Are historians suffering from political bias? If one consults surveys of political affiliations in academia, one finds that history departments are largely (if not entirely) populated by people who report affiliations with the Democratic party. If one consults data about political labelling, one will find large proportions of scholars who self-identify as “left” or “far-left.” If one scours the conservative online punditry, one will find scores of mentions and anecdotes of history professors engaged in political activism or openly stating their political priors. This is used as sufficient condemnation of historians as being political activists.
But these are not strong answers to the question of whether historians allow their political priors to seep into their research. In fact, if their research is politically neutral despite strong political views, it is all the more commendable. Moreover, stating one’s political priors is even more commendable, as it invites transparency and allows students to weigh things mentioned in the classroom.
The question of whether historians allow their political views to colour their evaluations is far harder to answer. Fortunately, I believe that there is a simple way to glance at a possible answer by analysing the professional behaviour of historians.
In a recently accepted article in the Journal of Public Finance and Public Choice, Marcus Shera (graduate student at George Mason University) and I tested whether historians reward Presidents who ran larger budget deficits. To do so, we used the different surveys of “presidential greatness.”
The reason for looking at this variable is that views on fiscal policy tend to correlate quite well with ideological predispositions. If one is further to the left, budget deficits are more tolerable, and may even be desirable. If one is further to the right, budget deficits are damnable (even if there are some desirable exceptions). Thus, when historians “rank” presidents, we are observing their professional behavior and whether they are letting their priors speak strongly. If they act neutrally with regards to research, we should expect no strong association between the deficits observed under a given president and his position in the rankings. However, if there are strong signs of association between a President’s deficit spending and his rank, then we can speak more robustly as to whether historians are letting their political priors bleed into their research.
Using the famed C-SPAN survey of presidential performance and the less well-known survey of the American Political Science Association (APSA), we attempt to hold things constant for wars, economic growth and the personal features of the different Presidents (e.g., intellect, war hero status, length of stay in office). We found that historians do rank Presidents who ran bigger deficits higher than those who ran smaller ones. The effects are large enough to cause significant re-rankings of Presidents against more fiscally conservative Presidents. For example, if we assume that all Presidents had balanced budgets, the fiscal conservative Calvin Coolidge jumps 2 to 3 spots higher in the rankings while Ulysses S. Grant jumps 2 to 4 spots higher. Meanwhile, Presidents who engaged in larger deficit spending such as Frank Delano Roosevelt fell down 4 to 5 spots in the rankings.
Simply put, historians do seem like they lean to the left, and they reward Presidents who acted in conformity with their priors.
This, however, was not always the case. Since surveys of historians regarding presidential performance go back as far as 1948, we can assess whether historians have gradually changed how they reward deficits. In the surveys of 1948 and 1962, historian Arthur Schlesinger found that historians did not penalise or reward Presidents for their deficits. However, by the survey of 1982, they began to reward Presidents for running deficits. By 2000, that effect had grown larger still. From then until the last C-SPAN survey (that of 2021), the effect kept growing.
As such, it appears that there is some truth to the claim that historians are letting their political priors bleed into their research.