The Strange Death(?) of Political History

The glory days

The glory days of American political history?

Historians are back in the news, this time not as a scolds (“this bit of history in popular culture isn’t historical enough”) but as Cassandras. Recently Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, writing under the New York Times print edition headline “The End of Political History?,” bemoan the collapse political history as an area fit for study by professional historians.[1] Jobs in political history have dried up, fewer courses in the subject are offered in universities, few people are entering graduate school to specialize in the subject and hence “the study of America’s political past is being marginalized.” To Logevall and Osgood this marginalization has two tragic effects. Firstly, it denies American citizens’ access to the intellectual tools necessary to historicize our contemporary politics and “serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy ‘lessons of the past.’” It also denies historians access to political power, the ability to influence policy and policymakers in the mode of C. Vann Woodward and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Logevall and Osgood’s funeral dirge for political history is the latest verse in the long ballad unleashed by the historiographical revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s. As Logevall and Osgood note, the expansion of what’s considered “acceptable” history came, at least in some sense, at the expense of political history. This expansion—the “long overdue diversification of the academy”—meant that political historians had to share the academic stage with scholars with often radically different perspectives. But did this intellectual revolution “end” political history as something that concerned professional historians?

To put it pithily: Is political history dead?

Logevall and Osgood’s piece draws most of its inspiration and examples from their area of specialty, the twentieth-century United States, but the concerns they raise are very much present in the historiography of the early America. For an example, one need look no further than Gordon Wood’s recent review of Alan Taylor’s latest massive synthesis, American Revolutions. Wood frames Taylor’s take on the revolution as opposed to the political history eulogized by Logevall and Osgood. Wood argues that, as an heir to the transformations of the 1960s and 1970s, Taylor’s interpretation of the American Revolution as “sordid, racist and divisive” prevents the founding of the United States as acting as an “inspiration for a nation.”

Perhaps political history is dead, but it died a strange death. It is certainly true that, from a certain point of view, political history has declined over the last several decades. But that perspective is partially a matter of definitions. Logevall and Osgood have a very constrained definition of what constitutes political history—the subject as “a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics.” From this narrow slice of ground it is easy to bemoan the subject’s decline.

Does such a limited definition function in 2016? In the context of the historiography of the early United States, Logevall and Osgood’s definition ignores many important trends among political historians themselves. New political historians expanded the study of political life into demographics and brought it more into conversation with political science. The “new new political historians” pushed further and foregrounded the role of culture, particularly popular culture, in politics. Alongside this the growth of African-American, gender, and social history forced a fundamental change in what it means to be political. The search for politics moved out of the state house and into the streets, the fields, the parlor, and even the bedroom. In the narrative of early American political history white legislators and statesmen are forced to share the stage with Irish canal workers in Ohio, free African-American artisans in the Philadelphia, dispossessed Native Americans in Oklahoma, an enslaved person attending a Methodist meeting in rural North Carolina, or women leading a petition drive in a New England town.

Despite these transformations political historians have not retreated from trying to influence public policy. Of course few historians have the direct access to power and policy in the mode of Arthur Schlesinger and it seems unlikely that either a President Trump or Clinton will appoint a historian as a special assistant. Yet historians still attempt to influence through the public sphere (hence Logevall and Osgood’s Times piece) and the courts—sometimes successfully and other times less so.

All of this may seem obvious to many, which is why Logevall and Osgood’s Times piece has been roundly dismissed by many historians on social media.[2] Yet their piece does shed light on some of the tensions relating to the place of political history in the profession. On one hand historians in 2016 are more equipped than ever to offer a political history of early America, and the United States more broadly, that speaks to our diverse society. The political history of women, African-Americans, Native peoples, and many others are better understood than ever before. New work is expanding this understanding year after year. At the same time, the narrative about the United States that emerges out of this scholarship is a far-from-pleasant one of straightforward democratic progress. This brings us back around to Gordon Wood’s review of Alan Taylor’s latest book.

A vision of the American Revolution that attempts to fully incorporate all the experiences recovered by the expansion of political history over the last half-century cannot help but depict, as Wood puts it, the new republic as “sordid, racist and divisive.” The contradictions at the heart of the American Revolution, between a republic established for self-government and the tight demarcation that separated the selves doing the governing from the governed, cannot be ignored in the wake of the transformation of political history. Yet this is a narrative that can be very politically unpalatable to modern Americans and does not easily fit into a mainstream book market that is often looking for a constant stream of Founders biographies. At the same time, we need to find a better way to make this narrative accessible to the broader public. Large works of synthesis, such as Taylor’s, are a starting point but there has yet to be the sort of breakthrough that would challenge the assumption that Logevall and Osgood’s conception of the political history still holds analytic water.

