Zelizer: Political History is Doing Just Fine, Thank You


Julian Zelizer

Earlier this week I responded to Frederik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood’s New York Times piece on political history with the post, “Has Political History Fallen Out of Favor?” Logevall and Osgood lamented that few colleges and universities are still teaching political history.

I responded:

If we measure success by courses taught, Logevall and Osgood may be correct.  For the last half-century historians have criticized the old-fashioned practice of teaching American history as one political election after another.  But I wonder if political history has ever really left.  The turn toward social and cultural history has, in many ways, reinvigorated the field.

But even if political history is defined narrowly, the last decade has seen some great works in the field.  I am thinking here of Heather Cox Richardson’s To Make Men Free: A History of the Republican Party, Daniel Walker Howe’s What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of Amercia, 1815-1848; Edward Larson’s A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800; Rick Perlstein’s work on American conservatives; a slew of presidential biographies; and I could go on an on.  And what about “Hamilton” on Broadway?

I appreciate Thomas  Sugrue of New York University taking notice of my thoughts:

Now Julian Zelizer of Princeton has responded to Logevall and Osgood at Process (the blog of the Organization of American Historians) with a post titled “Political History is Doing AOK.”

Here is a taste:

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.

Read the rest here.