20th Century American Politics, Language, and Digital History

This semester is the most I’ve ever engaged with political history and historiography. Thanks to Aaron Sorkin and his fascination with presidents like FDR, I’ve come to learn a lot about the New Deal era in my course on the TV show The West Wing. Throughout the course we watch episodes and read relevant readings pertinent to the theme of the week. This includes topics like capitalism and the New Deal, and other historic moments of the 20th century. Class discussion has centered around both historian’s and historic people’s use of language. Three major terms surrounding early 20th century politics include liberal, progressive, and conservative.

Based on common knowledge, these three terms are incredibly vague, whose meanings have changed significantly over the last century or so. These changes have accompanied significant changes in U.S. politics including the politics and affiliation of the Republican and Democrat parties. At first glance on Google Ngram, the term liberal drastically decreased in use while progressive and conservative were on the rise. Around 1915 the terms follow a similar pattern of use, with all three coming to a peak in the late 1970s.

Note that this focuses on American English!

I propose a three-pronged print project surrounding these terms. First, I’d like to track the trends of liberal, progressive, and conservative as evidenced by Google Ngram. I’d like to find out why these terms were at their peak use in the 1970s. Does this have to do with the work of historians publishing books on the labor movement from earlier in the century? The trend could certainly reflect a shift in the historiography. As the image above shows, the term “liberal” is also incredibly popular at the beginning of the 19th century. What sort of literature drove this popularity?

Second, I’d like to track the changes in the definition of the world. How, historically, has the word been defined? How do people use the word now? Wikipedia is a great digital source for this step because it offers a variety of definitions and link paths to follow. For example, when searching the word “liberal” Wikipedia suggests classical liberalism, conservative liberalism, economic liberalism, and social liberalism. This trend leads me to acknowledge that I should use the derivative function on Google Ngram to include other endings of the term.

Note that the page goes on to discuss “In the U.S. the term liberalism can refer to either of the following.” There is certainly a global trend within the Wikipedia page that requires navigating.

Lastly, I’d consider exploring other relevant terms, such as populist or populism and how they correlate to these trends. William Jennings Bryan ran for president as a populist in the emerging People’s Party at the end of the 19th century, but it appears that the term was not readily used until the mid-20th century. From a traditional historical perspective, the proposed terms intertwine and influence each other. They serve as a call and response of sorts. What, however, does digital history tell us about the development of 20th century American political history?

I don’t consider myself a political historian… but I’d do anything for Leslie Knope and Jed Bartlet. Until next time!

One Reply to “20th Century American Politics, Language, and Digital History”

  1. Great idea for a project! Exploring differences around terms like this is a great use for the ngram viewer.

    My first suggestion on this would be that you try out using the various tools that we looked at in ngram to explore words that frequently appear around each of these terms and then keep exploring those differences for additional ideas. It’s been my experience that some of the trend charts can become misleading because we don’t necessarily identify some of the varied ways that terms have been used over time and getting a sense of some of those words that trend with the words you are looking at can be helpful.

    I would also suggest that you run through a big list of potentially related terms and concepts to see how they do or don’t trend with these terms. I’m thinking of things like left wing, right wing, centrist, socialist, fascist, and then the various terms that often go along with these terms like “fiscal conservative.”

    I think if you keep playing with these kinds of terms you are going to start to see some interesting patterns emerge that you could then work to contextualize and further interpret by looking into texts that exemplify those trends.

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