To Logevall and Osgood, the reason the decline of political history matters is that “[k]nowledge of our political past” held previous generations of politicians in check. Our modern ignorance of the subject helped spawn “this age of extreme partisanship” where everyone—politicians, citizens, journalists, and even historians—is “insufficiently aware of the importance that compromise has played in America’s past, of the vital role of mutual give-and-take in the democratic process.” The implication is clear: if Paul Ryan and Harry Reid could read our about legislative history, there would be no deadlock in Congress; if Republican primary voters could read a history of American elections, there would be no Trump candidacy; whatever one believes ails the American republic at the moment could be remedied if political history was actually taught in our universities and offered for sale on Amazon.[3]

The strange thing, to me, is that political history informed by the newest methodologies and perspectives has a greater chance of helping us explain our present troubles and, perhaps, navigate a path to the future. If there is one thing the 2016 election cycle has shown it is that Americans are divided on most issues facing the republic. Swaths of citizens feel disenfranchised and excluded from politics and power, often for radically differing and contradictory reasons. To explain the rise of Trump, for example, turning to the history of “elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics,” as Logevall and Osgood would have us do, can only explain so much. Let’s not forget that the Donald is more Sam Patch than Andrew Jackson. 2016 can only be understood if we try and tell a story that includes the experiences of a coal miner in Kanawha County, WV, an African-American pharmacy tech in West Philadelphia, a multi-millionaire living in Trump Tower, a suburban family in Forth Worth, TX, and a Standing Rock Sioux protesting a North Dakota pipeline. Only with such a broad-based narrative can we even begin to get a sense of this election.[4] Old methodologies won’t get us there; only by broadening our sense of what and who is political can we actually work towards the intellectual and political humility Logevall and Osgood desire for our political culture.

If political history is dead, it died a strange death. More historians than ever are writing about politics—if not on the terms laid out by Logevall and Osgood.[5] Our understanding of our political past is much fuller than it was in the glory years of Schlesinger and Woodward. Perhaps, then, Logevall and Osgood are more naysayers than prophets, less Cassandra and more Archie Bunker.

_______________________

[1] The online edition has the much less sensational headline of “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”

[2] Those who wrote in to the Times itself far from dismissed the piece. Several historians echoed the arguments of Logevall and Osgood and even went as far as to bemoan the downfall of their particular subfield.

[3] Logevall and Osgood seem to fetishize the seeming consensus years of mid-century American politics, which recent scholarship has shown were much more political divided than previously thought. Consensus masked division and exclusion of many from political life. For very brief overview see: Meg Jacobs, “The Uncertain Future of American Politics, 1940 to 1973,” in American History Now, ed. Eric Foner and Lisa McGirr (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 151–74.

[4] Alongside many other examples, of course.

[5] For just two recent examples two new summer releases: Robert Parkinson’s The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution and Caitlin Fitz’s Our Sister Republics: The United States in an Age of American Revolutions.

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3 comments on “The Strange Death(?) of Political History

  1. Alec Rogers says:

    This critique focuses heavily on scholarship, particularly the type that is read mostly by academics and nerds (a term I used to describe myself as a non-academic who reads at least some of these works). If you want to engage the question posed by the article, I think you need to focus more on course catalogs.

    This fall, my alma mater (a BIG 10 public university) offers no courses on Colonial America, Revolutionary America or the Civil War. Am Hist courses include both sides of “the Survey”, US Business and Economic History, American Cinema and the American Century, Modern United States, Women in the US to 1869, Asian American History, College Sports History (this sounds awesome actually).

    Undoubtedly, these are worthy topics and will contain political aspects to them. But without the traditional “big picture” courses studying the Founding, the Antebellum Period, Civil War and Reconstruction, etc. the framework in which these other courses can be fully appreciated is absent.

  2. This sort of lament seems to appear periodically in my sub-field (military history). Similar to what’s mentioned above, while “traditional” military histories focused on battles and generals have declined in the academy, works that cross boundaries between conflict, gender, culture, and memory have flourished.

