Mary E. Stuckey


On her book Political Vocabularies: FDR, the Clergy Letters, and the Elements of Political Argument

Cover Interview of May 27, 2018

In a nutshell

Political Vocabularies is about how Americans can agree on general political principles such as freedom and equality and at the same time disagree so vehemently about how to put those principles to work. We may experience the same political events, institutions, and people, but develop very different understandings of them. These differences are, at times, predictable and stable, but sometimes, especially during eras of political change, they can shift and transform. This happened in the 1930s, which is the period covered in the book, as the Roosevelt administration captured the allegiance of many of those who had been loyal Republicans and lost the allegiance of some who had been loyal Democrats. This New Deal coalition has been teetering for many years and may now be in the process of crumbling. I argue that by looking at the ways people created their political realities then, we can better understand not only that era but also our own.

I argue that these political realities are composed of five elements: First, they involve rhetorical authority. Each political reality locates political authority in different places: one part of the nation might want to see federal power strengthened, while another might want to see more power given to the states. And so political authority is very much a site of dispute between differing political vocabularies at any moment in time. Second, opposing political vocabularies are grounded in opposing characterizations of the specific political moment, its central issues, and its citizens, for we cannot imagine a political community without populating it and giving it purpose. Third, these issues and people are hierarchically ordered, which provides each reality with a sense of internal cohesion and which is also a central point of disputation between competing realities in a specific epoch. Fourth, each vocabulary is grounded in political tradition, read through our national myths which authorize the visions of national identity and purpose. Finally, each political vocabulary contains significant deliberative aspects, for each vision of the nation impels distinct policy imperatives. They are, in fact, our political priorities in action.

In the book, I tease out the ways in which the supporters and the opponents of FDR understood the nation, using a set of letters written to the president in 1935-1936.