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I Still Miss Nelson Polsby: Live from La Farine CXXV: March 24, 2014

Nelson Polsby (1934-2007) was one of the more powerful reasons that Berkeley punched and still punches well above its financial weight among universities...

Dan Tompkins's notes on Polsby and McCarthy:

Dan Tompkins: Nelson Polsby's breakout essay: Getting McCarthy Wrong:

This may interest only a few of you. I threw it together for my own purposes and found enough to make it worth exposing to others.

Two Berkeley political scientists, Nelson Polsby and Michael Rogin, did very good analytic work on the question, "who supported McCarthy."  Rogin and Polsby are now both, sadly, deceased.  Both, each in his own way, took on the established political scientists who blamed McCarthyism on particular social groups.  Rogin focused on elite notions that McCarthy had a "mass" or  "populist movement."   He's very worth reading, but what follows mainly concerns Polsby, who at age 26 published "Towards an Explanation of McCarthyism" in the journal Political Studies 8 (1960).  

Anyone who met, or even witnessed, Nelson Polsby at work can envision him whipping this study together.  It has three great Polsby traits:

  • a sweeping and diligent command of the literature that, by itself, made many senior colleagues look amateurish;
  • a genius for creative destruction, evident in his categorization and analysis of other arguments; and
  • his passionate (I think that's the word) conviction that democratic society needs responsible social science.

I'd intended a casual read of this essay but found myself doing a summary, then a summary of my summary, which follows just below.  This got me into the relationship of Taft and Eisenhower to McCarthy, and thus--such is intellectual work--into the Battle of the Bulge, and Fred Greenstein's classic analysis of Ike's "hidden hand presidency."

Not a day goes by without finding that scholars who attribute political developments (Nazism, drug use, the Tea Party) to social groups--in earlier days, especially working class Catholics, but others too.  In nearly every case this turns out to be wrong.  Polsby works through the options below, finding that no particular social group brought about McCarthy's rise, though the Beltway had something to do with it.  I've added a bit more about Ike at the very end, from a historian who followed Greenstein's lead.

Comments welcome.


Polsby:  A précis

Suggested sources of support for McCarthy:

  1. 'Atmospheric'  conditions: isolationism, esp. among people of German extraction, or those who wanted to clean up Commies at home.  But, Polsby notes, this atmosphere existed for everyone, and proponents never specify where in the population McCarthy's supporters were located.

  2. McCarthy as an authoritarian leader, characterized by misanthropic 'toughness', superconformity. intolerance. generalized hostility. His concern with sexual 'goings on'.  But many "authoritarian"  groups seemed impervious to McCarthy, while other groups which were not notably intolerant supported him.

3. Status groups in non-economic protest because of status dissatisfactions.  The authors deduced who McCarthy's followers might be but did not check their predictions against the evidence:  'status anxiety' hypothesis yields indifferent results, leave unclear which status groups were especially favourable to McCarthy.[These are the elite theorists -- Lipset, Hofstadter, et al -- whom Rogin also targeted.]

4. Polsby's answer:  Politics. All of the relatively meagre empirical information above is unimpressive when set against comparable data describing the political affiliation of McCarthy's supporters: the Republican Party. In Wisconsin, McCarthy ran best where the Republican Party was strongest, though never as well as other Republicans.   And McCarthy was, at first, the weapon of a desperate Republican Party. Senator Taft's famous advice, 'If one case doesn't work, then bring up another' is a measure of the lengths to which Republicans were willing to go in those days to embarrass a long-entrenched Democratic administration.   Eisenhower shied away from taking him on [at least until January '54: a complicated topic].[1] 

A few other 'factors' (esp. his power once he became Senator, and  his entrepreneurial skill) contribute to an explanation of "McCarthy's phenomenal success in demoralizing federal employees, in blackening the name of the United States abroad, and in dominating the headlines for more than four years."  His reputation for power "at the grass roots," though unjustified terrified many.  "in the peculiarly isolated subculture that is official Washington."

Policy scientists, Polsby argues, could dispelled have myths about McCarthy with facts:

  • That crossing McCarthy was less dangerous than supposed (He provides details about Senators Tydings in MD, Benton in CT, and others.) 

  • That his strength came from his unusual dependence upon regular Republican Party support.

  • That pro-McCarthy sentiment ebbed and flowed.

Here's one of Polsby's many tables, of groups that supposedly supported McCarthy.  Note the range of blame. (Source:  The New American Right )   I. Named in six out of seven essays: New rich. II.   Named  in five  essays: Texans, Irish, Germans. III.   Named  in four  essays: Middle class, Catholics, Midwesterners. IV.   Named  in three essays: Lower middle class, up-mobile, less educated. V.   Named in two essays: 'Cankered intellectuals', old family Protestant 'sha'bl.y genteel', recent immigrants, down-mobile, minority ethnics, Old Guard G.O.P., ex-Communists, Midwest isolationists. VI.   Named in one essay: Lower class, small town lawyers, auto dealers, oil wildcatters, real estate manipulators, small business men, manual workers, elderly and retired, rentier class, youth, Southern Californians, South Bostonians, fringe urbanites in middle-sized cities, transplants to city, Polish Catholics, hick Protestants, patriotic and historical group members (e.g. DAR), Scandinavians, Southern Protestant fundamen­ talists, soured patricians, small town residents, neo-fascists.   Also worth a look:   William F. Crandell, "Eisenhower the Strategist: The Battle of the Bulge and the Censure of Joe McCarthy", Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), pp. 487-501:  

…Two of Eisenhower's battles -- one from the war and the other from his presidency -- display a pattern of similarities in Ike's style of leadership. The Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 paralleled the campaign to destroy Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, culminating in December 1954. In both, Eisenhower used what Liddell Hart calls "the strategy of the indirect approach" (or what Fred Greenstein calls "hidden hand leadership") to render a still-powerful enemy harmless by letting him attack on ground favorable to Eisenhower and then destroying him when his assault was spent.   What happened in the former battle is quite thoroughly documented, but the details of Eisenhower's campaign against McCarthy are still emerging. Until recently, it was still argued that Eisenhower had done little or nothing about the Wisconsin demagogue…. [Details follow]

Personally, I never understood the enthusiasm for Greenstein: "hidden hand leadership" seems to me to be empirically indistinguishable from delay, temporizing, hand-wringing, suggesting to others that they take action, and then--after the fact--claiming that fortunate lucky breaks were your strategy all along. The analogy with the "Bulge" does not point the way Crandell thinks it does: Eisenhower was caught by surprise--without reserves, without a plan--by December 16, 1944, and essentially made two decisions: (i) to throw the refitting-after-Arnhem 82nd and 101st Airborne into the path of the German offensive (thus largely foreclosing future winter parachute drops), (ii) to give Montgomery command of Hodges's American First Army on the north side of the Bulge, and (iii) not to get in Patton's way with his American Third Army on the south side of the Bulge. And Montgomery and Patton then knew what to do.