“I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore”

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Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, co-authors of Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, argue that the outrage displayed by television anchor Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network (and revived on stage starring Bryan Cranston) should not surprise present-day Americans.

Here is a taste of their piece in The New York Daily News:

The current play and the original film are clever parodies of the news industry. When the movie debuted in 1976, audiences were entertained by its prediction of a dark future of the evening news — a dystopia driven by commercialized, sensationalized, and celebrity-driven formats for delivering information.

At the time, ABC anchorwoman Barbara Walters insisted, “There’ll never be that kind of show-biz approach to the news. The entertainment side of television is more respectful of the news side than at any time in the past.”

Seen in 2019, however, Cranston’s performance largely confirms the reality of what we see and read on a daily basis. As the star said in an interview about the show, “talking about the packaging of news and manipulating audiences . . . being addicted to our televisions . . . that’s exactly what is happening.”

Beale no longer surprises us and, in some ways, even seems a bit tame. (One reviewer noted that the character doesn’t have access to Twitter, which would make things even worse).

While contemporary commentators have noted the ways in which the news industry has become increasingly partisan, they have not given enough weight to another, equally important aspect of the industry’s modern history — the ways in which news has become sensationalized.

Read the entire piece here.

The Role of Historians in “Unfaking the News” (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL reports on a very relevant panel held at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association.  You can read all his posts here. Enjoy! –JF

This afternoon’s AHA19 panel, “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Age of Trump,” was a lively and much needed discussion on the role that historians can and should play in bringing their scholarship to the general public through mass media.  It was by far the most political session I’ve attended, but it’s hard to envision how that could have been avoided, considering the session’s namesake politician’s evident lack of historical understanding and (according to the Washington Post just two months ago) average of five false or misleading claims per day since becoming president.

The format was round-robin and each round of discussion was started with a question posed by session chair Kenneth Osgood.  This allowed for plenty of back and forth from the panelists and a good deal of follow-up questions and commentary from the audience.  What follows are two of the questions asked, with a summary of the responses from the historians on the panel.

1)  What’s an issue facing the country that cries out for meaningful historical understanding?

Nicole Hemmer – “The crisis of political journalism in the Age of Trump.”  According to Hemmer, the values of objective reporting have come under fire and the solution of some to just offer both sides has led to false equivalencies being created and unchallenged notions being promoted on the air and in print.

Jeremi Suri – “The bureaucracy (the ‘Deep State’).”  Despite its demonization, and view by some during the current government shutdown that it’s even unnecessary, Suri explained how bureaucracy is a good thing.  It makes our lives better and we need it.  At a conference with attendees from all over the country, his example of the air traffic controllers who are currently working without pay had easy resonance.

Julian Zelizer – “Partisanship and polarization … we need to understand just how deeply rooted this disfunction is or we’ll always be waking up like we’re Alice in Wonderland.”

Jeffrey Engel – “How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how do those responsibilities overlap?”  He continued, tongue in cheek, “When Trump sends that next tweet, we need to be able to step in and say, ‘well no, John Adams also tweeted that.’”  In some of the more sobering analysis from the panel, Engel admitted that over the past two years he has genuinely started to think that the Republic is in danger.  “What does the history we are talking about mean to us today?” he asked.  “These are unusual times.”

2)  Is Donald Trump just saying out loud what other presidents have thought in quiet?  Is the Trump Presidency unprecedented?

Hemmer – “The ‘just saying it out loud’ is important … that matters.”

Suri – “What makes Trump unprecedented is that despite the impossibility of the job, he doesn’t even try to do it.  He’s the first president to not be president.  He is running the Trump Organization from the White House.  He is using the office to help his family … He is running a mafia organization from the Oval Office … Every other president has tried to do the job; he is not doing the job.”

Zelizer – The unusual question we’re continuing to see played out is, “how far to the brink is the party of the president willing to go in support of their president?”

Engel – “Abraham Lincoln’s most recent thoughts didn’t immediately pop up on your phone.”  He continued, “If any other president had admitted to having an extramarital affair with a porn star, their world would have exploded.  It’s important to know just how far we have, and how far we have not, come in the last two years.”  Engel explained that never in the discussion of Stormy Daniels was anyone seriously questioning whether it happened.  The debate was always over whether it was illegal.  And for him, that’s a shocking development.  He also cautioned that historians have to be careful with how they use the word “unprecedented.”

