HIST 494: Left, Right, and Center - Partisan Politics in Twentieth Century America  




Resources for Students

NEW - Project and Paper Sign-ups

NEW - Electoral Maps Since 1789

NEW - Suffrage Timeline

Read Syllabus in PDF

Post a Discussion Question

Do Research at the Library

Political History on the Web

Contact Professor O'Mara








CLASS TIME AND LOCATION: Mondays and Wednesdays, 1:30-3:20; Savery Hall 140
OFFICE HOURS: Tuesdays 11:00-1:00; 20 Smith Hall


This course explores the evolution of the national Democratic, Republican, and independent political parties over the course of the twentieth century. We address how shifting demographics, market changes, and social issues changed the composition of the major national parties over time, and examine key political leaders who shaped the identity and future of their political party. Readings and discussion cover the major social movements that shifted party allegiances, watershed elections, cultural and social issues shaping party platforms, the influence of grassroots activism on formal political institutions, and the growing influence of the independent voter.   Our work in this seminar will consider differing approaches to and definitions of 'political history' over time, and how this subfield relates to the broader sweep of American historical scholarship.


Required paperback texts are available for purchase in the University Bookstore and on reserve at Odegaard Undergraduate Library.

Richard Hofstadter, The Age of Reform: From Bryan to FDR
Alan Brinkley, Voices of Protest: Huey Long, Father Coughlin, and the Great Depression
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right
Joe McGinniss, The Selling of the President
Gil Troy, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s

The required articles for this course are available electronically to registered students.  Links are embedded below; a password is required for access to some of these readings and will be given out in the first class session.  You may choose to print these out or simply read them online.

Readings listed for a given week are expected to be completed by the date under which they are listed on the syllabus, e.g. the first part of Hofstadter on January 11.

In all assignments you are expected to adhere to the standards of academic integrity outlined by the University of Washington Student Conduct Code. For clarification of these standards and disciplinary penalties, click here.


Mon Jan 4           Introductory Session
DISCUSS syllabus and assignments
SIGN UP for Presidential election projects and for reader response papers

Wed Jan 6           Formal and Informal Politics
READ:    Paula Baker, “The Domestication of Politics,” American Historical Review 89:3 (June 1984), pp. 620-647
READ: John H. Summers, “What Happened to Sex Scandals?,” Journal of American History 87:3 (Dec. 2000), pp. 825-854

RESEARCH EXERCISE:  As a prelude to your Presidential election projects, conduct web-based research to discover what you can about the 1800 Presidential election (Jefferson vs. Adams).  On the class discussion board, post at least one link to an online source of information about the election, telling us who authored it, why it could be considered an authoritative/accurate source, and one interesting thing you learned from this resource.  We will discuss and evaluate these sites in the second hour of class on Wednesday the 6th.  This is an ungraded exercise but will count towards your general participation grade.

Mon Jan 11        A Nation of Farmers

READ:  Hofstadter, 1-81

Wed Jan 13         The People vs. the Powerful

READ:  Hofstadter, 82-130

Mon Jan 18        NO CLASS – MLK HOLIDAY

Wed Jan 20         The Search for Order                                   

GROUP PRESENTATION I:  The Election of 1912
READ: Hofstadter, 131-269                          HOFSTADTER RESPONSE PAPERS DUE

Mon Jan 25        The Kingfish

READ:  Brinkley, 3-81

Wed Jan 27         The Radio Priest

READ:  Brinkley, 82-142

Mon Feb 1          Social Reform

READ:  Brinkley, 143-215

Wed Feb 3          Uneasy Alliances

GROUP PRESENTATION II:  The Election of 1948
READ:  Brinkley, 216-268                              BRINKLEY READER RESPONSE PAPERS DUE
READ: Katznelson, Geiger, and Kryder, “Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933-1950,” Political Science Quarterly 108:2 (Summer 1993), 283-306.

Mon Feb 8          Suburban Politics

READ:  McGirr, 1-110
READ: Kruse, “The Politics of Race and Public Space: Desegregation, Privatization, and the Tax Revolt in Atlanta,” Journal of Urban History 31 (2005)

Wed Feb 10        Housewives and Revolutionaries

READ:  McGirr, 111-146

Mon Feb 15        NO CLASS - PRESIDENT’S DAY

Wed Feb 17        Ascendant Conservatism

GROUP PRESENTATION III:  The Election of 1960
READ:  McGirr, 147-216                 McGIRR READER RESPONSE DUE

Mon Feb 22        The Television President

READ:  McGinniss – first half

Wed Feb 24        The Media is the Message

READ:  McGinniss – to end            McGINNISS READER RESPONSE DUE
WATCH:  The Candidate (1972)

Mon March 1     Malaise and Revival

GROUP PRESENTATION IV:  The Election of 1976
READ:  Troy, 1-83

Wed March 3     Morning in America

READ: Troy, 84-146

Mon March 8     Reagan’s Legacy

READ: Troy, 147-296                      TROY READER RESPONSE PAPER DUE
WATCH:  A Perfect Candidate (1996)

Wed March 10   The Modern Political Machine

GROUP PRESENTATION V:  The Election of 1992
READ: Ben-Cramer, “The Price of Being Poppy,” from What it Takes: The Road to the White House (Random House, 1992)
READ: Sidney M. Milkis and Jesse H. Rhodes, “George W. Bush, the Republican Party, and the ‘New’ American Party System,” Perspectives on Politics 5:3 (September 2007), 461-488.
READ:  On History News Network, at least two articles (of your choosing) written by historians that discuss current politics



Grades for the class will be based on participation and writing.

