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Alex Riggs

History, University of Nottingham

Thesis title:

Democratic Party Presidential Primary Campaigns and the Left, 1980-1988

In recent years, American socialism has experienced a rapid return to relevance, with politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez now commanding significant influence over national politics and organisations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as large as any socialist organisation since the early Twentieth-Century. Yet the origins of their ideas go far before the recent upsurge in socialist activity in the U.S. 

My research seeks to trace these origins by focusing on a key moment in the development of the contemporary American left- the 1970s and 1980s. By using three case studies, the Democratic Socialist Organising Committee (DSOC, DSA’s forerunner), the Harold Washington mayorlty in Chicago, and the Jesse Jackson presidential campaigns, it will seek to show the contribution of local, national, and Democratic Party politics to the development of the intellectual and organisational beliefs of the American left. 

To do so, it follows the intellectual development of these case studies, showing how they offered challenges to developments in national politics throughout the period, especially the austerity policies of the Carter and Reagan administrations. But it will also reveal the ways in which they formed part of political consensuses in the period, especially in the anti-bureaucratic nature of their politics and their emphasis upon bottom-up political strategies. 

This also sheds light on their organisational strategies, showing their development from conceptions that treated trade unions as the centre of political coalitions to a perspective that incorporated the new social movements that had developed since the 1960s. In doing so, it will highlight the successes of these strategies in terms of electoral politics and organisation at conventions, but also the continued contradictions and conflicts within these coalitions. 

Through this analysis, the project looks to provide a different perspective on America in the late Twentieth-Century. Rather than the only story being the rise of conservatism and the Republican Party under Ronald Reagan, this research hopes to convey a more complex picture, with the American left still able to show intellectual and organisational creativity, and change taking place along the lines of top-down to bottom up and bureaucratic to democratic, instead of solely from left to right. 


Research Area

  • History


'"Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will"? Mood and American Democratic Socialist Ideas', Journal of the History of Ideas Blog, June 1, 2022, https://jhiblog.org/2022/06/01/pessimism-of-the-intellect-optimism-of-the-will-mood-and-american-democratic-socialist-ideas/

'Reflections of a PGR on the EMC Teaching Scheme', East Midlands Centre for History Learning and Teaching Blog, May 4, 2022,  https://eastmidlandscentreforhistorylearningandteaching.education/2022/05/04/reflections-of-a-pgr-on-the-emc-teaching-scheme/ 

'Book Review: American Democratic Socialism: History, Politics, Religion, and Theory by Gary Dorrien', U.S. Studies Online, March 4, 2022https://usso.uk/book-review-american-democratic-socialism-history-politics-religion-and-theory-by-gary-dorrien/

'Book Review: Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye, The Churchill Myths', Midlands Historical Review, 5 (2021), http://www.midlandshistoricalreview.com/steven-fielding-bill-schwarz-and-richard-toye-the-churchill-myths/ 

'Book Review: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party', Midlands Historical Review, 4 (2020), http://www.midlandshistoricalreview.com/the-fight-for-the-soul-of-the-democratic-party/ 



"Nobody Will Be Safe From My Fairness": Ideas of Inequality in Harold Washington's Chicago', Historians of the Twentieth Century United States PGR Conference, 15 October 2022, University of Leicester. 

"Any Idiot Can Nationalise A Bank": Gramsci, Internationalism, and American Democratic Socialism in the 1980s', Historians of the Twentieth Century United States Annual Conference, 23 June 2022, University of Edinburgh. 

'"Any Idiot Can Nationalise A Bank": The Ideas of Antonio Gramsci and 1980s American Democratic Socialism', Midlands4Cities Research Festival, 14 June 2022, (online). 


''Moving Vigorously to the Left, the Right and the Centre, all at the same time?': Making Sense of Late Twentieth-Century American Politics', History Postgraduate Work in Progress Seminars, 10 March 2021, University of Nottingham (online). 

