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  • PrefaceThe Reconfiguration Of Political History*
  • Thomas J. Sugrue (bio)

About a quarter century ago, one could go to a conference in American history and hear a common lament from a group that was often referred to as “Clio’s lost tribe,” namely political historians who believed that they had been left to wander in an academic desert.1 Historians of a certain persuasion and mostly of a certain generation could regularly be heard bemoaning the eclipse of scholarship on formal politics by studies of labor, gender, and race, more interested in community formation, identity, representation, culture, and discourse than in power politics of policy making. Political historians offered a jeremiad, longing for a supposed golden age when their subdiscipline occupied the center of the profession.

Their lament contained a kernel of truth. For most of first two thirds of the twentieth century, every major program in American history had several historians interested in presidential and congressional politics and international relations. Ambitious doctoral students at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard researched political biographies of governors, legislators, and diplomats, and the most ambitious aspired to join the ranks of presidential historians, whose books often found a wide readership inside and outside the academy. [End Page 11]

To be sure, traditional political history had its detractors, even during its heyday. In 1948, Thomas Cochran, the distinguished economic historian at the University of Pennsylvania, memorably lambasted the “presidential synthesis” that shaped the way that historians wrote textbooks and wrote their classes.2 Within a decade, some revisionist scholars of politics had turned away from histories of political leadership and toward electoral dynamics. These “new political historians,” led by Lee Benson, used quantitative techniques from the social sciences to explore voting behavior and the relationship of ethnicity and religion to electoral outcomes. They were seldom interested in institutions or ideas—for them politics was a behavioral science, best studied with statistics. Benson argued against the dominant “impressionistic approach” to politics and instead called for “systematic research methods” that were “consistent with scientific procedure.” Between the mid-1960s and mid-1970s, prominent scholars, among them Ronald Formisano, Samuel Hays, Michael Holt, and Joel Sibley, refined Benson’s methods and pushed the field forward.3

The most profound challenge to political history came from two “turns” in historiography—the social historical turn of the 1970s and early 1980s and the cultural turn of the late 1980s and 1990s. In the first turn, younger historians, many veterans of the social movements of the 1960s, especially the New Left, civil rights, and feminism, began to practice “history from the bottom up.” Some of these scholars, inspired by the new political historians, used quantitative methods to explore working-class and middle-class life, but others drew from more ethnographic approaches. These scholars had political interests, but of a distinctively different variety. Unconcerned with the presidency or even local governments, disinterested in analyzing election returns, they oriented their research toward documenting everyday life, resistance, and community formation. Shaped by left anti-statism, they celebrated the self-organization and militancy of workers, the resilience of immigrant communities in the face of pressures toward assimiliation and Americanization, and the agency of groups who had little or no access to formal political power, especially women and African Americans (enslaved or free). For many of these scholars, formal politics (if they mentioned it at all) took a one-dimensional form: it loomed in the background, often unspecified, usually scarcely mentioned if at all. [End Page 12]

By the 1980s, many rejected social and political history in what William Sewell called “a turn from a hard-headed, utilitarian, and empiricist materialism” toward culture.4 Drawing from literary and cultural theory, particularly French structuralist and poststructuralist theory, scholars after the cultural turn had little interest in formal political institutions: they treated power as an instrument for domination, usually through the manipulation of knowledge, with attention to representations and discourse. Many cultural historians were interested in governmentality and ideology, both abstract concepts. They wrote of politics, but usually in the passive voice Formal institutions, their logics, and rules were of little interest for scholars concerned with the politics of the body and the politics of identity.

During the...


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