Friday, January 27, 2017

Blog CCXXVII (227): Debate Prequel

This post is one that I really wish I had written before Blog CCXXII (222): The Logevall and Osgood Debate.  In May of 2011, Perspectives on History had a special issue on political history "Political History Today."  There were seventeen articles that studied various aspects of the topic.  In many ways, this special issue was a prequel to the Logevall/Osgood guest column in The New York Times last August. 

The articles are eclectic.  Three articles are about teaching, and another three are about research resources available to historians interested in U.S. political history.  Although it is clear the intention of the editors was to focus on U.S. political history, there are essays on South Asia and Early Modern Europe. 

May 2011The more important articles in this issue are those that are "think pieces" on the direction of the field.  Of these the one that is probably the most important is the one from Julian E. Zelizer of Princeton University.  His article "The Interdisciplinarity of Political History" is a condensed version of the first part of his book Governing America: The Revival of Political History (2012).  Political history is seeing a Renaissance, he argues, because it has become interdisciplinary.  Historians
must be certain to explore the full range of scholarship that exists outside history departments to see and profit from all the possible partnerships. For example, in political science there are subfields like public opinion that have important findings for political historians, such as the difficulty presidents have encountered in actually changing public opinion. Larry Bartels has produced some intriguing findings using historical data to show that what matters most to voters—even in landmark elections like those of 1936—are the immediate economic conditions, which determine what happens at the ballot box. His work has also raised significant challenges to conventional history that we have on how working class whites abandoned the Democratic Party after the 1960s. Psychologists are producing stunning findings about how voters make their decisions based on first physical impressions rather than speeches or policy arguments. Sociologists have also been developing extremely important work on the role of networks in spreading information and shaping the reputations of particular actors. 
The good news is that an interdisciplinary approach is in the bloodstream of any good political historian.
On the other hand, Steven Pincus of Yale University and William Novak of the University of Michigan in "Political History after the Cultural Turn" state: "Traditional political history is dead and is still dying. Over two decades ago, Lynn Hunt observed, 'Social history has overtaken political history as the most important area of research in history.'" They also add:
Practitioners of both the new social history and the new cultural history have been at one in denouncing (and moving speedily past) the traditional techniques, narratives, and perspectives of the old political history. Tony Judt, certainly not an uncritical advocate of either the new social or the new cultural history, captured a widespread contempt for political history after the social-cultural turn. "Traditional political history continues on its untroubled way," he observed, "describing in detail the behaviour of ruling classes and the transformations which took place within them. Divorced from social history, this remains, as ever, a form of historical writing adapted to the preservation of the status quo; it concerns itself with activities peculiar to the ruling group, activities of an apparently rational and self-justifying nature." Whatever their internecine differences, practitioners of most new historical subdisciplines have come to view traditional political history as an essentially conservative and crabbed way of approaching an increasingly rich and diverse range of historical material.
All of this comes in the first paragraph. 

Pincus and Novak are not dismissing the study of public affairs.  "Recent events have made the importance of 'the political' even more manifest," they concede. "Post 9/11, no one can seriously doubt any longer that state activities—domestic as well as international—deeply affect our everyday lives."  They also issue a call for action:
What we are calling for, then, is not a return to a political history of elites making decisions which affect other elites. The last generation of social and cultural history has successfully cut off the king's head, and the future history of the political refuses to be confined to the conventional terms of critical elections, high-profile politicians, and official action. The political history that we would like to see elevated in the next generation of historical scholarship is precisely a place of constant interaction and interconnection between state and society—a space where issues of national identity and belonging, democratic participation and exclusion, state-building and state-resistance, discrimination and equal protection, and competing visions of the good life are ceaselessly brought into focus, debate, and often coercive resolution. The political does not constitute itself independent of and external to society—but is a place of almost continuous sociopolitical interaction and conflict. It marks a distinctive site of collective action where the terms of the life in common—whether local, regional, national, or international—receive a particularly comprehensive (and not infrequently coercive) form of articulation (for better or for worse).   
That is all well and good, but—and this is a big but—state activities are not always political.  Pincus and Novak conflate law enforcement, military affairs and foreign policy with politics.  There is overlap, but they are distinct topics.  I also think there is an odd disconnect at play here in the dismissive attitude they hold towards historical investigation of high ranking politicians and elections, and the reactions in academia to the elections of 2008 and 2016.  Scholars seem to care about who is in the White House—at least those during their lifetimes.

Part of the problem with this debate is that many people are confused about what is and is not "political history." This reaction was clear in the early, negative reactions to the Logevall/Osgood  op-ed.  It also becomes clear in reading all the articles in this special issue. 

Case in point, four of the articles in this issue, focus on diplomatic history.  While diplomatic history and political history might seem the same thing to people outside of the two fields, they are distinctly different. Diplomatic history has a been a well-defined sub-field of U.S. history for roughly a century, focusing on the making and execution of policy, or to be more specific, U.S. foreign policy.  Although politicians play important roles in these studies—54 of our 66 secretaries of state have been lawyers/politicians.  Many people outside of the field assume diplomatic history is limited to the activities of how diplomats talk to one another.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Diplomatic historians often focus on professional diplomats, but they also look at pressure groups, businessmen, demographics, economics, and public opinion.  They have also been "internationalizing" U.S. history for a very, very long time. 

All of these points become clear in looking at the career of Samuel Flagg Bemis (1891-1973).  Bemis was president of the American Historical Association in 1961.  He won his first Pulitzer for his book Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy (1924), which was the product of research in archives in the United States, but also those in the United Kingdom and France—which was no easy thing to do in 1916; his ship was hit by a German U-boat. More to the point, his book and research makes it clear that politics and policy are distinctly different topics.  There is no real reason for a political historian to look at developments in France or Britain, while there is a very strong reason for a diplomatic historian to do so. 

Bemis's career also shows how diplomatic and political history overlap.  He won his second Pulitzer for the first volume of his biography of John Quincy Adams.  That book focused on Adams and his diplomatic career.  The sequel covered his presidency and post-White House life as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Returning to the main topic of this essay, this special issue makes for interesting reading in light of the Logevall/Osgood debate.  These articles show, for better or worse, what they two of them were pushing against when the went to The New York Times with their essay.  In many ways the issue helps their cause.  If you disagree with that assessment, despair not.  I suspect there is a lot more coming in this debate.

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