Historians Re-Enter Presidential Studies

Historians in the News
tags: history, potus

In the 1980s and ’90s, the political-science subfield of presidential studies devoted itself to holding conferences decrying the state of presidential studies. I attended a late iteration, held at Columbia University in 1996. A graduate student at the time, I was an unarmed observer of the waning skirmishes in the methods wars. One shot from the floor stuck with me: "Your regressions suck!"

While the phrasing was shrill, the sentiment was accurate. At the time, empirical reductions of presidential behavior did, for the most part, suck. As Harvard’s Gary King pointed out, presidents give us an n=1 problem. With only 40-plus observations to date, we will not have a sufficient population of presidents to achieve statistical significance until at least 2193.

How to systematize a very personal office? Even broader efforts to classify presidential psychology, like James David Barber’s famous take on "active-positive" presidents, wound up verging on the ad hoc. And focusing on individual administrations tended, too, to overstate presidents’ centrality to the divided system in which they operate — to conflate president with presidency.

Yet by 2009, Stanford’s Terry Moe, who had spent 25 years proselytizing for the importation of the "new institutionalism" into the subfield, had declared victory in what he called "The Revolution in Presidential Studies." By then scholars had sought to transcend the n=1 problem by shifting their units of analysis away from individual presidents onto behaviors and strategies common to all presidents — proposing legislation or executive orders, making appointments, giving speeches.

That meant more and better quantitative work, but crucially it also carried over to more systematic qualitative approaches. Historical institutionalism, when applied to the presidency under the rubric of the broader study of American Political Development, became influential in the field through books like Stephen Skowronek’s The Politics Presidents Make (Harvard/Belknap Press, 1993). When done well, this approach, like all social science, derives clear hypotheses — about presidents’ interactions with partisan coalitions, or the fit of certain interests with particular institutional arrangements, for instance — and tests them against the relevant evidence at different points in time. It allows scholars to draw general rules of presidential behavior given certain institutional conditions. But it does not rule out the manipulation of those institutions in ways that can change history. ...

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