From the College of Humanities and Social Sciences
Snapshots in Learning
John Brumbaugh

John Brumbaugh believes historical research can help make sense of the present.

Learning from the Past

John Brumbaugh’s curiosity is often stirred with a footnote, an obscure photo, or a book with an unfamiliar name from the past. The search for answers may take him to Pocatello, Idaho to explore library archives or online to scan digital databases. And it will end with a book chapter.

In 2011, Brumbaugh was awarded a $2,000 fellowship from the Utah Humanities Council to study how Utah voters shifted support from the Democratic Party to the Republication Party at the turn of the century. His project analyzes Idaho Senator Frederick T. DuBois’ attempt to disenfranchise Mormon voters to preserve his own party’s political stronghold. Brumbaugh, a graduate student studying history, believes historical research can—and should—use the past to make sense of the present.

“With history you can’t make direct correlations to the past, but you can learn from it,” he said.

Brumbaugh began studying DuBois in depth when former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney made his first bid for the Republican presidential nomination. He saw some similarities in the way Romney was questioned about his faith and the way DuBois led a grassroots campaign against Utah Senator Reed Smoot due to his religious background.

At the turn of the century, people like DuBois questioned whether politicians would be loyal to their constituents or to their church leaders. This argument has continued for decades as Catholics and Jews entered the political sphere and began displacing the Protestant Establishment, Brumbaugh said.

“The big issue for Frederick DuBois and other Americans was ‘what is the influence of the church on politicians? What right does the church have to get involved in politics?’” Brumbaugh said. “They didn’t really answer it then, and they haven’t really answered it now.”

The debate recently resurfaced as two members of the Church of Latter Day Saints vie for the 2012 Republican nomination. The difference today is that political parties cannot deny the important role of Mormon voters, Brumbaugh said.

“Dubois was really a political opportunist, but his attempt failed with Smoot. Additionally, Dubois’ attacks on Mormonism ended up dividing his democratic caucus. He did anything it took to make Mormons look unpatriotic and un-American,” he said. “But Mormonism is so mainstream now. They are such a big supporter of the Republican Party they cannot be ignored.”

Brumbaugh’s paper will appear as chapter in a forthcoming book published by Utah State University Press.

His next project is to complete his master’s thesis on the medical history of Utah. He is investigating a health cooperative organized in the 1930s by the Farm Security Administration to provide health coverage for all of the state’s farmers. The health coops lasted until the 1950s when McCarthyism arose and profits enabled many farmers to purchase health care on their own, Brumbaugh said.

However, he wants to understand more about how the initiative was developed and why it failed.

“It provided a necessary service for thousands of farmers,” he said. “I’m really interested in learning where this idea came from and who was supporting it.”

So far, he is surprised with his findings. Cattle ranchers and church leaders were among the health cooperatives largest supporters, which seemingly oppose current Republican stances pressing for smaller government and increased privatization of services.

“It leads to a more complex history,” Brumbaugh said. “I am not sure if the politicians back then were thinking of the people’s best interests—but they had legitimate problems and they needed to find solutions.”