Political History Today
The Interdisciplinarity of Political History
Julian E. Zelizer, May 2011
American political history has traditionally been a field that has thrived from its conversations and collaborations with other disciplines. The field offers a model for how to make interdisciplinary scholarship a reality rather than an aspiration. Political historians have relied on other disciplines for analytic questions and methodological debates, as well as to connect historical research to other parts of the academy. With all the changes that have taken place in the practice of political history since the founding of the profession in the 1880s, interdisciplinarity has remained an enduring feature of the work.
During the last "golden era" of political history, in the 1940s and 1950s, the period of liberal consensus history, scholars engaged in numerous arguments that came from outside the guild. Some of the profession's giants, including Arthur Schlesinger Jr., wrote their books in a dialogue with political science scholarship about pluralism and American Exceptionalism. They directly responded to the arguments of David Truman, Robert Dahl, Louis Hartz, and others. In addition, by the 1950s there were already political historians who had started to turn their attention toward other disciplines—Richard Hofstadter, for example, who turned to psychology as he examined the importance of "status anxiety" to populist and progressive politics at the turn of the 20th century.
When New Left political historians such as Gabriel Kolko and James Weinstein attacked the liberal consensus for downplaying the role of corporate interests in shaping modern public policy, they did not reject their predecessors' cosmopolitan disciplinary outlook. The New Left focused on pluralism, this time not as a theory to support their historical narrative but as a theory that their archival research could challenge. They also were attuned to arguments from the discipline of economics that allowed them to explain how industries captured regulatory agencies and commissions, eventually using them to serve their own interests rather than to let them restrain bad behavior.
Between the 1970s and 1990s, political history was in the professional dumps. Social and then cultural historians turned the profession's attention toward the American experience from the bottom-up. They were less interested in public policy and government elites than in how average Americans lived and experienced seminal periods in the past. Studies about race, class, ethnicity, and gender replaced work on political parties and elections. When examining mass phenomena, they tended to be more interested in the impact of culture than in government.
But there were scholars who tried to reinvent the field during this interregnum. In doing so they continued the conversation with the social sciences to find fresh ways of writing about politics. The "new political history" in the 1970s attempted to understand the political behavior of ordinary Americans on voting day. Drawing on quantitative methodology that was taking hold in the social sciences, they looked at 19th-century voting data to see what social factors—most commonly ethnicity or economics—best explained their decisions at the ballot box. Political science scholarship on electoral realignments and key elections loomed large in their arguments. Practitioners of the organizational synthesis, moreover, built on modernization theory, in addition to Parsonian sociology, to explain the rise of national institutions in the 20th century. They argued that the rise of national institutions—the administrative state, the professions and the corporation—was a functional response to industrialization. Policy history, a subfield that emerged in the 1970s, and which sought to apply historical analysis to contemporary public policy problems, maintained close links to policy analysis scholarship. They tapped into theories about policy implementation to rethink the chronological framework of political history and to shift focus away from Washington and toward the battles that took place on the ground after Congress passed its laws.
An important turning point in the evolution of political history occurred in the 1980s and 1990s as a result of developments in political science and political sociology. At a time when political history—though still practiced by a rather sizable and innovative cohort of scholars—remained marginal to the mainstream of the profession, the social sciences reenergized interest in the history of politics and introduced a new approach, centered on institutions, to the study of the political past.
There was a group of political scientists and sociologists who crafted the field of American Political Development. The founders of the field included Theda Skocpol, Ira Katznelson, Elizabeth Sanders, Richard Bensel, and Stephen Skowronek. They wrote detailed historical treatments of issues such as Progressive Era civil service reform, the New Deal, sectionalism, economic regulation, class relations in cities, and the relationship between bureaucratic infrastructure and public policy.
Besides writing solid works of history, practitioners of American Political Development offered novel concepts for understanding how politics was thoroughly a historical process. For instance, many of them wrote about the ways in which new policies restructured the long-term interests of politicians and interest groups (they called this "policy feedback"). Another contribution of these scholars was to show how "institutional stickiness" made it difficult to fundamentally restructure government even amid dramatic economic crises, war, and scandal.
Borrowing the concept of path dependence from economics, other American Political Development works revealed how the options available to political actors at one point in time were limited because of institutions and programs that were created in earlier periods. This line of argument shows how the options available to individual actors in any given period diminish as institutions mature and thicken. In contrast to older versions of political history that depicted politicians as reacting to the demands of social movements and business interests, American Political Development posited that state officials could develop their own autonomous interests and agendas that were not always rooted in social demand. The field was institutionalized through the History and Politics section of the American Political Science Association and a journal entitled Studies in American Political Development. When the historian William Leuchtenburg made the unexpected prediction in 1986 that political history was on the cusp of a revival, he pointed to American Political Development as the reason for his optimism.
Besides APD, there was another area where other disciplines helped to fuel political history that was receiving notice at the top programs and in the top publication outlets. The study of political culture emerged as a popular way to bring politics back into our historical narratives. Scholars of the early Republic were influenced by work in anthropology and political culture. These intellectual and cultural historians examined the underlying assumptions and rules that governed political behavior at all levels of the polity.
Influenced by anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz and philosophers such as Thomas Kuhn, scholars of political culture tapped into a vigorous debate about the ideologies and discourses that had shaped American politics since the Revolution. In her work about the 19th century, Jean Baker described how the textbooks that school children used and the rituals of election day had an impact on how Americans thought about political parties. Some of this work extended into the 20th century, with scholars such as Linda Gordon and Alice Kessler-Harris looking at the gendered construction of public policy and how conceptions of masculinity and femininity influenced policies like Social Security, welfare and taxation.
Interdisciplinary conversation has thus been a defining aspect of the field. Now that political history is enjoying a renaissance, the new generation of scholars must not abandon this tradition. Furthermore, they 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. The process of graduate training inevitably exposes them to this tradition simply by reading the classic works ranging from Charles Beard to Alan Brinkley. The next breakthroughs in the field will come from historians who adhere to our inclination to take a peek at what our colleagues are doing next door.
Julian E. Zelizer is professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of 10 books in American political history. His newest book, Governing America: Essays in Political History, will be published next year by Princeton University Press.