Governing America: The Revival of Political History

reviewed by Peter Hoffer - March 10, 2016

coverTitle: Governing America: The Revival of Political History
Author(s): Julian E. Zelizer
Publisher: Princeton University Press, Princeton
ISBN: 0691150737, Pages: 432, Year: 2012
Search for book at

Julian Zelizer is a public intellectual of the first order and teaches at Princeton University. His written pieces published in various media over the course of two decades have been collected in one volume for the first time. Zelizer straddles journalism, political science, and historical studies in Governing America: The Revival of Political History. His objective is to explain how American politics work to both scholarly and general audiences. Similar to any anthology with entries that date back to 1997, the materials are somewhat dated. National politics have changed in the second decade of the 21st century from where they stood even just ten years earlier and discontent with politics, politicians, and the federal government has reached a new peak.

Zelizer challenges older paradigms of political history in these essays including the cycles of reform, reaction, and the presidential synthesis. These once potent organizing themes are no longer fashionable, though one could make the case from Zelizer’s essays that they retain some influence. There is a great deal of historiography, references to other historians’ work, proceedings from conferences and symposia, and other scholarly subjects in this book that will appeal to academics. The bibliographies and endnotes are a little out of date, but graduate students preparing for general examinations in this field will find these references a treasure.

For the general reader, Zelizer offers a tour through twentieth century American governance that is top down. Although he insists that it is not the old style of political history, the author’s focus on policy, Congress, and electoral politics is exactly what comprises traditional political history. These essays cover the same kind of topics and focus on the same type of people that have interested traditional political historians. Readers will find major crises, congressional leaders, presidents, and presidential advisors in this volume. As such, it is difficult to see how this new political history differs at all from the traditional genre.

The reason for this lack of difference may well be that political history never disappeared and the most rudimentary examination of academic and trade titles over the past 25 years demonstrates this trend. Zelizer begins with this premise and discards it, perhaps to attempt to distinguish his own work from the more traditional. However, he does not fully succeed in this goal and I am not quite convinced that his essays fit together, although individually they are worth rereading. Zelizer does not intend to overthrow all time-honored findings but instead attempts to sharpen and refine them.

The first section of the book focuses on the field of political history and is filled with valuable insights. “Beyond the Presidential Synthesis: Reordering Political Time” emphasizes the importance of institutional and economic influences on governance. “Clio’s Lost Tribe: Public Policy History Since 1978” reminds readers that policy is a distinct field and requires being treated separately from narratives of particular programs. “History and Political Science: Together Again?” calls on historians and political scientists to move beyond the American political development school, a step that a new generation of historians of government has already taken since that time. The next essay in this section, and the most often cited, is “Rethinking the History of American Conservatism.” Zelizer urges scholars to attend to the multiple factors that accompanied and spurred the recrudescence of modern conservatism rather than seeking a single cause. The final essay in this section is a cursory review of the contributions history can make to social sciences and assumes that history is not a social science, though many consider it to be.

Part Two of the book, “Paying for Government: Taxes, Money, and Fiscal Restraint,” tracks the fiscal concerns that have shaped American tax and spending policy during the twentieth century. One might begin the story with the introduction of the income tax in the Civil War, the Supreme Court’s negative ruling on income tax in Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan and Trust (1895), and the battle for the income tax amendment, but Zelizer begins in the New Deal and traces the relationship between fiscal constraint and anti-statism. Subsequent entries in this part follow the fiscal conservatism of the liberal states from the New Deal Era to social security and Medicare.

Part Three, “The Rules of the Game: The Politics of Process,” examines the political process and focuses on Congress, electoral politics, campaign reform, scandals, and conservatism once more. If there is a substantive theme running through the second and third parts, it is the role of conservative ideology and political tactics in recent politics. Zelizer has a special affinity for conservatism and explores its impact on policy, elections, and legislation; his assessments of conservatism as a whole are sensible, clear, and fair.

The final part is comprised of essays on national security issues and Zelizer argues that elections matter more in this area than in other policy areas. This may be in part due to a greater consensus on domestic issues, but I suspect that national security is a hot button topic in a way that fiscal responsibility simply is not. The two main examples, troop withdrawal from Vietnam and Jimmy Carter’s agony over the Iranian hostage crisis, locate the story in the White House rather than in long standing political party differences over foreign policy. Zelizer stakes ground distinct from older interpretations as in portions of his other essays.

Setting aside the value of his brief and informative essays, the only texts written explicitly for this anthology are the general introduction and introductions to the four parts. Zelizer offers a bare outline of his own agenda and the subjects he believes future political historians should pursue. Given the buffeting that any public commentator on public affairs must face, there is perhaps a predictable egocentrism in Zelizer’s approach. For example, some of the paragraphs in the introduction feature I and my to a disconcerting extent. However one reacts to the use of first person pronouns, Zelizer’s broad hint that he has something to do with the return of political history is a striking feature of the book. In the end, Zelizer’s revival of political history is exactly what Governing America: The Revival of Political History contains and the author promises.


Pollock v. Farmer’s Loan & Trust Co., 157 U.S. 429 (1895).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 10, 2016 ID Number: 19569, Date Accessed: 11/27/2021 5:48:34 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review