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Journal of Policy History 12.3 (2000) 369-394

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Critical Perspectives

Clio's Lost Tribe: Public Policy History Since 1978

Julian E. Zelizer

Policy history has straddled two disciplines--history and policy analysis--neither of which has taken it very seriously. 1 What unites those who study policy history is not that they are "policy historians" per se, but that they organize their analysis and narrative around the emergence, passage, and implementation of policy. Rather than a subfield, as the historian Paula Baker recently argued, policy history has resembled area studies programs. 2 Policy history became an interdisciplinary arena for scholars from many different fields to interact. While founders hoped that policies would become an end in themselves, rather than something used to understand other issues, scholarship since 1978 has shown that the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, some of the most innovative scholarship has come from social or political historians who have used policy to understand larger historical phenomena. In the process, the work provided a much richer understanding of how policymaking evolved.

As we enter the twenty-first century, however, the future of policy history remains unclear. Some practitioners believe they have reached a critical turning point. As a result of increasingly innovative and bountiful scholarship, successful conferences, and organizational momentum, they claim that policy history is on the cusp of becoming a major subfield. Others are more pessimistic, pointing to chronic problems plaguing the field. Only a handful of history departments have developed policy programs. The American Historical Review and the Journal of American History rarely publish anything having to do with policy. Nor has a professional association or annual conference been established. Policy schools and scholars have moved decisively away from historical analysis after a brief period of flirtation. Far too often, policy analysts admit that they perceive historians as scholars who "just tell stories." [End Page 369]

The history of policy history reveals that its practitioners have always faced the perplexing task of having to satisfy two audiences, each with different types of assumptions, interests, and questions. 3 Unfortunately, in response to this challenge, many scholars chose to retreat from the nonhistorical world. While there have been several works that explain why historians should take policy and politics seriously, few have attempted to systematically justify the value of their scholarship to policymakers. 4 Synthesizing ten years of scholarship from the Journal of Policy History, I argue that five central categories of historical research have emerged: Institutional and Cultural Persistence, Lost Alternatives, Historical Correctives, Political Culture, and Process Evolution. These categories of research offer work that is distinct from the emphasis of mainstream policy analysts and can provide guidance to policymakers without becoming advocates. By situating recent research within these categories, and explaining their analytic value, I will show why historians should be speaking with greater authority in the world of governance.

Professional Development

Policy has never occupied a central role in the work of historians of the United States. At the height of "traditional" political history in the 1950s and 1960s, policies were only studied by scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and William Leuchtenberg as a vehicle to understand presidencies. 5 They paid little sustained attention to the policy process itself or to policies as they evolved over time. There were exceptions to this rule. Scholars from the New Left focused on political economy, discovering the influence of big business in shaping economic regulation, as opposed to well-intentioned liberals, during the Progressive Era. 6 But these radicals were not in the mainstream of their profession, still dominated by New Deal liberals who found these arguments anathema to their understanding of the past. There were other historians who wrote about education and welfare policy. 7 But the most prominent political historians only dealt briefly with policy as they focused on presidential administrations and the evolution of liberalism. The status of policy history only worsened in the 1970s as the profession underwent an intellectual revolution. A younger generation of historians who entered graduate school in the 1960s rejected the study of...


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