From Biographies to Ballots, Jonathan Soffer Tackles American Politics

Jonathan Soffer

After Jonathan Soffer’s first book, Ed Koch and the Rebuilding of New York, was published in the fall of 2010, you’d think the associate professor at the Polytechnic Institute of NYU would sit back and enjoy the fruits of his labor. Instead, the 14-year veteran of the Institute’s Department of Technology, Culture and Society will spend the next year ensconced at various archives and libraries throughout New York City, where he’ll pore over thousands of pages of data including census reports from the early 20th century to discover patterns among local voters. “Women’s suffrage lost by 89,000 votes in 1915, but it won by 100,000 in 1917,” explains Soffer, a political historian. “Why did the male electorate change its mind?”

Soffer’s attempts to answer that question will be supported by a grant from the Gilder Lehrman Foundation, which awarded him with $3,500 and access to the New York Public Library and its archival collections, as he begins the initial stages of research he believes will take 12 to 18 months to conclude. Soffer foresees the results leading to an academic paper published in a leading journal. In addition to his work on women’s suffrage, he’s tackling research on two other projects, one on policing and urban police space, and another on the way Progressive politicians, writers and feminist theorists began to use Machiavelli as a theory about how to fight corruption called “Intriguing Progressives: Theodore Roosevelt, Ida Tarbell, H.G. Wells and Charlotte Perkins Gilman as Machiavels of Empire, Utopia and Gender.”

“[I was drawn to the suffrage project because], until the last few years, at no time in American history had private business wielded so much unchallenged power to shape society as it did at the turn of the 20th century,” Soffer explains. "The period from the Progressive era to the New Deal was one in which American citizens were able to contain the power of the very wealthy, and I think that time period holds tremendous lessons for today.”

It would be interesting to consider what applications Soffer’s findings may have for the hot button issues of today — how pro-life or gay-marriage advocates might look back to the tactics employed between 1915 and 1917 to see how activists changed voters’ minds to pass the historic 19th Amendment. “There’s a lot of rather bland talk about innovation,” says Soffer, “but innovation can be political, as well as technological.”

An instructor at a university that aligns itself with innovation — i2e, or invention, innovation and entrepreneurship, is NYU-Poly’s philosophy — Soffer seeks to highlight innovation’s many dimensions in his classes. “There’s a real problem with thinking that it’s sufficient to have simply a technical education,” he says. “All technologies worth working on have social, moral, political and philosophical implications. It’s really hard to find one that doesn’t.”

In an effort to get that idea across to students, Soffer points to the infrastructure that supports their daily lives; say, for instance, the water system. “There you get questions like ‘is this pure water,’ ‘where’s the water coming from’ and ‘who’s not getting water,’” he says. “These are political questions. Engineers have to have a background in history and politics to do their jobs.”

Soffer argues, “Innovation does not happen in a moral or historical vacuum. It often has double-edged or unintended results, and I hope my students are taking that [lesson] away.”

Students who wish to learn more from Soffer can sign up for his courses this fall, when he teaches classes about New York City’s history and the roots of its urban infrastructure.

Photo courtesy of Roger Haile.