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What is the State of American Political History?

Wooden ballot box from the 1870s. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Wooden ballot box from the 1870s. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood’s recent opinion piece, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” has sparked considerable conversation. Julian Zelizer has already responded to their claims on Process. To get a sense of where the field finds itself today, we asked a panel of U.S. political historians to respond to a few questions.

Our panel was comprised of Marsha Barrett, an Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University, Lily Geismer, an Associate Professor of History at Claremont McKenna College, Kimberly Phillips-Fein, an Associate Professor of History at New York University, and Cassandra Good, the Associate Editor of the Papers of James Monroe at the University of Mary Washington. Share your own thoughts in the comments below.

What’s your response to Logevall and Osgood’s claim that “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized”? What is the state of American political history?

Good: I wasn’t entirely surprised by the claim, because I have seen struggles play out between an earlier generation of historians with training in political, diplomatic, and military history and more recently-trained scholars who focus on other fields. The former often claim that studying things like culture is not doing “real” history. However, many scholars rooted in other subfields are studying politics through different lenses, and I think that has greatly enriched the study of American political history. The authors are correct, however, that their narrow, traditional definition of political history is not being taught or incorporated into scholarship as much.

Phillips-Fein: American political history has not been so much marginalized as transformed. Political historians today must grapple with a broader range of questions, problems and social actors than they did in the mid-twentieth-century. After all, legislation, policy, elections and laws are not constructed by elites acting alone, mandarins operating above the fray. Rather they are shaped by political movements from below, by ideology, culture and political ideas. By placing political parties, politicians, and legislative actors in a deeper context, by seeking ways to show and highlight conflicts and controversies, and by looking at the dynamic relationship between elites and the social movements they encounter, historians can bring a deeper politics to political history.

Barrett: The job market for political historians has certainly seemed bleak. I felt the marginalization of political history acutely when I went on the job market, although people in many fields feel the same way. The job market aside, however, I can’t help but think of a bigger problem—convincing students to take any history courses. I would certainly be excited if a line of students gathered outside my office demanding political history courses, but I would be equally excited if students clamored outside any historians’ door in search of more classes. In a world where it can be incredibly difficult to get students to take history classes, I think our first step should be to try to incorporate political history into different types of history courses, as I imagine, it often is, and perhaps pique our students’ interest to learn more and subsequently become better-informed citizens.

Geismer: Like many people who have responded to Logevall and Osgood’s op-ed, I see this claim as patently false. In the last twenty-five years, the field of political history has been reenergized by drawing on the insights and methodologies of other subfields and disciplines such as social history, intellectual history, cultural studies, urban studies, and law. Historians working outside of traditional political history and engaged in the study of race, gender, class and sexuality, the environment, religion, the transnational flow or ideas, peoples and goods, business and the economy, and culture have offered new explorations and insights into topics such as state power and control, citizenship and political movements and subjectivity. Recent scholarly projects and modes of inquiry like study of the carceral state and the history of American capitalism are expanding understandings of political history and political economy. The fact that Logevall and Osgood did not recognize such works in their piece and marginalize them in their own definition of political history, nevertheless, does suggest that scholars committed to this more expansive approach and those who adopt a more traditional and institutionally-based approach are not always in conversation with another. Perhaps Logevall and Osgood’s op-ed and the controversy it has spawned will help initiate such conversations and ultimately provide a more comprehensive and textured picture of the past and present political landscape.

Why do you study U.S. political history? Why do you feel it’s important?

Phillips-Fein: I was drawn to study political history out of a desire to think about power, and to study the ways in which elites create, consolidate and wield power. It seemed clear to me that while all people exert agency, some have much more power than others. Although my earliest academic interest was in labor history, I quickly became convinced that to understand working-class history it was necessary to study the people who exerted power over their lives. This led to an ongoing interest in political and economic elites, although always from the perspective of how they influenced the broader society.

