I broadly identify myself as a scholar of twentieth century U.S. political history with a more specific focus on post-WWII America. My current and future research interests center on the relationship between government policies, politics, race, and American culture. I am particularly interested in the ways in which politicians attempt to shape and respond to cultural trends and how cultural trends shape law and policy. These interests lead me to investigate questions of nationalism, law- and policymaking, public opinion, social movements, race, and political culture.
In the Crucible of Violence: The Remaking of American Political Culture in the 1960s and 1970s
By charting the nature and evolution of American debates about violence in the 1960s and 1970s, In the Crucible of Violence traces the breakdown of “consensus politics” and the roots of contemporary America’s divisive and contested political culture, while also illuminating the broader role of violence in U.S. politics. In contrast to historians who have examined a recent rightward shift in American politics as a response to rights movements, economic issues, and foreign policy failures, this book claims that “violence,” both in concept and reality, became a key political and rhetorical tool that leaders on both the right and the left utilized to delegitimize their opponent. Violent rhetoric and reality infused and reshaped key political issues, such as race relations and the Vietnam War, in new ways, raising the stakes of the debate and dramatically exacerbating political polarization. Debates hinged on whether or not particular uses of violence were justified and how rising violence levels fit with American values. Through these debates, “violence” became a reason to dismiss political opponents while stymying political action, preventing politicians from crafting effective policy response, and transforming the ways in which many Americans understood the possibilities and limits of the American system, both at home and abroad. The legacies of this moment can be felt until today in continued widespread disillusionment with politics and the continued political intransigence surrounding violence in the United States.
In the Crucible of Violence opens by examining the growing political debate over violence, especially in response to the civil rights movement, America’s growing presence in Vietnam, urban riots, and assassinations in the late 1960s. It contrasts this debate with political reactions to violence earlier in the twentieth century. Each chapter then examines a specific instance of violence within the context of this larger societal debate. Each of these events represents a particular type of violence allowing the book to analyze how seemingly separate events were aggregated into a larger “violence problem.” Chapters explore the shooting of two black youth at Jackson State College during student protests, a series of racially inflected murders in San Francisco, and the My Lai massacre. Each chapter traces reactions to these events on a local and national level and from multiple perspectives and then places them in the larger political and cultural debate about violence in American life. The chapters consider how popular perceptions of race, government power, American ideals, and violence interact within these public reactions. The book ends with an examination of the consequences of this moment for contemporary American political culture and values, particularly the divided and disillusioned state of politics and lingering challenges surrounding violence.
By focusing on the outbreak and public response to violence in the 1960s and 1970s on both the local and national level, In the Crucible of Violence differs from existing literature by emphasizing the role of violence in the societal and political transformation of the second half of the 20th century, a crucial yet neglected aspect of American life. It shows how violence tied together diverse political issues of the day—racial tensions, American foreign policy, student protest, questions surrounding civil liberties and urban crime were all conflated as part of a “violence problem”—giving these issues a cumulatively greater transformative power. In the Crucible of Violence claims that this aggregated violence problem is key to understanding the political changes of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Within the context of intense anxieties over social order and stability, the issue of violence came to trump questions of social justice and rights issues in the eyes of many observers, including both politicians and everyday citizens. Further, government officials’ inability to control such violence or respond effectively contributed to a growing disillusionment with politics and governmental leadership. Debates over violence thus facilitated key shifts in American political culture, specifically a declining faith in government, a decrease in trust between Americans, and a belief that American “values” were under siege from within. Unlike other scholarship, this book shows that these consequences reached across party lines. At the same time, using or even seeming to use violence often discredited the issues for which leftist activists stood, contributing to a renewed marginalization and even criminalization of minority groups and to the rising popularity of conservative-backed issues, such as victims’ rights and a more punitive criminal justice system. This book thus provides insight into both the transformation of the U.S. political culture since the 1960s and into the role of violence in American politics.
A portion of this research has also been published in the Journal of Urban History and is available here.