Thursday, March 9, 2017

Blog CCXXVII (227) More of the Logevall and Osgood Debate

There has been more on the debate that Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood started last August on the pages of The New York Times.  I suspect this debate will go on for quite a while and will probably be best measured in months and years rather than weeks and months. 

Some of what follows is stuff that I should have gotten in my first posting on this debate and some of it is fairly new.  There will, of course, be more.

James M. Perry, the former chief political correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, endorsed these views in a column he wrote for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  He attributed a lack of political literacy to the rise of Donald Trump.

In September, K.C. Johnson, one of the very, very few historians that specializes on the Congress, wrote an essay "The Alarming Decline of U.S. Political History" on his blog and also posted on his twitter feed endorsing the views of Logevall and Osgood.  He made similar points in 2003 when he testified to Congress.  His essays is much like Blog CCXXII, but is better in its argumentation.  He also noted some of the same patterns in the negative reactions to the editorial.  He is a bit skeptical that anything will come of the Logevall/Osgood essay, though. 

At the most recent meeting of the American Historical Association, a session was devoted to debating the state of political history.  The fact that it occurred Sunday morning, when many people are heading to the airport or raiding the book display for the good deals, limited the turnout.  (I know of what I speak; I have been in an AHA session on Sunday morning.  There were a few more people in the audience than on the panel, but only a few.)

Getting more attention is a exchange of essays in the January 2017 issue of Perspectives on History.  Marc Stein, a historian at San Francisco State, published "Political History and the History of Sexuality." Stein, who writes on sexuality, decided to criticize the essay from the perspective of his specialization. "Here I want to offer a perspective rooted in my little corner of the world, which is filled with historians of sexuality who work on politics and historians of politics who work on sexuality."  He began the essay by complaining about the language that the two used.  "More problematic, from the perspective of my little corner of the world, was the fact that their formulation erased the work so many have done to integrate political history with the history of social movements and the history of race, gender, and sexuality."  He began by listing the books on his shelves that were political history.  Like many other critics, he confused political history with other topics.  I noticed one book was about strategic bombing in World War II.  He then discussed the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which excluded, in the words of the act, "sexual deviations."  Stein observes, "But in my little corner of the world, which includes a large number of US political historians, this law was also a political manifestation of larger dynamics that established, maintained, and strengthened the supremacy of family, heterosexuality, and marriage in the United States. And if we cannot recognize that this is and was political, the future of political history is dire indeed."

Logevall and Osgood responded with a lengthy essay—which is in fact, longer than their original New York Times piece—entitled: "US Political History—Alive and Well?"  The two note: "Reasonable people can differ here, and Marc Stein is more apropos than perhaps he realizes with his repeated references to the view from his 'little corner of the world.' The challenge for us all is to take a broader perspective, to take stock of the good and the bad, and to have an open dialogue about the state of the field as seen from all points on the compass, not just our own."

They are clear on who and what political history should be studying: "Those who have held predominant power in American society—presidents, Congress, state governments—the elections that brought them to office, and the formulation and impact of policies that resulted from the exercise of that power." There reasons are fairly simple.  "In our daily lives, we take for granted the importance of these manifestations of our politics, but—as several correspondents rightly noted—too often we lose sight of it in our research, at least pre-tenure, and in our decision making on matters of curriculum design and faculty hiring."

A number of people have contacted them to either express support or disagreement.  Many have argued there is little academic history on both Congress and state government. "We agree. To a large degree, we’ve ceded this territory to our colleagues in political science. For the past quarter century, history grad students who express an interest in pursuing a dissertation centered on high politics have usually been gently steered in other directions. It’s old-fashioned and elite-centered, they’ve been told, not sufficiently cutting edge, too—egad—'traditional.' And 'it won’t get you a job.'" 

That point is exceptionally important.  After having been part of a couple of search committees, I can tell you that a  dissertation topic can play a powerful role in determining who advances in the search.  Letters of recommendation help, sure, but the dissertation topic is far more important.  In the end, Logevall and Osgood candidly observe that "the savvy grad student who wants to maximize her chances on the job market would still be well-advised to steer clear of a topic on high politics."

Stein responded with an essay that was longer and more insightful than his original piece.  He noted, "Self-proclaimed guardians of political history have regularly issued jeremiads about the decline of our field." He is direct in his criticisms of Logevall and Osgood on this matter: "One clue about why they do so can be found in their discussion of my 'little corner of the world.' Apparently, they missed my sarcasm; my point was that my corner is actually pretty popular. Instead, they urge us to 'take a broader perspective' and examine 'all points on the compass, not just our own.' I couldn’t agree more." 

He then argues that historians writing history in his field are doing impressive work: "Sarcasm alert: I sure do wish that political historians who focus on class, gender, race, and sexuality would stop looking at things from provincial and parochial points of view and focus on larger political issues like capitalism, colonialism, democracy, equality, justice, war, and peace. As for their efforts to provide further evidence for the decline of political history, I am not convinced that their research methodology is up to the task, primarily because of the questions they are not asking."

Stein's essay becomes quite powerful when he starts asking some significant questions: "First, do most US history textbooks and survey courses still privilege political history? If so, what is the relationship between this and the patterns that Logevall and Osgood have identified in history specializations and job advertisements?"

He get at a really important issue in his next point: "Second, how do we measure the changing popularity of political history."  He notes that the boundaries between topic such as "diplomatic, legal, and military history" are nebulous.  That point is particularly strong, but I would argue that the boundaries are clearer to people in the fields than those outside of them.

His next two points are interesting: "Third, is it possible that more and more dissertations integrate political history with other approaches? Has there been a generational shift whereby new historians are less invested in older field designations?" He follows with: "Fourth, while quantitative studies of job advertisements are interesting, is it possible that political historians are favored in job searches that do not mention politics (such as searches in US history, the American Revolution, the Civil War, and chronologically defined subfields)?" 

Stein's last point is perhaps his best, "All of this begs the question of how we should define “the political.” It is sometimes said that if everything is political, the concept of politics as a distinct conceptual domain loses its utility. But surely we can come up with a definition that encompasses less than everything but more than national elections, political parties, and a small set of individuals and institutions."

My response: that is a reasonable question.  My assessment based on anecdotal evidence is a simple: no.

Political history has serious issues to discuss that other fields are going to have a difficult time addressing.  These include questions like:
  • Why does the United States have a binary political system when most other industrial, democratic societies are multi-party?
  • Has the United States had a radical element in its political tradition? On the right?  The left?  Why? Why not?
  • Has Congress been an active force in national politics? Or is it more passive,  responding to special interest groups and the executive branch?  Does Congress initiate significant policy proposals, and national agendas?
  • Do people vote on the basis of issues?  Partisanship?  Or image/emotion?
I am sure someone could come up with even more, but these are kind of big.

This point gets to another that I notice when I was writing Blog CCXXII (my first assessment of the Logevall and Osgood debate).  There appears to be a lot of bait and switching going on among the critics of Logevall and Osgood.  Historians often try to pass off one type of history as another particularly in job searches when they are having to fill a position in a field that they do not like.  (You also see this phenomenon in fellowship applications).  Put another way, if a political historian wrote a biography of Margret Chase Smith—she spent nine years in the U.S. House of Representatives and then was a U.S. Senator from Maine for four terms—would that individual be a viable candidate for a job teaching women's history?  Probably not, but a lot of people think that if that historian specialized in gender studies and wrote the biography that he or she could pass them self off as a political historian.