Bring Your Political-History Questions for Julian Zelizer


With all the strange political doings these days — a wild campaign season, Republican senators falling from grace in Alaska and in airport men’s rooms, Democratic governors engaged in shakedowns and ‘ho-downs — wouldn’t you like to have a political historian stashed in the next room so you could whip him out, the way Woody Allen did with Marshall McLuhan or the way Peter Griffin did with Jesus Christ, to settle arguments?

Well, here’s your chance. Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton and author of, among others books, On Capitol Hill: The Struggle to Reform Congress and its Consequences and Taxing America: Wilbur D. Mills, Congress, and the State, 1945-1975; and co-editor of Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970’s. He is completing a book titled Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security Since WWII, and a history of the presidency of Jimmy Carter.

The History News Network named Zelizer as one of the top young historians in the country in 2005. On, he recently discussed the limits of the presidency (ain’t that the truth) and how John McCain should engage President-elect Obama.

He is also co-editor of Princeton University Press’s Politics and Society in Twentieth Century America series, and he serves on the board of directors of the Dirksen Congressional Center. He has written widely for the popular press as well, including Newsweek, The American Prospect, Politico, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.

Zelizer has agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers, so have your way with him. As with past Q&A’s, we’ll post his answers in a few days. Thanks in advance to Julian and to all of you for the questions.

Addendum: Zelizer answers your questions here.


Regarding the current Democratic majority in Congress, how long do you think it will last? What can Democrats do to stay in power, and what surefire choices will lose them seats as soon as the next election (if any)?

Hypothetically, where do you think a Democratic supermajority in the Senate could have taken our country, particularly in terms of reconciling partisan differences?


Will our government ever stop the pattern of federal growth and increasing deficit spending, or are we now in a positive feedback loop that will eventually destroy the federal government as we know it?


Do you think Obama would support any keynesianish proposal, given a contemporary Bretton Woods like initiative?


Can you explain to a non-academic why political science and economics are considered different areas of study? Perhaps in the days of kings there might have been some separation, but nowadays,
"The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which." - George Orwell

Matt Zagaja

Do you think a public financing model would work for congressional elections? If so, what should it look like? What effect do you think such a program would have on congress?


I remember hearing a history professor argue that historically, the party out of power clung to "state's rights" in an attempt to limit the opposite party's power. Are there any modern patterns that are emerging regarding the party in and out of power?
It seems recent phenomena have been at odds with the standard stereotypes of small government republicans and big government democrats with Republican administrations expanding the government and debt (reagan, bush) and a democrat balancing budgets (clinton). With the democrats in firm control for the next 4 years and possibly, the next 8, is there any pattern you could imagine an Obama administration repeating?

John D Kromkowski

Isn't time to really seriously examine Henry George's prescription for land value taxation in his book, Progress and Poverty (1879). Clearly, land value taxation would have squeezed out much of the real estate speculation that is at the heart our current and past economic downturns.


Since you are a Jimmy Carter expert, what was his record with energy and conservation policy? My sense is that it wasn't great. I only ask because it seems like Obama is making energy/green policy a major policy objective and I'm concerned that he may be doomed to make some of the same mistakes that Carter made with 'push' technologies.

Greg Feldman

Did Andrew Jackson really shoot a person on the White House lawn?


Can you tell me a little about the history of the filibuster, related to the question of how 52 senators can favor a bill that the president also favors, but it does not pass?


Why, in the modern presidency, is the sitting President expected to help the President-elect "transition" into the White House? Where in American history was this precedent set?


What do you think of the Obama transition team's use of the website to elicit feedback from citizens and post videos of meetings and press conferences? Is this an unprecedented urge toward democratic inclusion or have their been shades of foreshadowing prominent enough before to stand as a harbinger for this development?


There seem to be certain juristictions where political corruption resists all attempts to stamp out. I'm not talking about places like Mexico or Alaska where there is a level of graft that is tolerated and most politicians (other than Ted Stevens) know where to draw the line. I mean places like Illinois or Israel where aggressive prosecutors enthusiastically throw crooked politicians in jail one generation after another yet they never seem to learn.

How do you think a political culture develops where someone like Illinois Governor Blagojevich or Israeli Prime Minister Olmert think they can get away with padding their income at the public's expense despite the fact that their predecessors are in jail for the exact same thing?

(I know that no Israeli prime minister has actually been locked up yet but that's because Ariel Sharon went into a coma before they could gather the evidence on him. They did convict his son. Israeli prisons also hold plenty of former MKs and cabinet officials.)


Zac Cramer

Not a question, but as a former BU student of yours, just wanted to say congratulations on the bump up to Princeton! Your class was great, and I think you deserve it. I'll never forget how you completely changed my understand of FDR and the politics of his era.


Do you think that American “historical illiteracy” is deliberate?
Do you think it's responsible to keep the population of the most powerful nation on Earth (still) on the level of idiocy it is?


Can you share your thoughts on the perpetual campaign? Do you think it is here to stay? Why do second term presidents engage in it? When did it start?

Alan Dambrov "iamthepapa"

One interpretation of the American Revolution claims that it was a conservative reaction by the economic elite, then the landowners, to preserve the status quo and to prevent England from changing/upsetting the economics of the colonies, however legitimate the goals of the mother country. Does this analysis apply to the current invocation of TARP and other bailouts by the government to keep the derivative, auto, securities, etc. markets from dealing with the harshness of change (in this case failure)?

Mary Jo

Do you think the the New Deal did anything to help with the Depression?

J. W.

I've read a few blogs "proving" that Democrats are more corrupt than Republicans. Is either party more likely to indulge in misbehavior?

-I have no juice

Which lobbying groups have had the greatest influence in Washington? What are the primary sources of the influence (money, votes, dates on a lonely Saturday night)?