'"The Left-Wing of the Possible": American Democratic Socialists in the 'Age of Reagan', c.1973-1988', History Postgraduate Work in Progress Seminars, 27 October 2021, University of Nottingham. 

'"Any Idiot Can Nationalise A Bank": Gramsci, Internationalism, and American Democratic Socialism in the 1980s', Contemporary Political History Seminars, 12 Novermber 2021, University of Nottingham (online). 


'The Uses of Comparative History'- History Postgraduate Work in Progress Seminars, 12 February 2020, University of Nottingham.

'Conflict and Consensus in 1980s America'- Contemporary Political History Seminar Series, 3 December 2020, University of Nottingham (online). 


''Part-time Athlete, Full-Time Serious Thinker': Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Arthur Ashe in the 'long 1970s''- East Midlands Centre for Learning and Teaching History in Higher Education: Undergraduate Dissertation Showcase, 7 June 2019, University of Derby.

Public Engagement & Impact

I co-founded The Contemporary Political History Seminar series with fellow PGRs in History and Politics at the University of Nottingham in October 2020. Since then, I have been a co-organiser of the series. 

I have been an assistant editor of the Midlands Historical Review, a student-run online journal, since February 2021. 

I was a co-organiser of the 'Change in the Postwar World' conference, held online in October 2021. This brought together PGR and ECR researchers interested in contemporary history from History, Sociology, English, Politics and Area Studies, and featured a keynote lecture from Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite of University College London. You can find more info about the conference here:  https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/conference/fac-arts/humanities/history/change-in-post-war-world/change-in-the-postwar-world.aspx, and see how the day unfolded from our Twitter @postwarchange 

Other Research Interests

  • Twentieth-Century American History
  • History of Sport
  • African-American History
  • Comparative History


Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS)

Political Studies Association (PSA) 

Awards and Grants


I was awarded £196.14 by Historians of the Twentieth Century United States (HOTCUS) as part of their COVID-19 Mini Research Grant award scheme in May 2021. This money will be put towards the reproduction of archival sources from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library, Smith College and the University of Michigan.


I was awarded £200 as part of the Sport in History Undergraduate Essay Prize from the British Society of Sports History in November 2019. 

Training and Professional Development


Assistant Editor- Midlands Historical Review (February 2021-) 


Co-organiser- Contemporary Political History Seminars (October 2020-)

Co-organiser- Midlands4Cities Research Festival (March 2021-June 2021) I was part of the organising team for the M4C Research Festival, particularly the Research Relays. This invovled writing the Call for Papers, assembling panels, and chairing one of the festival's panels ('Politics and Philosophy'). 

Co-organiser- Change in the Postwar World (March 2021-October 2021) I was a co-organiser of this conference, which interrogated the period since 1945 from a variety of disciplinary angles. This included involvement with writing the Call for Papers, succesfully applying to the M4C's Cohort Development Fund, organising panels, and chairing a panel during the conference ('Social Democracy and the Postwar World'). 


Starting Out as a Researcher- University of Nottingham Researcher Academy (October 2020)

Understanding your Research Degree- University of Nottingham Researcher Academy (February 2021)

University of Nottingham Faculty of Arts Teaching & Learning Mentoring Scheme (February 2021-May 2021) I was part of this Faculty of Arts organised scheme, which allowed me to shadow Dr Matthew Pethers of the Department of American and Canadian Studies during his module 'African-American History and Culture'. This involved practicing writing and recording lectures, organising seminars, and marking. 

Getting the Best Out of Your First Conference- University of Nottingham Researcher Academy (March 2021)

Drafting a Chapter of Your Thesis- University of Nottingham Researcher Academy (April 2021)

Training to Teach Workshops- University of Nottingham Department of History (October 2021-) 

East Midlands Centre for History Teaching and Learning Mentoring Scheme (mentored by Dr Sarah Holland at the University of Nottingham) (December 2021-)