Your participation grade is based on three things:
1. Thoughtful engagement in class discussion, reflecting completion of assigned readings;
2. Writing and posting a comment of at least fifty words each week to the online discussion board; and
3. Working in teams to create a simple web page and in-class presentation about one twentieth-century Presidential election, drawing upon publicly available source materials.

Your writing grade consists of:
1. Two reader response papers of 3 pages each, submitted on a week of your choosing, that each discuss an assigned book and relate it to other readings and issues discussed in class; and
2. One final 10-12 page essay.

Grading is broken down as follows: attendance and in-class discussion 20%; weekly discussion question posting 10%; team presentation 5%; reader responses (15% x 2 = 30%); final essay 35%.


Class Discussion.  In small colloquia such as this one, consistent and respectful engagement in discussion is the key to your success. To receive high marks for discussion, you must be both a thoughtful commentator and a good listener.  This is discussion, not oration; I grade on quality of commentary, not quantity.  An “A”-range student comes to class with an understanding of the readings and how they relate to one another, and with discussion points already in mind. She actively and consistently contributes to discussion, but she also knows when to let others speak and responds to their comments with respect.  Obviously, if you are not in class you cannot show off your mastery of the material and your penetrating analysis of the issues at hand; an unexcused absence will lower your class discussion mark by one third of a letter grade.

Discussion Questions.  Posting substantive and thought-provoking questions to the online discussion board is an important component of your participation grade.  It also is your opportunity to hone in on issues in the reading that you find particularly interesting and provocative, and for you and your peers to set our agenda for the day.  Questions must be posted no later than 10:00 A.M. on the day of class in order to allow your fellow students to read them in a timely fashion.  You can post as early and as often as you like during the week, but you must post at least once prior to the deadline in order to receive credit from me.

Group Presentation.  The first week of class you will sign up to for a group project that discusses a presidential election contest during the twentieth century.  Elections have been chosen because of their significance to American political history, and also because of an abundance of primary and secondary sources that discuss and dissect these elections.  Many of these sources are on the web.  Your task has two parts.  The first is to search the web for validated, authoritative sources of information about this electoral contest and assemble a Power Point presentation about the election that features these resources.  The second is to make a ten-minute, timed presentation of this material to your classmates. 

To prepare for this project we will discuss examples of useful (and not so useful) web sites in class, and I’ll provide a list of recommended sources for primary materials.  I also recommend that you and your partner(s) meet with me during my office hours to discuss resources.  Come to our meeting with a good sense of the content you’d like to highlight and a list of web sources, and I will help you troubleshoot both substantive and technical issues.  I will post outstanding pages on my permanent web site.


Reader Response Papers.  You will write essays on two of the five books assigned in this course.  At the first class session, you will sign up for the two books for which you will submit an essay.  Papers should be turned in on the due date for each book indicated on this syllabus.  They may be submitted one of two ways: 1) as a hard copy given to me in class, or 2) via email to me prior to the class session.  Papers emailed to me after class that day will be considered late and grade penalties will apply.  These papers are more than descriptive book reports.  They are concise analytic documents that give me your assessment of book, its relation to the other readings and to our discussion, and how they reflect other themes addressed in class.  You should not be reluctant to point out shortcomings you find in the readings, but criticism must be constructive and convincingly argued.  I will strive to have papers graded and comments sent to you no later than one week after the day they are submitted.  I will accept rewrites on response papers if you are dissatisfied with your grade.  You must submit rewrites to me no more than one week after you have received your graded paper; I will record the higher of the two grades.

Final Paper.  Presidents and other national figures often call upon professional historians to tell them about how past officeholders handled the challenges of campaigning and governing.  For this project, you are assuming the role of one of these historians.  Using the required readings from this class, write a 10-12 page memorandum to a national political figure of your choice (for example, President Obama, or one of the people who might be considering challenging him in 2012, or another prominent politician).  Your job is to advise this person about what he or she can learn from history about how to run for office, position him or herself on major issues, and make use of the media.  The essay should use specific examples drawn from the books we have read, and it should use parenthetical citation.  It should be written in an objective voice and refrain from excessive advocacy of a particular ideology or political position, although you may note how past events have shown the viability or vulnerability of a particular political approach or ideological position.  You may choose to focus on a particular issue of importance to this political figure, tracing its evolution over the past century, or you may discuss more general tactics.  This essay should be submitted no later than 5:00 P.M. on Wednesday, March 17 via email to the instructor.


LATENESS AND ABSENCES:  Your grade on an assignment will be reduced by one grade point every five minutes it is late.  Due to the widespread nature of this year’s flu, I will not require a doctor’s note because of incapacitation because of illness, but I ask for written notification of absence prior to the missed class if at all possible.  Scheduled absences due to prior university obligations or significant family events should be discussed with me as early in the term as possible.

THE POLITICS OF THE CLASSROOM: As informed, voting-age adults, you likely have well-formed political opinions and identify as a Democrat, Republican, a member of a third party, or an independent.  There are places to express these positions; this classroom is not one of them.  Your comments in class should approach matters of politics and policy in ways that are respectful of others’ opinions and contextualize these issues historically.  Informed debates based on the readings are encouraged; partisan editorial commentary is not, and will adversely affect your participation grade.

GRADING STANDARDS, PAPER-WRITING GUIDELINES, AND OTHER POLICIES:  All of these are available on this web site at the main Courses page.  I encourage you to read and refer to these as needed.