Meet NEH Grantee Jefferson Decker of Rutgers University-New Brunswick

The National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) is one of the largest funders of humanities programs in the United States and supports research, education, preservation, and public programs in the humanities. The organization funds projects across a range of disciplines, including political science, through a diverse array of opportunities.

Jefferson Decker is an assistant professor of American Studies and Political Science at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, where he teaches and writes about U.S. political history, public law, and American political development. He is the author of The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government (Oxford University Press, 2016), which describes how conservative and libertarian lawyer-activists challenged the regulatory state—especially on environmental policy—and shaped the governing agenda of the American right. He is currently working on a political and policy history of late-twentieth-century America, which is tentatively titled Bull: The Stock Market and the Politics of Financial Security, 1974-2000.

Tell us more about your research project.
Bull will be the first political history of the long bull market in U.S. stocks that ran, with some memorable setbacks, from the early 1980s to the end of the century. I explore how public policies shaped the ways that Americans experienced the world of finance and how events in financial markets shaped debates over public policy. So, for example, adding Section 401(k) to the tax code turned a generation of middle-class Americans into de facto portfolio managers, whose long-term financial health improved or deteriorated with every move of the S&P 500. And that had an impact on the larger political and intellectual climate. By the mid-2000s, the Bush administration was using the 401(k) experiment as a model for privatizing Social Security—which, had it gone through, would have been a radical transformation of the welfare state. I do not think that debate would have been possible without the experience of the long bull market, and the lessons that it purportedly taught us.

What are your next steps and plans for your research?
I am a historian, so my research method is archival—I read other people’s correspondence, memoranda, policy papers, and draft speeches. This summer, I plan to visit the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, and Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. Depending on what I find there (and how long it takes me to collect information), I may also try to visit the Clinton Presidential Library in Arkansas and the Reagan Presidential Library in California.

How will the NEH grant help you accomplish those steps?
Archival research costs money. Most of my documentary sources only exist in a single, hard copy—and some of them are fragile as well as irreplaceable. So, I have to travel to the documents and sit down with them (usually during normal business hours) in order to read them or snap a digital photograph. The NEH Summer Stipend will pay for plane tickets, train fares, gasoline, housing, and babysitters for my school-age kids when I am away. That means I can do more research and travel further afield than I would have been able to manage otherwise.

What advice do you have for young researchers/scholars?
I am probably too close to the “young researcher/scholar” category myself to confidently dish out advice to others. I also believe that there is a significant amount of luck involved in the academic rat-race, and sometimes these sorts of questions beg a sort of post-hoc explanation for a bit of good fortune. Speaking only for myself: I try to do research that captivates me, and I try to communicate in ways that will be accessible beyond my various sub-disciplines. Thus far into my career, that has worked out OK for me. Fingers crossed!

See Dr. Decker’s book: The Other Rights Revolution: Conservative Lawyers and the Remaking of American Government (Studies in Postwar American Political Development)