What was once a central part of the historical profession, a vital part of this country’s continuing democratic discussion, is disappearing….
Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled by analogies, by the easy "lessons of the past." It can make us less egocentric by showing us how other politicians and governments in other times have responded to division and challenge. And it can help us better understand the likely effects of our actions, a vital step in the acquisition of insight and maturity.
Judging by the state of our political discourse during this dismal campaign season, the change [i.e., the reappearance of academic political history] can’t come soon enough.
Thus write Professors Fredrik Logevall and Kenneth Osgood, in a NY Times op-ed, on the "cratering" of "American political history as a field of study" in our universities. Blown open with sudden force in the 1960s and the aftershocks of the 1970s and beyond, the crater is now vast, deep, middle-aged, and inexcusable.
"In many graduate programs one can earn a doctorate in American history with little exposure to politics," observe Logevall and Osgood. Indeed, freshly molded PhDs in American history are apt to sound more like California psychotherapists, cultural anthropologists, or jargon-laden scribblers of sentimental mush. Ask them about the Northern Securities case and its implications for executive power and, after a brief pause of unfamiliarity and incomprehension, you'll get an extended survey of the profound historical importance of lesbian Guatemalan immigrants as key players in America's past of relentless oppression and, ultimately, underclass triumphalism. There will, however, be little emphasis on actual class analysis — too Marxist, too old school, too already done. America's history, you'll be told, is constituted by conflicts of gender and race.
As the good professors note, this "cultural turn" from political history was inaugurated in the 1960s by the "long overdue diversification of the academy.... As a field once dominated by middle-class white males opened its doors to women, minorities and people from working-class backgrounds, recovering the lost experiences of these groups understandably became priority No. 1." No political historian I know of resents either said diversification or its priorities of gender and race, however those priorities rapidly became exclusive. Powerful dead white males — the stuff of traditional political history — were out, for powerful dead white males always seemed to win. This was too psychologically damaging. Initially the cultural-studies types dwelled on the assorted oppressions inflicted by The Man, which offered the relief of collective commiseration. But this, too, proved too psychologically damaging. They realized that the historiographical approach of endless oppression and implied white-male triumphalism only underscored the helplessness of their subjects, which should no longer be conceded or observed. They wanted their own triumphalism. Hence through predetermined theses aided by selective research the culturalists soon "discovered" that American women and American minorities were imbued with far more power than we ever knew. And so the research has proceeded.
This quasi-historiographical, cultural-studies phenomenon will pass, just as Progressive historians' focus on class conflict passed and the "consensus school" (of Hofstadter et al.) passed and the "presidential synthesis" (the teaching of American history through presidential tenures) passed. And, as the op-eders note, this next passing — which neither will be nor should be complete — "can't come soon enough." Had the American electorate been armed with merely rudimentary political historical knowledge, Reaganism's one-dimensional government-is-the-problem and Gingrichism's malevolent linguistic distortions and Tea Partyism's idiotic "constitutional conservatism" and Trumpism's pronounced cryptofascism would have been seen all along for what they were, are. In fact, we would have never descended to Trumpism, for an awareness of political history and the wretched demagoguery that so often comes with it would have stopped movement conservatism in its hideous tracks — and Gov. Palin would still be handing out socialist oil dividends to grateful Alaskans.
"Knowledge of our political past is important because it can serve as an antidote to the misuse of history by our leaders and save us from being bamboozled"; it can reintroduce "insight and maturity." Well said, Profs. Logevall and Osgood.