Episode 49: Why is America So Divided?

PodcastWhether you ask a young college student or a baby boomer, the only thing people seem to agree on these days is that we are more politically divided than ever. But is this true, and if so, how did we get this way? Host John Fea and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling try to tackle this question. They are joined by Princeton historian and CNN commentator Julian Zelizer (@julianzelizer), the co-author of the recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Even More Historians Talk About the Trump Presidency

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Scott Berg, Robert Dallek, Jon Meacham, Edmund Morris, Stacy Schiff, and Garry Wills all reflect on the Trump presidency in this piece at Vanity Fair.

Here is Schiff:

Eighty-seven years before the American Revolution, the New England elite lost their patience with overreaching British officials. They wailed that their royal governor intended to deliver them to a foreign power. He colluded with the Native Americans. He distributed Catholic propaganda. Privately, they alleged, Governor Edmund Andros sneered that the Puritans “were a people fit only to be rooted off the face of the earth.” To counter his “deep design,” Boston’s civic leaders staged a coup. They were hardly the first to pass off self-interest as self-preservation, persecution as piety. They warned that the French and Irish were en route to Boston to destroy it; that Andros had bribed the Native Americans with jewelry; that together those fiends intended to butcher the settlers. An Andros associate wrote off the charges as hysterical, “so apparently false and strangely ridiculous” that no one could conceivably believe them. He was wrong. The coup’s leaders had a great deal invested in that narrative. They were a familiar breed of thin-skinned men, the kind who—as John Adams would later say of Elbridge Gerry—“would risk great things to secure small ones.”

Setting the stage for the American Revolution, Samuel Adams took a page from that playbook when in 1768 he linked a later Massachusetts governor to a so-called Papist plot. Adams had not a shred of evidence. But he knew a thing or two about stalking horses; Jesuits would be said to prowl menacingly through much of the American 19th century. Ultimately the Catholic specter gave way to the Communist one: between the Puritan hedge and Trump’s Mexican wall came networks of subversives, the watchtowers of the nation, and the reckless cruelty of Joseph McCarthy. The fevered imaginings remained the same. Each group served its purpose, threatening, as an eminent cleric warned in an 1835 anti-Catholic tirade, to “decide our elections, perplex our policy, inflame and divide the nation, break the bond of our union and throw down our free institutions.” Always a convenient demon can be found to plot against America, to remind a chosen few that they are the elect, that our way of life is in peril, that time is short, that we are precariously poised between a sun-dappled past and an apocalyptic future. The language has evolved very little since the 17th century. The judge sentencing Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for espionage in 1951 termed theirs “a diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation.” That fiery 1835 cleric could have been selling this administration’s Muslim ban.

By definition the contest is stark and absolute. The insinuations alone are vague. “There’s something going on that’s really, really bad,” our current president has reminded us. “A lot of people are saying,” he hints, broadly, vaguely. The fearmongering works, as does the cheap call to arms, Patriotism Lite. To connect Ted Cruz’s father with J.F.K.’s murder, to invent Kenyan births or Trump Tower wiretaps, allow you to avenge and aggrandize yourself while defrauding the truth. It divorces the rest of us from reality. It dangerously obscures the evidence at hand. It moves the club from the hand of the slogan-spewing white supremacist to that of the peaceful protester. Reason takes a holiday; in rush the phantom Frenchmen. Conveniently, a fake enemy can’t return fire. Better yet, he will continue to wage battle only so long as he is needed, after which he disappears into thin air.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

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At The New Republic, Graham Vyse asks this question to several historians and gets several different answers.  This, of course, should be expected.  Historical analogies are always problematic.

Rick Perlstein, for example, describes “the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.”

Kevin Mattson says “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”  He says “quite honestly, I don’t understand where [Perlstein’s] coming from.  I’m kind of at a loss.”

Luke Nichter says: “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press…At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”

And here’s CNN’s own Tim Naftali: “Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” but he does add “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Read the entire piece here.  It is a great conversation about the role of the historian in public life and the relationship between the past and the present.  Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle, but I resonate the most with Perlstein. Go read Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  🙂

Message to Mitch Landrieu: This IS About Politics

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We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It is a classic.

Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.

But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.

A taste:

“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.

Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.

Read the entire piece here.

Using and Abusing History to Make a Political Point

81d67-zinnWhenever I read a writer who tries to marshal American history (or any history for that matter) to support a present day political position or agenda (it happens A LOT), I am reminded of Georgetown University history professor Michael Kazin’s review of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Kazin is an accomplished historian of populism and the editor of Dissent.  Zinn was an accomplished left-wing activist who used American history to advance a political agenda.

