Political History: An Exchange
Editor’s note: The New York Times Opinion Pages sent shock waves through the historical community last August with “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” In their essay, Fredrik Logevall (Harvard Univ.) and Kenneth Osgood (Colorado School of Mines) defined political history as “a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics,” and argued that the field had fallen “out of favor with history departments.” Without a robust pipeline to the professoriate, they wrote, political history was failing to reach teachers, causing “aspiring lawyers, politicians, journalists, and business leaders” to graduate without this knowledge, imperiling democratic society.
Historians’ response was immediate, but opinions varied. Here, political historian Marc Stein (San Francisco State Univ.) presents a countervailing perspective. We invited Logevall and Osgood to respond—for the first time in public—to which they generously agreed. Finally, we provide a short rejoinder from Stein.
Perspectives is honored to host this exchange, which testifies to historians’ commitment to debate about matters critical to the future of history—and to civil society in these turbulent times.
—Allison Miller, editor
Political History and the History of Sexuality
In my little corner of the world, there was quite a ruckus in August 2016 when Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood complained in the New York Times about “the end of political history." I will not repeat the strong arguments that various historians made about the column’s flaws—the false claims about the number of job advertisements in political history, the failure to recognize the field’s vitality (even narrowly defined), and the constrained definition of politics.1 Similarly valid responses could focus on the centrality of political history in survey courses and textbooks. 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.
I have had the great fortune of working as a professor at York University (in Toronto) and San Francisco State University. I was hired at the former as a US political historian and at the latter as a historian of US constitutional law. My first book was a study of Philadelphia gay and lesbian politics from 1945 to 1972. My second examined US Supreme Court decisions on sex, marriage, and reproduction from 1965 to 1973. My third was a synthetic account of the US gay and lesbian movement from 1950 to 1990. I have taught many courses on the history of gender and sexuality, many on the history of politics and law, and some that address all four. Imagine my surprise when I read one of Logevall and Osgood’s explanations for the “disappearance” of political history: “The movements of the 1960s and 1970s by African-Americans, Latinos, women, homosexuals, and environmental activists brought a new emphasis on history from the bottom up, spotlighting the role of social movements in shaping the nation’s past.”
“Homosexuals”? I was not the only historian to notice the outdated reference. But the use of old-fashioned and scientific language was not the only indication of trouble.3 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.
My library is filled with books and articles that address political history (narrowly defined) in relation to the history of sexuality, not to mention political history in relation to the histories of gender and race. These include works by Thomas Foster and Martha Hodes on the late 18th and 19th centuries; Peter Boag, David Langum, Kevin Murphy, and Ruth Rosen on the Progressive Era; George Chauncey, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Andrea Friedman, and Daniel Hurewitz on the early 20th century; Allan Bérubé, Leisa Meyer, and Michael Sherry on World War II and the military; Douglas Charles, David Johnson, and Claire Potter on the Red and Lavender Scares; Christopher Agee, Martin Duberman, Marcia Gallo, David Garrow, and Whitney Strub on the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s; and Jennifer Brier, Finn Enke, Gillian Frank, Christina Hanhardt, and Emily Hobson on the 1970s and 1980s. Then there are works that cover multiple periods, including books by Nan Alamilla Boyd, Allan Brandt, Margot Canaday, John D’Emilio, Lisa Duggan, William Eskridge, Estelle Freedman, Linda Gordon, John Howard, Kevin Mumford, Peggy Pascoe, Leslie Reagan, Robert Self, Timothy Stewart-Winter, and Leigh Ann Wheeler.
Many historians noticed Logevall and Osgood’s erasure of this work, but so far I have not seen any commentary in print that relates this problem to one that was evident in another New York Times column, published just a day before Logevall and Osgood’s. Journalist Kevin Baker’s “Living in L.B.J.’s America” seems to represent the kind of political history that Logevall and Osgood favor—it focuses on a US president and his legislative achievements.4 In discussing the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, Baker quotes Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 State of the Union address, which declared:
We must . . . lift by legislation the bars of discrimination against those who seek entry into our country, particularly those who have much needed skills and those joining their families. In establishing preferences, a nation that was built by the immigrants of all lands can ask those who now seek admission: “What can you do for our country?” But we should not be asking: “In what country were you born?”
Praising Johnson for his political success in achieving this major reform (and ignoring the advocates who insisted that the legislation would not fundamentally change the racial composition of the United States), Baker writes, “Immigrants would finally be admitted to the United States without consideration of their race, ethnicity or country of origin.” This is not quite true and Baker knows it; he acknowledges that the 1965 law imposed a cap of 120,000 immigrants a year from the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, he quickly returns to his main point: “The greater principle was established.” As for what that principle was, Baker turns to the words of LBJ historian Randall Woods, who has written that the law “did nothing less than ensure that America remained a land of diversity whose identity rested on a set of political principles rather than blood and soil nationalism.”
