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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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.
 The online edition has the much less sensational headline of “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?”
 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.
 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.
 Alongside many other examples, of course.
 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.