Here is a taste of Kazin’s review:

His message has certainly been heard. A People’s History may well be the most popular work of history an American leftist has ever written. First published in 1980, it has gone through five editions and multiple printings, been assigned in thousands of college courses, sold more than a million copies, and made the author something of a celebrity-although one who appears to lack the egomaniacal trappings of the breed. Matt Damon, playing a working-class wunderkind in the 1997 movie Good Will Hunting, quoted from Zinn’s book to show up an arrogant Harvard boy (and impress a Harvard girl). Damon and his buddy Ben Affleck then signed with Fox to produce a ten-hour miniseries based on the book, before Rupert Murdoch’s minions backed out of the deal.

But Zinn’s big book is quite unworthy of such fame and influence. A People’s History is bad history, albeit gilded with virtuous intentions. Zinn reduces the past to a Manichean fable and makes no serious attempt to address the biggest question a leftist can ask about U.S. history: why have most Americans accepted the legitimacy of the capitalist republic in which they live?

His failure is grounded in a premise better suited to a conspiracy-monger’s Web site than to a work of scholarship. According to Zinn, “99 percent” of Americans share a “commonality” that is profoundly at odds with the interests of their rulers. And knowledge of that awesome fact is “exactly what the governments of the United States, and the wealthy elite allied to them-from the Founding Fathers to now-have tried their best to prevent.”

History for Zinn is thus a painful narrative about ordinary folks who keep struggling to achieve equality, democracy, and a tolerant society, yet somehow are always defeated by a tiny band of rulers whose wiles match their greed. He describes the American Revolution as a clever device to defeat “potential rebellions and create a consensus of popular support for the rule of a new, privileged leadership.” His Civil War was another elaborate confidence game. Soldiers who fought to preserve the Union got duped by “an aura of moral crusade” against slavery that “worked effectively to dim class resentments against the rich and powerful, and turn much of the anger against ‘the enemy.’”

Read the entire review here.

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.

 

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

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Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Historians (and assorted others) on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

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Is Donald Trump the next Andrew Jackson

Andrew Ferguson, Richard Brookhiser, Allen Guelzo, David Reynolds, Jill Lepore, Robert Merry, George Nash, Eric Foner, Amity Shales, George Will, and Jon Meacham have contributed to a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “History Repeats as Farce.”

Here is a taste:

“Ransack history how you will looking for antecedents, there aren’t any,” says George F. Will, the dean of conservative columnists. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, dismisses the journalistic temptation to ask: “ ‘What is this like? What are the parallels?’ I tend not to think that way.” She believes 2016 is “uncharted territory, really. It’s not like any other election, in a deep, structural way, because there are too many variables and no constants.” These include the potential for “gross abuses of power” by a President Trump, new modes of mass communication like social media and what may be an epochal political realignment.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James Polk, thinks such a shift is under way. The status quo is never permanent, and the post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cold War consensus about globalization and internationalism, he says, “has been killed by Donald Trump, for all his flaws and limitations. What we know from history is that when the identity and definition of the nation is at stake, the politics gets very intense.”

In such periods of upheaval there is often “a recrudescence of populism, a revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites,” says George Nash, who studies the postwar conservative intellectual movement. He distinguishes between “anti-capitalist” left-wing versions that oppose wealth and corporate power, like the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the last century, and more recent “anti-statist” right-wing populism that opposes big government, like the tea party (circa 2009, not 1773). Mr. Trump’s ideology confounds, he says, because it is “a hybrid of both manifestations.”

Eric Foner, of Columbia University, also sees Mr. Trump as “reflecting things that have been around in our politics in one form or another and now somehow joined together in one campaign.” The businessman is a merger of Ross Perot in 1992, who “raised the question of the loss of jobs through trade agreements,” and George Wallace in 1968, “appealing to white people’s sense that they’re losing out in some way.”

Read the entire piece here.

When Was America “Great?”

Trump hatWhat does it mean to “Make America Great Again?”

Since Donald Trump released his campaign slogan I have been trying to call attention to the way Americans historians might help us understand it.  I am making an educated guess that on November 8, 2016 my work on this front will come to an end and I will be writing about Hillary Clinton’s use (and inevitable misuse) of the past.