Except this is not quite true either. And here is where I want to return to the problem of creating artificial distinctions between political history and the history of sexuality. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act removed the restrictive national origins system that had been in place for more than four decades, but it also was the first US immigration law that explicitly barred people with “sexual deviations.” To be sure, “sexual deviates” had been excluded under other statutory provisions: various laws barred individuals who were likely to become public charges, those who had committed crimes of “moral turpitude,” and those who were “afflicted with psychopathic personality.” But the 1965 law—passed in the wake of the 1964 resignation of LBJ aide Walter Jenkins after he was caught having sex with a man in a public bathroom—more overtly declared that individuals classified as having “sexual deviations,” generally understood to include “homosexuals,” were to be excluded.
In 1967, the Supreme Court read this intention back into the earlier “psychopathic personality” provisions of immigration law when it upheld the deportation of Clive Boutilier, a Canadian “homosexual” who had been living as a legal resident in New York for many years. And it’s not as though the sexual politics of the 1965 immigration legislation are now an obscure footnote: they have been discussed by at least four US political historians—Margot Canaday, Martha Gardner, William Turner, and me—and analyzed by scholars in legal studies, American studies, and ethnic studies, including William Eskridge, Eithne Luibhéid, Shannon Minter, Susana Peña, and Siobhan Somerville.
There’s more. Political historians generally describe the 1965 law as replacing a system that restricted immigration based on national origins with one that gave preference to family members of US citizens and legal residents, along with individuals who had professional and specialized skills needed by the United States. Unless they are also historians of gender and sexuality, however, political historians do not generally comment on the gender and sexual implications of a system that granted preferences to spouses and other family members. (We might refer to this as a system of “blood nationalism.”) In a world that denied legal marriage to same-sex couples and placed an array of obstacles in the paths of individuals who did not have or were estranged from or in conflict with politically recognized spouses or politically recognized families, the implications were potentially grave.
The 1965 immigration law was a major piece of legislation that accomplished many positive and important things. 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.
Marc Stein is the Jamie and Phyllis Pasker Professor of US History at San Francisco State University. He is the author of City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia (2000), Sexual Injustice: Supreme Court Decisions from Griswold to Roe (2010), and Rethinking the Gay and Lesbian Movement (2012).
1. See Mary L. Dudziak, “Political History Is Alive and Well, and Matters More Than Ever,” Balkin.com, August 30, 2016; Roy Rogers, “The Strange Death(?) of Political History,” The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, September 9, 2016; Gabriel Rosenberg and Ariel Ron, “Chill Out: Political History Has Never Been Better,” Lawyers, Guns & Money, September 1, 2016; Julian Zelizer, “Political History Is Doing AOK,” Process: A Blog for American History, August 31, 2016.
Logevall and Osgood:
US Political History—Alive and Well?
As every author of a newspaper op-ed knows, it’s hard to do nuance in 800 words. But one accepts the risk of appearing simplistic for the opportunity to reach a mass audience on a topic of broad importance. In our case, we sought to spark a national conversation about the place of US political history in the academy. We appear to have succeeded. Readers flocked to comment on the New York Times website, social media outlets lit up, and our own inboxes overflowed. As we anticipated, the responses have varied—many have expressed support for our analysis (“I couldn’t agree more,” we’ve heard time and again), some have had mixed opinions, and a few have voiced strong objection to the entire thrust of the essay. Political history is alive and well, these critics say; in fact, it’s never been better.
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.
Notwithstanding the title of our piece (selected by the editors), we of course understand that political history is not dead. We’re well aware of the exciting research being done, including that cited by Stein and others. We assign it regularly to our students. An early draft of our article noted the “extremely important studies in recent years on topics such as the politics of mass consumption, southern black politics, and grassroots conservatism and the rise of the political right.” We could have gone on, and we regret now that we didn’t insist on retaining the sentence as we and the editors whittled our draft from 2,000 words to 800.
We applaud that the sphere of what constitutes “political history” has expanded—we’re not offering “faint praise,” as one inaccurate commentary claimed. We need no persuasion as to the advantages of bringing a multitude of perspectives to our collective study of politics, and Stein’s illustrative account of the 1965 Immigration Act is well taken, even if his intemperate mockery of our word choice is not.1 But if we’re opting for a capacious domain for the political, let’s make sure it’s truly inclusive, with full and robust attention also paid to “history from above,” to high politics, to 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. 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.
One senior Americanist who was critical of parts of our analysis noted in an e-mail that our definition of “‘political history’ as ‘high politics, elections, the presidency, Congress, executive-legislative relations, etc.’ allows me to say that we agree that there is too little of this work, and that the lack of this analysis has costs.” Other academic respondents commented along similar lines, pointing out, for example, the striking lack of scholarly work on Congress and on 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.”
