution of technique for principles Technical integration as unity Realization of perfection in material world Technological sublime

19 Photograph by Lewis Hine, 1930



22 1950s and 1960s Did Technology Homogenize? Fears of standardization Ford Telephone Levittown & Suburbia “Little Boxes” "A Day's Output of Model Ts, Highland Park," 1915.


24 Life Magazine Levittown House and family, 1948

25 Levittown today Houses transformed Retain high real estate value

26 Modified houses


28 Homogenization? Supermarket Multi channel e-marketing Food at Ellis Island







35 US House Seats, after 2010 election

36 Who supported which party in 2010? Cities of 500,000 or more 50,000 – 500,000 10,000 – 50,000 Less than 10,000 Whites in South Aged 18-29 Source: New York Times,10 Nov. 2010 65%34% 5347 44 56 36 64 27 73 58 42 Democrats Republicans

37 American Anti-urban Tradition Jefferson Thoreau, Emerson Middle landscape Flight to suburbs, from c. 1840 Cities viewed as corrupt, dangerous But, Rural US in 19 c not always conservative Emerson, Thoreau, etc. supported abolition


39 Democrats Women African Americans Hispanic Americans Asian Americans Educated whites Under 35 Unions Urban Is this a Coalition?

40 Republicans Evangelicals Conservative Catholics Wall Street “Dixicans” Elderly Rural areas Suburban whites Is this a Coalition?




44 Conclusions (1) Americans exaggerate their differences War and Crisis forge (temporary) consensus – World War II and Cold War During Vietnam divisiveness reasserted Polarization increased after 1990 Persistence of older patterns – eg religion – Edwards and Franklin

45 American polarization Pastoral (anti-urban) Melting pot Value Standardization Fundamentalist Religion Local control, anti-statist Individualistic Resistance to Welfare Right to bear arms Anti-abortion Love of mechanical perfection Multicultural Value Diversity Ecumenical State needed as regulator Want Social Security, Medicare Philanthropic Support gun control Pro-choice

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