Suri – “We need to move people away from the false use of history.”  For him, the word unprecedented means “beyond the pale for the context that we are in and the trajectory we’ve been on.”  He stressed that historians need to push back against the impulse to say that “everything is Hitler,” just as much as they need to push back against the narrative that “everything is normal.”

Osgood had opened the session with the observation that “these challenges were not invented by Donald Trump, but they have been exacerbated by him.”  Towards the end of the panel he added that for Trump, “Twitter is the source of his power.”  With that in mind, perhaps it’s a good thing that Kevin Kruse, Kevin Levin, the Tattooed Prof, and other so-called “twitterstorians” are practicing public history online and on the air.

Thanks, Matt!

Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America (#AHA19)

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Matt Lakemacher of Woodland Middle School in Gurnee, IL is back with another post from the annual meeting of the American Historical Association going on this weekend in Chicago.  You can read all his posts here.  –JF

Could there be a better moment for a revival of the 1976 film “Network” on the Broadway stage, starring the man (Bryan Cranston) who played such television white everymen as Hal on Malcom in the Middle and Walter White on Breaking Bad, than during the so-called “age of Trump,” what Ed Stetzer has dubbed “The Age of Outrage?”  As the screenwriter Aaron Sorkin rightly noted, “no predictor of the future – not even Orwell – has ever been as right as Chayefsky was when he wrote ‘Network.’”  So, it’s interesting and perhaps no coincidence, that in their new book Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974, Princeton historians Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer pick up the story of the fracturing of an America that’s “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore” only two years before Howard Beale (Peter Finch) delivered that famous movie line.

Today Kruse chaired, and Zelizer sat on, a panel that explored the topic of “Divided Loyalties in the United States: Polarization and Partisanship in Contemporary America” at AHA19.  Nicole Hemmer kicked things off with a simple premise: polarization might have a negative connotation for most people, but it hasn’t been bad for everyone.  Over the last several decades, for conservatives and the Republican party, polarization has worked.  Hemmer gave two reasons for this strategy’s success on the right – an increased reliance on the politics of “playing to the base” (something Reagan, Bush 41, and even, at first, Gingrich did not overtly do) and a powerfully ideological media platform (i.e. talk radio starting with Limbaugh and then the Bealeistic rage-machine that became FOX News).

Timothy Stewart-Winter pushed back against the narrative that the United States is more divided today than it ever was, and did so through the prism of LGBTQ rights.  He deconstructed two common Obama tropes: first, that the 43rd president accomplished nothing after November of 2010 and, second, that he failed to remake the America of blue states and red states into a United States in the image of his 2004 DNC speech. According to Stewart-Winter, “what Lyndon Baines Johnson was for Civil Rights, Barack Obama was for gay rights.”  The man who hadn’t even heard of the Stonewall Riots when he ran for the Senate included a reference to it in his second inaugural address, after declaring his support for marriage equality at the same point in his political career that both President Clinton and Bush 43 had tacked to the right on that same issue.  Said Stewart-Winter, “Obama modeled for many Americans, especially men, what it means to change your mind.”  As polling continues to indicate and Stewart-Winter effectively argued, the nation changed their minds with President Obama, and the Trump Administration’s recent attempts to limit the rights of transgender people seem unlikely to reverse that cultural shift.

According to Leah Wright Rigueur, “political polarization is racial polarization.”  She placed the origins of America’s current political climate a little earlier than Kruse and Zelizer did, in the Goldwater campaign of 1964 and the subsequent conservative ascendancy within the GOP.  She powerfully made the connection from Goldwater to Reagan when she stated, “If Goldwater rang the death knell for black Republicans, Ronald Reagan dug the grave and buried the bodies.”  Wright Rigueur also made an effective argument for the idea that despite the entrenchment of partisanship in recent years, many black voters (especially pre and post Obama) are often voters without a party.  Most can’t conceive of voting Republican but feel that the Democratic party ignores them or takes them for granted.  The black vote (or absence of it), just might have been the decisive factor in the 2016 presidential election.

