Above: Gerda Lerner, Badass Political Historian
This is a guest post by Gabriel Rosenberg and Ariel Ron. Gabriel N. Rosenberg is assistant professor of gender, sexuality, and feminist Studies at Duke University and the author of The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. Ariel Ron is assistant professor of history at Southern Methodist University and working on a book tentatively titled, Grassroots Leviathan: Northern Agrarian Nationalism in the Slaveholding Republic.
If you hang around history professors, you’ll inevitably hear some carping: They sure don’t write history like they used to! Plumbers and insurance agents probably do something similar when they get together. But it’s weird for a profession premised on historical context to indulge such a naively nostalgic narrative of its own development. The latest entry is a New York Times Op-Ed by Frederik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood titled, “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”
Trick question! We never stopped. Political history is fine. In fact, it’s never been better. (It’s American politics that stinks.)
The Logevall and Osgood editorial pushes a narrative of decline for political history. Once upon a time, American historians foregrounded “the doings of governing elites” and, thus, fostered general civic literacy and understanding of the political process. Some political historians, they contend, even wielded influence over policy makers. But historians in the 1970s turned their attention to charting the influence of social movements—laborers, women, non-whites, and gays—and to “recovering the lost experiences of these groups.” As a result, “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” Universities neglected history concerned with the hows and whys of governance, and now they fail to educate students adequately on “the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.”
Indeed, Logevall and Osgood claim political history as a “field of study has cratered.” The anchor for this claim? The purported paucity of job ads dedicated to “political history.”
It’s true that US historians were once (overly) focused on political elites. But what about the rest of the story?
Let’s start with the evidence cited. Logevall and Osgood say that only fifteen jobs in the last decade advertised for “political history.” The AHA’s Executive Director, Jim Grossman, says that number is off by a factor of seven. There were 107 political history jobs in the last decade by his count. Regardless, Logevall and Osgood don’t report the total number of the jobs advertised, how those numbers compare to other fields of specialization, or how the current number of political history jobs compares to the halcyon days of yore. Touting the size of a numerator as meaningful without offering the denominator is a terrible use of numbers, and we would need significantly more historical context to make “fifteen” meaningful.
However, we do have some reliable data to draw conclusions about trends. The AHA published a study of trends in specialization in December of 2015. That study found that fields such as intellectual and social history had seen sharp declines since the 1970s. But, contrary to Logevall and Osgood, the study found that the percentage of historians studying political history had increased slightly since 1975. In fact, there has been seen a noticeable uptick since 2010 (probably coincident with the “new political history” discussed later).
Logevall and Osgood seem to have been looking in the wrong places, and where they should have been looking tells another story. Job advertisements, as every recently minted PhD knows, are a poor guide to the state of the scholarship or of teaching. History departments’ hiring committees tend to advertise for chronological periods because they know whoever gets the job, regardless of their specialty, will teach courses covering political history. A better measure of political history’s health would be scholarly output, which has been robust to say the least. Just look at the catalogs of top-notch university presses such as Princeton’s, Penn’s, Cornell’s, Yale’s, and so on. Or witness the burgeoning field of policy history, which boasts its own journal and steadily growing biannual conference. Similarly, the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations has been doing very well in recent years, as has the Legal History Society. There is also the small matter of cognate fields such as political science and sociology, each of which generate an impressive amount of writing and teaching on political history.
The core flaw of Logevall and Osgood’s argument, however, is its narrow definition of politics as “the doings of governing elites.” This definition effectively writes the most significant contributions to political history of the last few decades out of political history. Logevall and Osgood nod to the “long overdue diversification of the academy” and “the recover[y] of lost experiences” that have “enriched the national story.” Talk about damning with faint praise! Enriching the national story is a lovely compliment, but what about enriching our understanding of how political processes actually work? Historians who study gender, race, laborers, sexuality, capitalism, and the environment have been doing just that and it’s led to remarkable insights.