  3. Jacob says:

    I would agree that “a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics” is way too narrow. I seem to recall, and it’s been awhile, so maybe I am wrong, Plato, or Aristotle, defining politics basically as ‘the interaction of everything with everything else’. If that is correct, then political science, political history, intellectual history, etc. would need to include philanthropy, policy institutions, corporations, university behavior, and law, as well as the things traditionally considered political (Congress, parties, elections, etc.) – the politics of things. The gender, race, ethnicity focus – identity politics – is a disaster and will fragment the audience of the subjects in general.*

    Looking back at my time as an undergraduate I think my University was a disaster (midwest Big 10). Political History is certainly dying (as is diplomatic history – i cannot think of anything more important to US diplomatic/political history than Phillip Kerr and his associates for the 50 years prior to 1940 – but that certainly won’t be covered in school for any reason – if you bring it up your professor will almost undoubtedly refer you to the aluminum foil headgear bazaar).

    Since graduation I have spent lots of free time accumulating and reading books and essays on history, which make me feel like I was robbed. My APD class (History of American Political Development), and this did not occur to me at the time (because I was ignorant, how could it?), did not even cover John Taylor of Caroline Country, skipped Woodrow Wilson, and included Herbert Spencer in that time frame – absurd – as if Woodrow Wilson’s 30 years of political writings as an academic are not relevant to APD, but an American Anglophile Darwinian eugenicist is. Further, what I have discovered since graduation, is that American ideas were smothered out of relevance, more or less 125 years ago, by the importation of British education content (“progress” and the unwritten constitution; empiricism) and German political pedagogy (behaviorism and historicism; the administrative state – for the training of bureaucrats); this is essentially the origin of the ‘new’ political science. Both sets of ideas are antagonistic to the ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence (universality of principles) and the Constitution (enumeration). None of this was covered at all in my classes on US political history.

    I get the impression that American political ideas are being not just forgotten, but eliminated from credible intellectual consideration. If one is to look at the current pedagogical trends (Oxford’s International Handbook on Comparative Education, for instance), it is toward “globalized” everything – it is almost a no-brainer that these educational trends are political in nature (an agenda if you will) and that American political ideas will be recognizably hostile toward that end. You can see this in the philosophy departments as well; American philosophers, with original contributions to philosophy, are not studied in American Universities. Where Charles Peirce could be studied he is not; instead we get Frege, Russell, Wittgenstien, Popper, etc. Peirce is almost universally superior to all of them, but who has heard of Peirce?

    “Old methodologies won’t get us there; only by broadening our sense of what and who is political can we actually work towards the intellectual and political humility Logevall and Osgood desire for our political culture.”

    ^ That I disagree with. Some things matter more than others – selecting what is relevant for inclusion in historical works is, like, numero uno in historiography; just because some emotionally crippled person feels left out doesn’t mean they, or their ancestors, are important in the grand scheme of things (I don’t see people breaking their backs to get ‘a history of Polish contributions to American washing machine production’ out to press). I think all available facts should be found, and am all for specialized histories of obscure and/or overlooked topics, but those are projects for vanity presses. They should not dominate the discourse as the politically dangerous fragmentary identity topics seem to today. When we discuss US political history – it should be about the political history of the US.

    Honestly, what would go the furthest to solving the problems that stem from the “democratization” of [insert topic – “school”], is two things, (1) the dramatic raising of the standards for admittance into Universities and (2) a dramatic reduction in the amount of student loans. [I’m sure that is music to a professor’s ears, haha!] Doing these things will place the Ivory Tower back in its place of elitist higher minded institutions not wont to admit or submit to the demands of the hoi polloi; it would reduce the amount of ‘scholarly’ output; and it would close numerous nightmarish debt soaked administrative bureaucracies whose continued existence is contingent upon students borrowing money from institutions that are creating it out of thin air (Sallie Mae, commercial banks) as if there are no negative consequences from such sustained behavior. Something has to get past the notion that everyone deserves [insert modern luxury – “an education”]. Just because someone has a degree doesn’t mean they are educated, knowledgeable, or even smart. Why do we feel the need to ensure universal degree holding? If you want humility in academia, then close 90% of universities and tell the people who do not attend, or work in them, that the people who do are not any better or worse than the average person.

    * Political scientists/historians should be studying the effects of Soviet academic propaganda and ideological subversion in the US. It seems to me there is a fruitful explanation for what has happened in the last forty years to be had somewhere in there. I doubt it is a coincidence that the Soviets promoted all of the “liberation” and “identity” groupings and ideologies that we “study” today. What is more, these things are being institutionalized – rather than defining grammar, logic, and rhetoric as “general education” for undergraduates, they are given “the cultural history of Puerto Rico,” “how white males are inherently oppressive,” and “gendered interpretations of intercultural Othernesses” as general education credits – it’s obviously propaganda – none of those things help anyone read or calculate. The Universities are either run by morons, or have been subsumed by social engineers. However, if I had to bet…it’s probably both.

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