The Value of Historical Thinking in Public Policy Development

(two-minute read)

Policy in Brief:

In “At the Confluence of Public Policy and History: The Value of Historical Thinking in Public Policy Development” Daniel S. Soucier, Research Associate at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, argues that conversations between those who study how policy decisions affected society in the past and those tasked with shaping the future are a great benefit to society.

Fascinating Features:

Politicians often make missteps on the campaign trail—or while in office—that distort historical reality.

This distortion or misrepresentation of history—whether intentional or unintentional—can potentially be harmful to society. As executive director of the American Historical Association points out “history provides legitimacy.” As a society “we draw analyses of public life, and we make policy, we justify policy, we make arguments, we draw our narratives based on notions of the past.”

What history provides policymakers is a unique perspective on how to move society forward. We can think of STEM as answering how to engineer a technology such as self-driving vehicles, however, it is history that can answer why we need this technology, what possible social and cultural impacts the technology can have, and whether or not it should be implemented.

If policymaking is about advancing the common good, history can allow us to imagine and explore the common good and to figure out what might be preventing society from achieving it.

Anna Bartel, an MPR author in the Humanities special issue identifies four stages of public policy where the humanities—and thus history—should play an integral role.

  1. Conceptualization
  2. Crafting
  3. Implementation
  4. Evaluation

Historians can identify what the issues are and how they have evolved over time. They can identify who the stakeholders are and the complexities of the relationships between them. They can determine who has been involved in the policymaking process regarding an issue and who has been excluded.

Historians can also identify social and cultural complexities underpinning various issues and societal concerns.

Historians can measure and compare qualitative changes and continuities over time and evaluate the complex ways policy affects culture and society.


Historians have a specific toolkit of research and analysis that is gained through years of specialized training.

Soucier invites anyone interested to contact him at the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center, or by email at to discuss the intersections of history, current events, and public policy.

Dig Deeper:

Soucier, Daniel S. “At the Confluence of Public Policy and History: The Value of Historical Thinking in Public Policy Development.” Maine Policy Review 28.2 (2019) : 58 -59.

From MPR’s Archive:

Bartel, Anna S. . “Why the Humanities Are Necessary to Public Policy, and How.” Maine Policy Review 24.1 (2015) : 117 -122.

Riordan, Liam. “The Fabulous Promise and Practical Need for the Humanities in the Twenty-First Century.” Maine Policy Review 24.1 (2015) : 12 -17.

Silka, Linda. “The Importance of the Humanities: Reflections from Leading Policymakers.” Maine Policy Review 24.1 (2015) : 98 -104.

Related Resources:

Morin, Jean-Pierre. “Historical thinking and the place of history in public policy development.” National Council on Public History.

Wulf, Karin. “What Naomi Wolf and Cokie Roberts teach us about the need for historians”Washington Post.