Good: I was trained in cultural and gender history, but both my work as a documentary editor at the Papers of James Monroe and my scholarship are deeply engaged with political history. I’ve always been interested in how individual people and their relationships are intertwined with political power. I’m committed to integrating the perspectives of gender and cultural history with political narratives, because I think the history is incomplete otherwise. I often think back to Roger Chartier’s line on why he examined the cultural origins of the French Revolution: these were some of the “conditions that made it [the Revolution] possible because it was conceivable.” Politics and change don’t happen in a vaccuum. You can’t understand political change over time or today without studying people—both men and women—and the ideas, meanings, symbols, and texts they create.

Barrett: I study political history because it provides an important piece of the American story that can include people of all backgrounds, even if it is not always presented in that way. When I began graduate school, I researched public housing and how the built environment could impact the lives of the people who inhabited it in unexpected ways. With time, I became increasingly interested in the politicians and bureaucrats who made the decisions that shaped the communities that I researched. Once I immersed myself in political history, I realized I wanted to write it in a way that would enable me to put politicians and people of different backgrounds and classes in conversation with one another. I think political history helps us to understand the framework in which elected officials and private citizens function and for that reason it is integral to what I research.

Geismer: In my own scholarly projects, especially my book on suburban liberals in Massachusetts, I have been invested in exploring the ways in which public policies and the political process shape the life of ordinary citizens and the ways that citizens and political movements have shaped politics and public policy. This effort began out of a desire to understand how the political process both generated forms of inequity and served as a means of challenging forms of inequality.

People often say to me that the study of American politics and policy must be depressing and they couldn’t imagine studying it. However, close analysis of policies such as the Federal Housing Administration’s refusal to grant mortgages to African Americans and examining gendered and racialized ideology embedded into Social Security Act of 1935 provides the means to denaturalize forms and structures of inequality. This kind of inquiry can also potentially influence the creation of new policies to address structural inequality. Or as I tell my students at the end of the semester: if policies created a lot of the problems we have studied then policies can fix them.

I also see political history as one of the most direct sites where historians can intervene in the public debate and the policy and political process itself. The profusion of op-eds and articles that political historians have offered during the 2016 election cycle as well as the expert report of scholars Thomas Sugrue in Grutter v. Bollinger are important cases in point.

What have we gained and what have we lost by moving away from, in Logevall and Osgood’s words, “elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics”?

Geismer: I take particular issue with this contention. The flourishing of subfields like metropolitan history have in fact placed the study of public policy at their very center. If anything the study of American politics in the twentieth century has been too preoccupied with trying to explain election results—particularly Ronald Reagan’s purportedly realigning victory in the 1980 presidential election. The collective effort to explain this moment has generated a series of important works that helped to galvanize the field and demonstrated the importance of using grassroots methodology to explain national political developments. Yet it made political history overly focused on liberal decline and conservative ascent and created a tendency among scholars to impose the red state-blue state map and framework of contemporary partisan polarization onto the past. This focus has led scholars often to overlook more complex issues and developments that fell outside this purview and to acknowledge the bipartisan dimensions of American politics and policy. Thus political historians have tended not to grapple with or address how many important issues have been promoted by both parties and many policies have persisted regardless of who is sitting in the White House. (For a more extended discussion of this issue, see, Matthew D. Lassiter, “Political History beyond the Red-Blue Divide,”) The focus on presidential elections has also led the field to be overly concentrated on domestic issues and therefore many scholars have not fully engaged the transnational dimensions of U.S. policy and politics. Nor have they explored how issues that occurred outside the nation-state influenced domestic politics in Washington and at the grassroots. The next step in the continued revival of political history needs to focus less on polarization and difference and place partisan politics and public policy, liberalism and conservatism, and foreign and domestic issues into clearer conversation.