Zelizer concluded by agreeing with Hemmer’s thesis that the political right has benefited immensely from polarization since the 1970s, but added that the left has been just as susceptible to using divide and conquer strategies and ideologically-driven media platforms.  The difference has been, according to him, that liberals just haven’t been very good at using either of those tactics successfully.  Like Stewart-Winter, Zelizer also countered the idea that there’s been an overall shift to the right among Americans.  The progress made in feminism and gay rights belie that narrative.  As Zelizer noted, however, “we have left many questions unanswered since the 1970s.”  The answers to those questions animated culture warriors like Jerry Falwell Sr. and Phyllis Schlafly in their day and that mantle has been taken up by Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham today.  When seen as a desperate, rear-guard action to save White Christian America, perhaps it makes sense why in the age of Trump, some people are still “mad as hell and … not going to take this anymore.”

Thanks, Matt!

Are Anti-Trumpers Paranoid?

Paranoid StyleI have argued that fear helps explain the evangelical embrace of Donald Trump in 2016.  When I speak, blog, and tweet about Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald TrumpI am often asked about the role fear might play in the political lives of anti-Trumpers.  Are Trump’s opponents afraid of what he will do to the country?  Of course they are.  But I did not write a general book about the relationship between fear and politics.  Instead, I wrote a book about why 81% of white evangelical voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump.

Historian and cultural critic Andrew Bacevich thinks that anti-Trumpers are paranoid and such paranoia is bad for the republic.  Princeton historian Julian Zelizer disagrees.  Here is a taste of his piece at CNN:

Making his opponents look paranoid has in fact been a conscious strategy of the President. This is why he warns that critical news is not real and how a “deep state” is driving the investigation against him.

Paranoia is certainly a relevant problem in US political history. But Hofstadter’s theory doesn’t capture most of what is going on with Trump’s opponents. Nor does the President when he sweeps aside the critics of his jaw-dropping press conference in Helsinki, Finland, as “haters.”

Brushing aside a majority of the President’s critics as showing signs of paranoia misses the new political reality of the Trump administration.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Anything “Unprecedented” About Donald Trump?

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Trump places a wreath at site of Andrew Jackson’s tomb in Nashville

I teach my students that historians often think in terms of change and continuity.  In the age of Trump I have been hammering this lesson home more than usual.  Is Trump just another manifestation of nativism, populism, xenophobia, narcissism, etc.?  Or is Trump something completely new?

Historian and public intellectual Julian Zelizer reflects on this issue in a piece at The Atlantic.  Here is a taste:

As a “public intellectual” who takes to the airwaves frequently, I often find myself fielding this question about all sorts of issues. The gatekeepers of the chyron perpetually have their ears open to hear a guest utter those words. Because of how unpredictable and bizarre so much of the news seems to be in the era of Trump, the desire to blurt out “unprecedented!” when discussing the state of American politics is always strong.

For a historian such as myself, using the term is always trickier than it seems. The knee-jerk response to the “unprecedented” question is to instantly reach back into our database and recall a person, a moment, or a crisis that reveals unexpected similarities to what is happening today. If we misuse the term unprecedented, we risk missing what is really new while ignoring the deep political roots to what is currently taking place in Washington. We fall prey to Trump Exceptionalism by forgetting how much of the ugliness and dysfunction did not appear out nowhere. If we look into the window of history, we can see that much of Trump’s presidency has a pretty solid foundation.

If we use “unprecedented” with care, then we are able to see what is genuinely distinct about the moment within which we live. Never have we had a president, for instance, who directly communicates with the public in the same kind of unscripted, ad-hoc, and off-the-cuff manner as we have witnessed with Trump. The kind of unbridled rhetorical attacks that he has unleashed on every enemy from the news industry to Puerto Rican officials to kneeling NFL football players to Republican legislators has been a striking contrast to what we have witnessed in American presidential history. In contrast to FDR, who spoke directly to the public through fireside chats on the radio that were carefully crafted, thoughtfully edited, and broadcast strategically, President Trump has used Twitter to literally say what is on his mind at any moment without much consideration for the consequences. This is a new style of presidential communication and a dramatic lowering of the editorial barrier as to what the commander in chief is willing to utter before the world.

Read the entire piece here.

How Will Trump Shape Generation Z’s View of the Presidency?

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Historian Julian Zelizer explores this question at CNN.com.  Here is a taste:

If Richard Nixon taught the baby boomers that they could never fully trust a president, Trump is erasing any expectation whatsoever that the president should aim to heal and lift the dignity of the Republic.