To which one could respond: yes, but no one else will get hired either, for there are no jobs! Fair enough—it can’t be said strongly enough that the grim job market is a major concern. Even in a time of scarcity, though, our collective decision making about hiring provides a window into our priorities. If political history were indeed experiencing a glorious revival, we would expect to find evidence of it, even in this climate. So far, we’re not. We are currently undertaking an analysis of the 6,761 job advertisements that the AHA has published over the past 10 years, which includes 4,003 tenure-track openings at US institutions. The work is not yet done, but a preliminary finding is that 1 percent of the tenure-track listings for assistant professors has either US political history or US constitutional history as the preferred specialization, with little improvement if we also tally non-tenure-track positions. If one includes ads that list “political” as one of several acceptable specializations, the figure increases to 2.7 percent, though more research would need to be done to see if political historians in fact were hired in many of the searches in question.
For our part, we’re skeptical—the anecdotal evidence is powerful that when jobs do come up in, say, 20th-century US history, candidates doing straight-ahead political history as defined above usually sink without a trace. We heard this from several colleagues around the country, including from some who expressed concerns about aspects of the op-ed. There are subtle and welcome signs that the picture is changing, but 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.
We also do not find compelling the claims by some observers that the number of faculty self-identifying as political historians has remained steady since 1975, or even—by one measure—ticked upward slightly. These claims rest on an article assessing trends in specialization, including, among other things, political history. Yet a sizable majority of the historians tabulated in this source are not Americanists, and the supposed uptick for US political historians (up just 0.8 percent since 1975) holds only if one includes emeritus faculty, currently comprising a quarter of all faculty in this field.2 The point is not to parse the economics of the job market or to deconstruct historical subfields, which have always been fluid. Nor do we argue for a return to the simple “march of the presidents” narratives of the past—few would advocate that. But presidents and other political elites ought to be part of any holistic treatment of the subject, and those who choose a “top-down” approach in their work should not have to apologize for doing so. In this time of profound polarization, the American electorate needs more than ever to be equipped to make sense of the nation’s politics and all that shapes it.
Perhaps it’s time for a constructive conversation about, as one correspondent suggested, “the big questions of our time and how we might organize our existing research, teaching, hiring, etc. better to address those questions more directly.” Are we doing all we can to equip our students to understand the political universe they are inheriting? Do they have the basic tools to understand the complex impact of government policy? Can we better prepare them to make sense of elections, lawmaking, regulations, and political institutions? How can we help them understand the impact of media, ethnicity, gender, class, and interest groups on our politics? Historical study is absolutely essential here. It cultivates contextual understanding, empathy, information literacy, and an appreciation of complexity—vital skills for democratic citizenship, especially in these Trumpian times.
Ultimately, we’re encouraged by the outpouring of commentary since the publication of the op-ed. Pro and con, it suggests there is broad agreement on the importance of political history. If indeed there is consensus on this point, the outlook may be brighter than our essay suggested. We look forward to further conversations with colleagues in the months ahead, all pointing to one goal: giving our students the best possible understanding of America’s rich and complex political past. Fredrik Logevall is professor of history and international affairs at Harvard University. Kenneth Osgood is professor of history and director of the McBride Honors Program in Public Affairs at Colorado School of Mines.
1. Usage regarding the LGBTQ+ community in historical scholarship is in flux. Since 2000, several scholarly roundtables and articles (including one by Stein himself), as well as books by leading presses, have been published with “homosexual” or “homosexual rights” in the titles. Moreover, “homosexual” would certainly not have been considered outdated during the period we were referencing in the op-ed.
2. Stein cites Rosenberg and Ron, “Chill Out” and Mary L. Dudziak, “Political History Is Alive and Well, and Matters More Than Ever,” Balkinization, August 30, 2016; both rely on Robert B. Townsend, “The Rise and Decline of History Specializations Over the Past 40 Years,” Perspectives on History, December 2015 and a tweet by Jim Grossman.
Self-proclaimed guardians of political history have regularly issued jeremiads about the decline of our field. For years, this typically took the form of complaints about the rise of social and cultural history. Sometimes working-class history, women’s history, the history of racial minorities, and LGBT history were blamed. When Logevall and Osgood conflate “history from the bottom up” with the history of African Americans, Latinas/Latinos, women, and “homosexuals,” they erase an array of works that address politics in relation to gender, race, and sexuality. In their response, they continue to discuss political history in ways that almost entirely ignore these topics. 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. 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.
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?
Second, how do we measure the changing popularity of political history when (a) the boundaries between political history and fields like diplomatic, legal, and military history are porous, (b) political history includes the local and urban, not just the state and national, (c) some surveys limit the number of specialties one can select, (d) some political historians might have political or other reasons for not identifying as such on surveys, and (e) the number of fields listed in disciplinary surveys has changed over time?
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? What if many historians who combine “top down” and “bottom up” approaches do not describe themselves as political historians?
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)?
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. Notwithstanding several significant attempts, the concept of a “new political history” has never been defined successfully. In my little corner of the world, no definition will work if it minimizes the work of political historians who focus on class, race, gender, and sexuality.
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