After witnessing a US presidential campaign organized, in part, around the promise to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, many political observers and average Americans were stunned to hear resident Donald Trump declare, “Nobody knew that health care could be so complicated.” As a policy historian who has researched the intricacies of passing, designing, and implementing public policy, I saw this claim as particularly audacious. Scholars of public policy understand—even build careers around—the enduring truth that the politics of public policy are inherently complex. Although such complexities may have been lost on the 45th American president, the breadth and scope of our national archives ensure that they have not escaped dedicated historians.
Scholars of policy history demonstrate with their research that such political complexities are the rule, not the exception. This research on the history of public policy almost always relies on governmental data, housed in a host of federal archives comprised of the primary texts of US political history. Although historians often rely on both governmental and private archives in their research on political history, national archives are a freely available public good. The value of these collections is not just for researchers. Archival data provide a fundamental starting point for public conversation on the details of political conflict and compromise. They guard against revisionist interpretations of our political past. They implicate all Americans in the shared project of contesting and resisting a world devoid of political history.
For historians of American politics and policy, the vast archives of the US federal government provide the backbone for our understandings of the political past. From the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in 33 locations across the country to the 15 US presidential libraries, public access to the historical records of our nation is significant. In addition to academics, millions of average Americans encounter US history in its rawest, most unmediated form. Archivists at these locations, as well as the Library of Congress, respond to hundreds of thousands of research requests from armchair genealogists, military veterans and their families, archeologists, architects, environmentalists, museum curators, public historians, and writers, each with an interest in probing our national archival collection for deeper insight into events of the past.
My own work relies on archival research on the political history of sex nondiscrimination policy. It leads me to NARA, the Nixon, Ford, Reagan, and Carter Presidential Libraries, and the Congresswoman Patsy T. Mink Papers at the Library of Congress. These papers, in tandem with my research at private archives, allow me to engage in work that revisits and reinterprets the received wisdom about policy alternatives to problems of sex discrimination in education.Policy itself is an artifact of compromise; governmental archives can hold the history of the breadth of competing alternatives.
I study Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, a law that now enjoys significant support in public opinion. But this high level of public support has emerged unevenly through repeated political battles, and the basic contours of policy design are themselves political compromises that were not preordained. Research that returns to the archived policy debate over questions we now take for granted—like whether Title IX should apply to sports, or which methods might best protect women from sex discrimination (even the very policy definition of “sex discrimination” itself!)—helps both scholars and students to understand that what may seem fixed in the current moment was once contested and uncertain. Policy itself is an artifact of compromise; governmental archives can hold the history of the breadth of competing alternatives.
In the classroom, historians frequently rely on archival materials to build engaging lectures, to craft research assignments for their students, and to denaturalize the current world order as a transhistorical arrangement. Taxpayer-supported access to the archival collections of the US government helps university faculty, high school teachers, and amateur historians incorporate meaningful engagement with historical documents into published research, public lectures, and contemporary policy debates. Their purpose is not to romanticize the past, but to breathe life into the evidence that keeps the past a factor in the present.
Preserving, protecting, and even expanding the holdings of governmental archival data is more important now than ever. As public officials at the highest levels embrace increasingly casual and sometimes forthrightly misleading interpretations of political history and received wisdom, access to primary documents by researchers and students at all levels becomes more and more critical. In my courses, students read primary source material, which I collected in my research, to imagine themselves as policymakers in the context of the 1970s. They immerse themselves in the contours of political debate around civil rights policy, and use the lens of our political past to reimagine alternative solutions to ongoing circumstances of inequality and enduring discrimination.
Archival texts help students and researchers (both academics and average citizens) see the continued value of the past in the “now.” Even if elected leaders aim to downplay historical realities and complexities, we must remain vigilant to making primary historical texts both available and valued within public life. US policy history has always been marked by complications, debate, and compromise; governmental archives help ensure that we will never flatten or forget it.