Most striking has been the fact that he abandoned any sense that a president should strive to achieve unity. He is at war with almost everyone. One of his most consistent characteristics has been his willingness and eagerness to divide. Since his campaign, he has introduced Americans to a new enemy on a weekly basis.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Historians Discuss American History in the Age of Trump

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Tom Ashbrook interviews historians Judith Giesberg and Julian Zelizer on his WBUR-Boston show “On Point”

Listen here.

Themes discussed and things learned:

  • Julian Zelizer is writing a book about Newt Gingrich
  • Zelizer says that we should be careful not to place Trump solely in “long term continuums.”  There is a lot about him that is unique, new, and unprecedented.
  • Giesberg trashes Newt Gingrich’s attempt to compare the culture wars with the American Civil War.
  • Giesberg reminds us that Confederate monuments were erected during Jim Crow.
  • Zelizer:  If you think that we are living in “two different countries” today, try learning something about the 1960s.
  • Giesburg assigns Eric Foner’s biography of Abraham Lincoln in her Civil War class at Villanova.
  • Giesburg argues that Lincoln learned a lot during his presidency.  So can Trump.  (But she is not optimistic).
  •  Zelizer:  In the 1990s, Gingrich pushed a kind of conservative populism similar to Trump’s base.
  • Zelizer connects Trump’s populism to Father Coughlin and George Wallace.  Trump is the first president to ride this wave of conservative populism to the White House.
  • Zelizer: Race-based nativism never went away.  Trump is not “restoring” anything.
  • Evangelicals Christian do call NPR stations and make thoughtful comments
  • Giesburg compares the Trump victory to the period of “redemption” at the end of Reconstruction.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

Historians

Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

Some Historical Perspective on the Watergate-Comey Comparison

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Nixon’s resignation speech (Wikipedia)

Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Martin Keller wonder if current comparisons between Watergate and the firing of James Comey are just another way for liberals, progressives, and Democrats to score political points.

Here is a taste of their conversation at The Atlantic:

Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump’s action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.

Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.

This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0  vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.

And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators.

Let us accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see Trump elected (though given Hillary’s reset efforts, and the isolationist, small-American profile of her party, that preference needs more explaining). But how much solid, Watergate-like evidence is there that Russian hacking, etc., made much difference in the election? Or are we supposed to swallow whole the risible idea that the disgruntled working-class (and middle-class) Trump voters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were receptive to Putin’s blandishments? Even in the current out-of-control politics of our time, that is a stretch.

I’m quite ready to see what emerges with respect to Trump, his associates, and Putin. But to airily equate the still far-from-demonstrated fact of significant Russian influence in the election (compared, say, to Hillary’s massive missteps) with the incontrovertible facts of Watergate is something I’m not prepared to do.

There is another defect in any meaningful Watergate-Comey comparison. The departures of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were sought by Nixon and his aides alone. The Democrats have been baying for Comey’s scalp since the days of the election. To erupt in high dudgeon when Trump—quite legally, if questionable politically—fired him, is to bring political hypocrisy to a high level indeed. Do you think for a moment that if Hillary Clinton was president, Comey’s tenure could be counted in more than milliseconds? Would she have bounced him because he had been a political detriment? Of course.

Did Trump do it because of the Russian inquiry? Perhaps—though there was good reason for him to have had doubts about Comey from the beginning of his presidency. Did he do it with typically Trumpian ham-handedness? You bet. Can more come out about Trump and Putin, Russia and the election, than we know now? Possibly. Has it yet? Not to my knowledge. As historians, we should not rush to judgment until there is good and sufficient evidentiary reason to do so.

At present, I don’t think the action is a demonstration of authoritarianism—any more than former President Barack Obama’s playing fast and loose with the handling of illegal immigrants or the specifics of Obamacare was. That’s just the sort of things that presidents do.

Read the back and forth here.

Have We Been Here Before?

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In the second part of their conversation about the United States in the age of Trump, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Morton Keller wonder if our current challenges are novel.

Here is a taste:

Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:

The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.

In short, for almost two centuries modern history was chiefly determined by social and economic forces, which now are long in the tooth, and are ever more subordinated to new forces, new ideas, new social realities.

But is this indeed the case? Or are we experiencing today what can best be described as new consequences of old facts of life? Is the computer-internet revolution just another turn of the technological wheel, which began to spin with the steam engine and picked up speed with electricity, germ theory, and the idea of evolution? Is Islamic terrorism essentially fascist and communist totalitarianism in a more explicitly religious form? And is the new stress on the evils of inequality, and the growing gulf between the educated urban privileged and their minority allies, primarily a replay of the old capitalist/bourgeois-worker class struggle?

