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Political History is Doing AOK

In their New York Times opinion piece, Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood are too pessimistic about the state of U.S. political history. While the field did go through a long period of being marginalized, these are different times. At the time of the publication of our book The Democratic Experiment in 2003, my co-editors Meg Jacobs and Bill Novak and I felt that we were on the cusp of a new era for political history that would be every bit as exciting as the “golden years” when Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Hofstadter were the major authorities on this subject.

I believe that we sensed something very real. Over the past twenty years the field has experienced nothing short of a renaissance. A new generation of historians has breathed life into the field by looking at politics in new ways—from applying social and cultural historical analysis to the examination of public policy development, to writing narratives that take more seriously the institutional and organizational contexts within which political elites (presidents, legislators, civil servants and others) operate, to insightful accounts of the unfolding relationship between state and society. There have been a number of specific subjects, such as the ways race impacted public policy and electoral politics since the 1960s, the transformations in political culture between Reconstruction and the Progressive Era, the transatlantic world of political ideas from the start of the Republic through today, the rise of the conservative movement and transformation of the Republican party, and the history of capitalism that are so intellectually rich it is difficult for younger scholars to find fresh angles for dissertations. That is a problem that political historians should be happy to have.

Indeed, Logevall himself has been a pioneering force in discovering exciting and novel ways to tell the history of international relations and diplomacy. While there was a period in the 1970s when we did move away from “elections, elected officials, policy and policymaking, parties and party politics,” this is not the case today. Our bookshelves are filled with work on all these subject matters and the younger scholars are often doing it in much more sophisticated ways than their predecessors of the mid-twentieth century. 

I have been honored to be part of the new generation of scholars as I believe that learning about our nation’s political past is the best way to move through the challenges and difficulties we face today, as Logevall and Osgood argue. Here at Princeton University we have assembled at talented cluster of U.S. political historians that would have been hard to imagine when I was at graduate school.

If Americans could benefit from reading more political history, they just need to look—many of the nation’s top history departments are now populated with exciting scholars. The big problem is not the dearth of good scholarship but the gap between public and media debates with the literature we now have. We need to develop outlets for historical work that replicate what “The Upshot” in the New York Times, “The Monkey Cage” in The Washington Post, Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight and Vox have done for statistical analysis

I have found undergraduate students are usually very receptive and excited to the new approaches in political history since the work helps to make sense of what they are seeing in the news, taking them beyond the horse-race narrative that doesn’t seem to get too deep into the causal forces behind democratic debates. I have found them extremely interested, for instance, when I talk about the broader structural causes behind polarization in Washington that move beyond saying that members of Congress are just not civil anymore or when I talk about the history of Howard Stern’s career to raise questions about our conventional assumptions about a stark red and blue political culture.

While I think that Logevall and Osgood have made an important point about why political history matters, I think that they should be feeling pretty good about how things have shaped up since the 1990s.

In terms of the lack of jobs, that is a different story. The meager number of jobs in political history is not unique to the field. Everyone in the history profession currently faces a job market that isn’t there. With the exception of only a handful of subject areas, graduate students are facing a brutal job outlook as government cuts in public education, the ongoing financial trauma from 2008, rising institutional costs for all colleges and univerties, and a shift toward adjunct teaching has meant that the listings on H-Net are continually bare. Even in a profession that is perpetually difficult with regards to jobs (just ask social historians in the 1970s about their outlook despite the importance of the field) these are the worst of times. But that is the subject for another article.

Julian E. Zelizer is the Malcolm Stevenson Forbes, Class of 1941 Professor of History and Public Affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 18 books in American political history and over 600 op-eds, including a weekly column for CNN.Com. He is also an OAH Distinguished Lecturer.