Good: This is certainly not the definition of politics I would use; it is the traditional one I argue against in my work. Such a definition has excluded the very people and language that help create politics, in particular marginalizing the voices of women and minorities. I think that plenty of historians still adhere to that definition and those of us in other fields have more work to do in broadening the accepted definition of politics to include a wider scope of power relations. Politics isn’t just about the state. But I also find that sometimes studies of women and minorities, or of discourses and cultural texts, are divorced from political narratives and miss making connections that would be quite fruitful. Political history need not only be a separate subfield; in a sense, its greatest triumph could be that it is integrated into the work of scholars across the discipline.

Barrett: We have gained a diversity of perspectives that were obscured or simply overlooked when history was typically written in a top-down fashion. As a result, we now have a better understanding of how democracy functions because we pay attention to the activists and lesser-known actors who worked tirelessly to get elected politicians to pay attention to their concerns. I think the history of elections, policy generation, and political parties is incredibly important to understanding various other aspects of history and that is not always acknowledged today. Ultimately, I think we have not yet achieved a balance that values political history alongside other fields such as social history, but I do hope that will come in the future.

How has this changing approach to the teaching and study of politics affected the classroom? Do students respond better to more traditional forms of political history or newer approaches?

Phillips-Fein: Students respond with tremendous interest to political history that treats politics as bizarre, fascinating, and filled with conflict—to political history that doesn’t seek to whitewash American history but presents it in its full messy complexity. This means political history that puts questions of race at its center; it means political history that deals with violence and paranoia; it means political history that addresses radicalism, conservatism and political ideologies that are outside American centrism; it means looking at how existing structures of power defend and deepen economic privilege. They also respond well—as does the general public—to stories and narratives, whether of events or individual lives. One of the virtues of political history is that it enables us to see particular individuals making specific choices; by its nature it leads us to narrative.

Good: This new approach has impacted the classroom by engaging students who might not previously have been interested in studying history. A variety of students can now see themselves in the past. However, students are not always getting enough of the basics in terms of timelines, causes of change, or policies and institutions. When I teach cultural history, students get excited about engaging with museum objects and the voices of everyday people in the past. But I also make sure to regularly tie everything back to the major events of the era so they can put what they’re learning in context.

Barrett: I tend to teach African American history courses. While my students love to learn the history that is omitted in their high school history classes or relegated to a single week, they also appreciate learning electoral and policy history from the perspective of how it impacted African Americans. For example, my students enjoy lectures on the New Deal or presidential politics during the civil rights era—their interest only grows during presidential election cycles—if you connect it to the larger arc of African American history. My students respond well to what we call “newer approaches” to history, but that does not mean that political history has to be lost in the process. I find that students who might reject high politics initially are open to giving it a chance when it is taught in a way that relates it to the lives of diverse Americans.

Geismer: The flourishing and expansion of the field has substantially altered the teaching of politics and all American history in positive ways. For instance, I incorporate a focus on the welfare rights movement assigning the work of Annelise Orleck, Marisa Chappell, and Premella Nadasen into my political history courses as well as the second half of the U.S. survey. Teaching students to treat welfare rights activists as political actors does not just help to expand their definition of politics, but it also gives them more empathy for the experiences of low-income women of color in the past and the present.

I also use students’ traditional ideas as a point of departure for complicating their views of history and politics and introducing them to new issues and concepts. My course, Reagan’s America, draws in many students interested in Ronald Reagan, but the class purposefully goes far beyond the Gipper or the Oval Office. The class examines a range of topics from the War on Drugs, the AIDS crisis, wealth inequality, gentrification and homelessness, the Mommy Wars, Operation Rescue, the nuclear freeze and anti-apartheid movements. Such issues provide students new insight into the policy process and we discuss how Reagan’s policies shaped (and did not shape) the lives of ordinary people. This approach also forces them to think critically about how much credit or blame a president should receive for the events that took place during their time in office. I have found students across the political spectrum respond quite favorably to this approach. At the end of the semester, we take a field trip to the Reagan Library and I’ve had even the most pro-Reagan students critique how the exhibits exclude homelessness and AIDS.