To be clear, I do not think historians are primarily in the business of making value judgments on what parts of American history were “great” and what parts of American history were not “great.”  But we can help Americans make this decision for themselves. We can offer suggestions about the meaning of America.  We can make them aware of what America was like so that they can decide if they want to back a candidate who will take us there “again.” This is one way in which historians can, and must, contribute to this crazy election cycle.

In a recent report The Washington Post assumes that Trump’s campaign slogan is an appeal to life in the 1950s when things were truly “great.” The report offers some data on American life in that decade and compares it to the present day.

Check out the report here.  Here is a taste of the summary:

But, things are getting much better for most Americans. “If you look back in the last 50 years, a lot of things have really changed tremendously for women,” said Ariane Hegewisch, a study director at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. “Education has opened up in a big way, and with that, access to better paying jobs.” Women saw not only an increase in employment and the financial independence that came along with it, but also gained political power as the glass ceiling began to crack.

People of color are seeing similar gains. Since the 1950s, with the decline of segregation and Jim Crow laws, there has been an increase in black individuals going to college, buying homes, living above the poverty line, leading businesses and governments, and succeeding along a variety of other measures.

Of course there are many who would argue that improvements for women and people of color are not the only way to measure American “greatness.”

(Thanks to my former student Phil Strunk for bringing this article to my attention).

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

On the Dangers of Court Historians

Schlesinger

Historian Arthur Schlesinger (in bow tie) was an adviser to JFK

Does the office of the President of the United States need a council of historians?  Two Harvard professors–Graham Allison and Niall Ferguson–think that it does.  In an Atlantic article that has been making the rounds on history-related social media, Allison and Ferguson write:

To address this deficit, it is not enough for a president to invite friendly historians to dinner, as Obama has been known to do. Nor is it enough to appoint a court historian, as John F. Kennedy did with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. We urge the next president to establish a White House Council of Historical Advisers. Historians made similar recommendations to Presidents Carter and Reagan during their administrations, but nothing ever came of these proposals. Operationally, the Council of Historical Advisers would mirror the Council of Economic Advisers, established after World War II. A chair and two additional members would be appointed by the president to full-time positions, and respond to assignments from him or her. They would be supported by a small professional staff and would be part of the Executive Office of the President.

For too long, history has been disparaged as a “soft” subject by social scientists offering spurious certainty. We believe it is time for a new and rigorous “applied history”—an attempt to illuminate current challenges and choices by analyzing precedents and historical analogues. We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history, one that follows in the tradition of the modern historian Ernest May and the political scientist Richard Neustadt. Their 1986 book, Thinking in Time, provides the foundation on which we intend to build.

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

My initial reaction to this piece was positive.  I am certainly in favor of bringing historical perspective to the policy decisions.  But if John Hope Franklin is correct, and historians are indeed the “conscience of the nation,” I wonder how their work as White House staff members could remain free of politics.

Jeremy Adelman, a historian at Princeton University, seems to have a more sensible take on all of this.

Here is a taste:

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?…

My second quip is more banal. It is simply to call for a little more humility about what we historians have to offer. The worst thing that could happen in thissauve-qui-peut world is for the history brokers to give us all a shiny, new, higher mission, only to discover that we have oversold the importance of history. Having accepted that the old mainstream is in basic trouble, disappointment with this new bauble could leave us all wondering whether there is any point to history. Foolish collective decisions are often made on the rebound from panaceas.

One is tempted to side with Kurt Vonnegut’s riposte to Ivy historians (like me) who want to play the role of prophet: “We’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive. It’s pretty dense kids who haven’t figured that out by the time they’re 10. … Most kids can’t afford to go to Harvard and be misinformed.”

In this sense, being misinformed might be the good news. Historians are notoriously slow movers, their trade is more of the slow-boil kind; it can take ages to master a tough language, to harvest data from archives and to write it all up, by which time the results are out of sync, badly timed. What’s more, their stories are often at odds with what the present wants — narratives of success when the world seems a mess, courses on human atrocity when our public figures go triumphal. They are often countervailing, countercyclical. So much of it can seem useless. Or downright misinforming.

Relevance is more than fine. It’s important. But let’s not inflate expectations. And let’s certainly not give up on a pluralistic commitment to the past, to teach our students and convey to our readers the importance of alternative narratives — and how to evaluate them according to shifting values of the present, new evidence, and the range of voices we need to hear. This pluralistic vision is not necessarily at odds with relevance. But giving the news cycle outsize weight in deciding what kind of history matters can lead to less, not more, remembering.

Read the entire piece here.