The examples are so numerous it’s hard to keep track even in just the field of twentieth century US history. Start with Erik’s book, Empire of Timber: Labor Unions and the Pacific Northwest Forests. He argues you can’t understand the political influence of organized labor in the Northwest without understanding the ecological, social, and cultural context of logging. Or Gabe’s book, The 4-H Harvest: Sexuality and the State in Rural America. It contends that you can’t understand the trajectory of early twentieth century US state building, the New Deal state, or postwar international development without grappling with cultural norms of gender and sexuality. Or take Michelle Nickerson’s dissection of the relationship between maternalist activism and the rise of the New Right. Or Timothy Stewart-Winter’s examination of how gay activists shaped Chicago’s postwar politics. Or Nathan Connolly’s work on the politics of property ownership in African American communities during Jim Crow. Or Adrienne Petty’s study of small farmers, race, and the cross-racial appeals of populism. Or Daniel Immerwahr’s exploration of the boomerang trajectory of community development programs at-home and abroad. Or Ruben Flores’s account of the relationship between Mexican social reformers and the US Civil Rights Movement.
All of these books make a case for studying more than just national political elites if you want to understand political outcomes. They all make a strong case for the fundamental inadequacy of such an elite-centered approach.
More broadly, big-ticket, field-defining works of political history in the past two decades have included Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, Kevin Kruse’s White Flight, Mae Ngai’s Impossible Subjects. Tom Sugrue’s Origins of the Urban Crisis, Michael Willrich’s City of Courts, Bethany Moreton’s To Serve God and Walmart, Nayan Shah’s Stranger Intimacy, Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally, Cindy Hahamovitch’s No Man’s Land, Meg Jacobs’ Pocketbook Politics, Françoise Hamlin’s Crossroads at Clarksdale, Margot Canaday’s The Straight State, Robert Self’s American Babylon, and Regina Kunzel’s Criminal Intimacy.
And there have been several important edited volumes charting the contours of the “new political history.” These include the influential 2003 volume The Democratic Experiment, a volume edited by Julian Zelizer, Meg Jacobs, and William Novak. Since then Julian Zelizer and Kim Phillips-Fein edited a volume synthesizing new political history with the emergent “histories of capitalism,” while William Novak, Jim Sparrow, and Stephen Sawyer edited a volume foregrounding anti-foundationalist histories of the American state.
A very similar story could be told about the scholarship on the nineteenth and eighteenth centuries. Historical understanding of these periods has been completely reshaped by books that take Indians, African-Americans and women seriously as political actors and that have thereby generated much fresh insight on such well-studied political figures as Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Ariel’s work even reframes the Civil War era by examining the politics of a “marginal” group Logevall and Osgood might even approve of studying more: white northern farmers.
All of these works are vital contributions to US political history that speak to the vibrancy and health of the field. (The nation’s most prolific political historian, Julian Zelizer, even wrote a book called Governing America: The Revival of Political History!) They evince a field that is broadly inclusive in analytic approach and topic and hungry for conversation with other specializations. None of these works are narrowly preoccupied with the doings of national political elites. But nor are they indifferent to them. Instead they are unified by an effort to show how laws and policy, political institutions, and political actors (elite, middling, and marginal) are embedded within social differences such as race, sex, class, sexuality, and nationality that actually produce political outcomes. These works also emphasize that actors and outcomes are shaped by the decentered, layered, and diffuse structure of the American state, as well as the permeable boundaries between private and public power. The “big” traditional political histories Logevall and Osgood celebrate often failed to appreciate precisely those complexities and, thus, elided the role of seemingly marginal actors in shaping policies, institutions, and outcomes.
In other words, it wasn’t just that older political histories were normatively suspect because they excluded women, workers, blacks, migrants, gays, grassroots activists, middle-managers and petty elites, etc. from the narrative. Those exclusions also made for implausible and limited accounts of how and why political events occurred as they did. The problem wasn’t (just) that they were ethically suspect histories that “lost the voices” of non-elites. They were also bad history in the boring, dour empiricist sense of the term: they don’t provide adequate explanations of what happened.
Logevall and Osgood’s invocation of the current election cycle, then, is a particularly ironic coda. Trumpism has many fathers, no doubt. But it represents a moment when party outsiders and seemingly marginal actors wrested control of the Republican party from the ‘big players” Logevall and Osgood suggest we should study. Explaining Trumpism without taking into account the role of race, class, and gender in American politics would be nonsense. Likewise it would be impossible to explain Bernie Sanders’s surprisingly successful movement-style campaign without reference to the history of American social movements outside of the usual elite channels. It would also be a mistake in either case to ignore the labyrinthine structure of American political institutions that govern elections. Indeed, we agree with Logevall and Osgood that current political discussions would benefit from greater contextualization drawn from American political history. A good way to start that would be to read—and then appreciate—the excellent works of political history already being written.