Governing America: The Revival of Political History

Governing America: The Revival of Political History

Governing America: The Revival of Political History

Governing America: The Revival of Political History


In recent years, the study of American political history has experienced a remarkable renaissance. After decades during which the subject fell out of fashion and disappeared from public view, it has returned to prominence as the study of American history has shifted its focus back to politics broadly defined. In this book, one of the leaders of the resurgence in American political history, Julian Zelizer, assesses its revival and demonstrates how this work not only illuminates the past but also helps us better understand American politics today.

Governing America addresses issues of wide interest, including the rise of the welfare state, the development of modern conservatism, the history of Congress, the struggle over campaign finance, changing views about presidential power, and national security. Throughout, it addresses four big questions: How have interpretations of American political history changed over time? How have taxes and budgets constrained policymakers? How have changes in the political process defined historical eras? And how have policy and politics interacted on decisions like going to war?

Zelizer's answers to these questions are fresh and often surprising, providing compelling new perspectives on modern American politics.


In the spring of 1995, I attended a session at the Organization of American Historians Conference at the Washington Hilton, which focused on the state of political history. When I walked toward the conference room I expected to find a small crowd, and one with little hope for the future.

At the time, the political history field seemed bleak. Senior practitioners, who, for at least two decades, felt that their work had been relegated to the academic dustbin, were demoralized and pessimistic. Graduate students such as myself entered the profession with a sense of trepidation, concerned about how our interests would be received in the academy.

When I entered the meeting room, I was surprised. The panelists spoke to an overflow crowd. The room was filled to capacity. Attendees were standing along the walls, and even outside the door in the hallway peering in. During the discussion, a generational debate opened up. While some of the older panelists and attendees expressed the predictable laments about the demise of the field since the 1960s, younger voices insisted that in fact we were on the cusp of a new era. They pointed to new scholarship that was starting to reenvision how historians wrote about politics by bringing back issues such as public policy and government institutions while integrating these subjects into broader narratives that dealt with social and cultural forces.

It was clear to everyone in the room that something was happening. The electric atmosphere suggested that change might be taking place after decades when U.S. political history had suffered professionally. As it turned out, the younger generation was right.

The problems for political history had begun toward the end of the 1960s, when a new generation of scholars entering the profession developed a stinging critique of political history as it had been practiced by legendary figures such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Richard Hofstadter.

Shaped by the conflicts of the 1960s over civil rights and Vietnam, the scholarly arm of the New Left had argued that political history, as it had been practiced . . .

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