U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The “New Political History” and U.S. Intellectual History

(Today’s guest post is from Mike O’Connor. It’s weird for me to call Mike a guest since he helped found this blog and S-USIH. I’m glad he came out of retirement for this one.)

The introduction to Governing America: The Revival of Political History, the most recent book from Julian Zelizer, raises some really interesting issues that both highlight and challenge what we have been doing here at S-USIH. In his short introductory piece, Zelizer argues convincingly that political history is enjoying a resurgence. This might not seem controversial to anyone who has noted, for example, the outsize influence of Robert Caro’s LBJ biographies, or the many interesting and important studies of postwar conservatism that have come out in the last several years. But Zelizer is saying something more than that the subject of American politics is enjoying a cyclical resurgence, or that some talented writers have captured the attention of the historical profession and general public. Instead, he is arguing that political history has regained its relevance because it has actually changed.

The implication here is, of course, that in decades past, the field “as it had been practiced by legendary figures such as Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Richard Hofstadter” had itself to blame for its decline in importance and prestige. Beginning in the sixties, attacks on political history came from every direction: New Left scholars challenged the presumption of consensus that it had explicitly or implicitly advanced, social and cultural historians focused on conceptions of politics—race, gender, class and identity—that were not captured by treatments of the actions of elected officials, and French scholarship, in the form of the Annales school, shifted historical attention away from “the specific actions of political leaders at given points in time” and toward major shifts in “ideational and institutional structures.” Political history, still wedded to its traditional “great man” narratives, sunk into irrelevance.

But, Zelizer argues, political history “slowly, almost imperceptibly” adapted to the new intellectual terrain. Political scientists working in the field of American Political Development emphasized how the growth of institutions posed “structural constraints” on elected officials. Social scientists also emphasized the power of institutions to retard political change. Many social and cultural historians, “feeing that the field of American history had become too specialized and fragmented,” returned to political history in search of an intellectual center of gravity for American history itself.
Zelizer argues that the field has been enjoying a resurgence “since the early 1990s.” The American political history that has “returned to the forefront of the profession,” however, is “not the same political history of the past.” These practitioners have “punctured the myth” of consensus “in any period,” while emphasizing the importance of social movements. Those who have continued to study political leaders have done so from a new perspective, “situating them within particular institutional contexts,” emphasizing what they were and were not able to do within those structures, and “broaden[ing] the range” of those who might be considered worthy of study in the first place.
The arguments I have summarized here take up only half of the short introduction to the book, which is a collection of essays. Though occupying only four pages, the ideas introduced there made a huge impression on me, for two reasons. The first relates to political history itself: though I had never really thought about, or perhaps even been aware of, a resurgence in American political history, once Zelizer spelled it out I could immediately confirm this development from my own reading and experience. The second reason concerned S-USIH, for I could see a parallel between what we are doing here and the new political history.
As Zelizer describes it, the new political history specifically takes into account the advances and criticisms offered by social history in the last several decades. What is also apparent on my reading, however, is that historians working in that vein also tacitly and respectfully decided that this particular intervention has gone as far as it should. We can turn to a particularly important work of recent political history for a succinct statement of this point. In the introduction to The Rise of American Democracy (tellingly subtitled “Jefferson to Lincoln”), Sean Wilentz defends his decision to focus on political elites. Arguing that previous studies have “generally submerged the history of politics in the history of social change,” Wilentz characterized his book as one that would “reaffirm the importance of political events.” He went farther, I suspect, than Zelizer might, in “insisting on what ought to be a truism: that some people have more influence on history than others.” Of course, this statement is a truism, and suggesting otherwise invokes the boogeyman of a social historian who will not assent to the obvious. Yet readers of Wilentz’s somewhat snarky dismissal of social history might be surprised that the rest of his book contains treatments of social movements—such as the Democratic-Republican societies, the Working Men’s movement and abolitionism—in what is certainly a political history. Moreover, Wilentz’s first book, Chants Democratic, itself works in the tradition of social history. Thus I see Wilentz’s cantankerousness as belied by his actual work: even a somewhat hostile critic of social history recognizes its necessity in a political narrative. This would confirm Zelizer’s point.
A less churlish example comes from Meg Jacobs’ Pocketbook Politics. In her introduction, Jacobs positions her political history less as a rejection of social history than as an incorporation of it into a larger narrative. She notes that policymakers in large administrative states are dependent upon citizens to legitimate their authority; at the same time, however, “popular movements have succeeded in effecting [sic] change only to the extent that they win support at elite levels.” Thus it would seem that neither the history of elected officials nor that of social movements tells a complete story. Jacobs carefully limits her observations to her own project, saying that the “book encourages a new way of studying state power by integrating popular politics and elite policymaking.” Yet one might fairly generalize all of these observations to conclude that the more recent political history turns on the assumption that a complete account of political developments must incorporate both social and policy history.
Having said all that, then, the question for us is, “What about intellectual history? Does it have a place in the new political history?” Put another way, does the new political history represent only the incorporation of social history, or is the latter simply a placeholder, representing the need to expand political history beyond its traditional boundaries? I must admit that for the historians I have cited, the former answer appears to be the case. Additionally, while many of my favorite recent works of political history, for example, Nixonland or Stayin’ Alive, clearly operate within the paradigm of the new political history, I would not say that they are particularly concerned with intellectual history.
But I would argue that the spirit of Zelizer’s characterization (independently of what Zelizer himself might happen to think) would in fact require that effective political history would sometimes be required to take note of intellectual history. I take the initial point of departure not to be that social history is necessary to an account of American politics, but that the actions of politicians do not exhaust the narrative. If the latter is the case, then, depending on the nature of a given project, any kind of history might be necessary in order to fully explain the political history of a given period, issue, figure or movement. As an obvious example, making sense of the Revolutionary Era and founding period seems difficult without acknowledging the importance of ideas to the overall narrative.
Indeed, the desire to incorporate intellectual history into political history has been a motivating force in the past and future projects of many who have been active in the founding and leadership of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History, such as Andrew Hartman, Ray Haberski, Lisa Szefel, Ben Alpers, David Sehat, and, well, me. And many more who have actively commented or guest-posted on the blog, or participated in the conference, are working in a similar vein. There appears to be a strong overlap between the new political history and the intellectual space being carved out here at S-USIH.
But because of Julian Zelizer’s short introduction, I see this common interest much differently than I have in the past. Because so many people at S-USIH share this focus on political history, I had assumed for years that there was something inherently political about the current moment in intellectual history. I could see no reason why that might be true, but all of my experience seemed to confirm it. Now I believe it to be far more likely that S-USIH was being carried by a tide that was sweeping the profession more broadly. And, more importantly, I believe that interested intellectual historians will find a receptive audience within the new political history.

2 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. I don’t doubt that there is a “new political history.” But I also see, as something distinct (and converging), a renewed interest in the political implications of cultural and intellectual (and educational) movements by those of us working in those fields. The teleology here is the Culture Wars—i.e. seeking to explain cultural politics by attending to how culture has effected politics, and conversely.

    The Culture Wars has (or have?) raised so many contradictions and paradoxes that we are puzzling over how to explain them. That’s the teleology. My goal, for instance, in working on the history of the great books idea is to explain how that idea became entangled (and created entanglements) in the matrix of social, intellectual, and political history. I start with Culture Wars confusion, and use history to untangle the Gordian Knot of the a strand of the canon wars. – TL

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