On the whole, I think not. The computer and the internet bid fair to be as innovative and consequential in their effects as was the Gutenberg movable type revolution of the 15th century. Islamic militancy is very much a modern phenomenon, on a scale not seen since the 16th century. The current surge of nationalist, anti-party, anti-immigrant populism, evident in the British Brexit referendum, the 2016 American election, and the first round of the 2017 French election, is a dramatic turn away from the mainstream politics of the past three quarters of a century. And the growing separation between better educated, more affluent, big city or college town-based people and their less-educated, more economically and socially fragile, small town or stagnant city-based fellow-citizens, is evident not only in the United States but in England and France as well.

The consequences of these developments are still far from clear, and far from over. There have been discomforting signs of a taste for authoritarianism in both the Trump administration and the college campuses: two ideologically opposite but behaviorally similar responses to the new realities of life in the West. But there have also been signs of a turn to a more moderate and familiar style of governance in the administration, and an uptick in support for free speech among faculty and First Amendment advocates such as the ACLU (though not yet among students or administrators). How long-lasting this will be is anyone’s guess.

Read the entire conversation here.

 

Political Historians Discuss Trump’s First 100 Days

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I love the way Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, is bringing good American history to the magazine.  Today Princeton historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis historian Morton Keller put Trump’s first 100 days into some historical context.

Here is a taste:

Julian Zelizer: President Trump’s first 100 days in office are coming to a close. The grades will soon come out. Politicians, journalists, historians are all starting to evaluate how well or how poorly he has done. This does not go down in the “unprecedented” part of this presidency. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Congress a historic legislative agenda in the early part of his term, the 100-day mark has been a standard part of the political lexicon.

There are many reasons for why we keep using this measure. Once FDR set the bar, it became difficult not to make this comparison. For journalists the 100 day-mark is a nice, clean, and simple way to measure how things are going, while politicians look for ways to gauge the strength of the commander in chief. In our current culture of quick, instant satisfaction, we want presidents to deliver on promises right away—and we have little patience for waiting.

But the first 100 days in office don’t really tell us much. Some presidents who get off to a strong start, like Jimmy Carter, go on to struggle during the remainder of their terms. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have tough early months, but then go on to serve two terms and end their term with strong approval ratings. Some of the biggest presidential achievements, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Obama’s health-care reform, come long after the 100 days are over.

It’s also not clear what we should measure. In the current era of strong presidents, executive orders and action should certainly be part of what we evaluate. So, too, should actions by Cabinet leaders, as we see in the current administration when rightward leaning agency secretaries are working hard to undercut the missions of their own programs.

Putting too much pressure on success in the first 100 days creates incentives for quick, and sometimes hasty, action. Great legislation can take time to produce. The legislative process requires what political scientist Nelson Polsby called periods of policy incubation when experts revise and strengthen ideas, where policy makers build support for a bill, and when elected officials can evaluate and when elected officials can evaluate what kind of legislation will work best. Doing everything up front and right away is often antithetical to success especially in a polarized age when “no” is usually the easiest answer to new ideas.

I am as guilty as anyone else for still using this concept but it is probably time to move on to other measures. Asking how presidents did in the first 100 days usually tells us little about what is to come and might even create the exact political incentives we need to avoid.

Read the rest here.

 

Zelizer: Political History is Doing Just Fine, Thank You

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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.

 

Being A Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public

Julian Zelizer, Princeton University

On Saturday afternoon I attended a session at AHA 2015 entitled “Being a Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public.”  There were some high-powered historians on this panel, including Peniel Joseph, Claire Potter, Julian Zelizer, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin.  The place was packed–standing room only.

I live tweeted the session @johnfea1 and Storified the session here.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session–even found it inspiring.

In the end, the members of the panel seemed to have differing views on what the role and responsibilities of a “public intellectual.”  Peniel Joseph and Claire Potter were clearly historian-activists.  Zelizer called himself more of a “commentator” than an “activist.” (Joseph insisted that we can do both–comment and act). Foner approached his role as a public intellectual from a more traditional historical perspective. He believed that good scholarship could lead to social change.  Kazin seemed to be somewhere between Joseph/Potter and Foner.

Check out the tweets for more.