With the election of Donald Trump, the term populism has returned to the political lexicon. However, while many people may use the term, fewer people truly understand its meaning and history. On today’s episode, we try to unpack the idea of populism in the American context. John Fea discusses the history of his favorite populist, William Jennings Bryan. They are joined by the foremost historian on the subject, Michael Kazin (@mkazin).
Here is a taste:
Lepore…in her new book, These Truths, declines the temptation either to condemn the national project or to celebrate it. For her, the United States has always been a nation wrestling with a paradox, caught between its sunny ideals and its darker realities. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other,” she writes, “lies an uneasy path.” The American Revolution was far more than a mere change of power from one group of well-to-do white men to another. “The United States,” writes Lepore, “rests on a dedication to equality.” Yet throughout her deftly crafted survey, she also makes clear how often citizens and their leaders failed to implement this ideal or actively betrayed it. She borrows her title from the Declaration of Independence, to signal both the standard of reason and equality that Americans profess and how their deeds have fallen short of it.
Read the entire review here.
This looks like a great symposium.
I have said it many times here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home: historians cannot predict the future.
But they can provide much needed context.
That is what Michael Kazin of Georgetown University does in his recent Washington Post op-ed “No matter what he does, history says Trump will never be popular.”
Here is a taste:
…American history is clear: Presidents who’ve lost the popular vote don’t win popular support.
The four previous presidents who finished second in votes cast all struggled to convince Americans that they were doing a good job. Each battled the perception that his victory was undemocratic and illegitimate; each soon lost the confidence of his own partisans in Congress and led an administration that historians regard as a failure. Each faced an uphill struggle to keep his base happy and mobilized while also reaching out to the majority, which preferred policies his voters detested. Most, like Trump so far, did not even try to square that circle.
Only George W. Bush seemed to escape this fate, for a time. But his temporary success had more to do with the acclaim he received after the attacks of 9/11 than anything else he accomplished in office. And this crisis-induced honeymoon didn’t last: During most of his second term, Bush’s rating stalled far below the 48 percent of the vote he had won in 2000, when half a million more Americans preferred Al Gore.
The three other presidents who lost the popular vote all lived and governed in the 19th century. None managed to overcome his initial political deficit or to enact any of the major policies he desired. In the 1824 election, John Quincy Adams drew just 31 percent of the popular vote. The conditions of that contest have never been repeated: Adams was one of four candidates, all of whom nominally belonged to the same party, the Democratic-Republicans. Because no man won an electoral-vote majority, the decision fell to the House of Representatives. Adams triumphed, largely because he agreed to appoint Henry Clay, one of his erstwhile rivals, as secretary of state. Andrew Jackson, whose popular-vote count had easily topped that of Adams, screamed that his rivals had made a “corrupt bargain”; if citizens accepted it, he charged, “they may bid farewell to their freedom.”
Read the entire piece here.
Whenever 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.
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.
A Republican Arkansas lawmaker has introduced legislation to ban the works of the late historian, activist, and writer Howard Zinn from publicly funded schools.
It states (pdf) that any “public school district or an open-enrollment public charter school shall not include in its curriculum or course materials for a class or program of study any book or other material” authored by Zinn from 1959 until 2010, the year in which he died.
The Zinn Education Project, which aims to “to introduce students to a more accurate, complex, and engaging understanding of United States history than is found in traditional textbooks and curricula,” noted Thursday that educators in the state may have a very different take from Hendren: “To date, there are more than 250 teachers in Arkansas who have signed up to access people’s history lessons from the Zinn Education Project website.”
The project is also offering a free copy of Zinn’s seminal A People’s History of the United States to any Arkansas teacher who requests it.
Read the entire post here.
Should Zinn be banned from classrooms in Arkansas?
“Banned” is a strong word. I don’t know the motivation behind Hendren’s bill, but I imagine it has something to do with the left-wing leanings of Zinn’s work, especially his A People’s History of the United States.
So should Zinn’s works be used in school classrooms in Arkansas or anywhere else? No and yes.
I have argued here in the past that Zinn’s book is bad history. On this point I find myself in agreement with both leftist Georgetown historian Michael Kazin (who also serves as editor of Dissent) and Stanford history education scholar Sam Wineburg. I would not assign it as the sole textbook in a history class. It should be viewed as political text that uses the past to advance its agenda.
I would, however, consider using Zinn in the way that my friend Lendol Calder has used it in his United States history survey course. Calder assigns Zinn alongside a conservative-leaning textbook such as Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States might be another conservative option) in order to show his students that history is “an argument without end.” He calls Zinn and Johnson “untextbooks.” I imagine that Calder assigns these two texts because their ideological bent is so overt and obvious.
Should Zinn be banned in Arkansas schools? No. But it should be used in very strategic ways that teach students how to think like historians and not like politicians.
It is hard to imagine that Donald Trump will win the GOP nomination and be elected President of the United States, but Michael Kazin, the Georgetown University historian, wants to give it a shot.
Kazin reminds us of what happened to the Republican Party in the wake of its last attempt to restrict immigration–the Johnson Reed Act, also known as the 1924 Immigration Act. From 1930 to 1960 the number of people migrating to the United States was reduced by more than 75%. Sadly, the decision to reduce the number of immigrants was based almost entirely on race–an attempt to preserve Anglo-Saxon culture in America.
So what happened to the GOP after the Johnson-Reed Act? Here is a taste of Kazin’s piece at Politico:
|Julian Zelizer, Princeton University|
On Saturday afternoon I attended a session at AHA 2015 entitled “Being a Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public.” There were some high-powered historians on this panel, including Peniel Joseph, Claire Potter, Julian Zelizer, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin. The place was packed–standing room only.
I thoroughly enjoyed this session–even found it inspiring.
In the end, the members of the panel seemed to have differing views on what the role and responsibilities of a “public intellectual.” Peniel Joseph and Claire Potter were clearly historian-activists. Zelizer called himself more of a “commentator” than an “activist.” (Joseph insisted that we can do both–comment and act). Foner approached his role as a public intellectual from a more traditional historical perspective. He believed that good scholarship could lead to social change. Kazin seemed to be somewhere between Joseph/Potter and Foner.
Michael Kazin of Dissent and the Georgetown University History Department is an astute observer of the American political scene. I like his stuff because he often brings historical reasoning and evidence to bear on his punditry. Here is a taste of his recent take, published at The New Republic, on the rise of libertarianism in American political culture:
William Lloyd Garrison. Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Ida Wells Barnett. W.E.B. DuBois. Students for a Democratic Society. Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. Barry Goldwater. William F. Buckley. Phyllis Schafly They were all extremists. The names above associated with the Left brought much needed reform to American society. The names above associated with the Right “seeded” the conservative movement that “grew to unprecedented heights” in the 1980s and 1990s.
Here is the conclusion of Georgetown’s Michael Kazin‘s article “A Kind Word for Ted Cruz.”
Of course, compromise is called for whenever political opponents agree on the essential merits of a
program, like Social Security and Medicare today, yet disagree about how to keep it solvent. But
while conservatives are careful not to advocate tearing down such pillars of the limited welfare state, many also describe Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme”—which reveals their true intentions. When dedicated partisans treat every issue as an opportunity for moral combat, effective governance becomes all but impossible.
But to vaunt moderation over extremism just signals one’s good intentions without communicating anything meaningful about the issues at stake. If you think Bill de Blasio will bankrupt New York or Ted Cruz has no sympathy for the uninsured, then make that argument and drive it home with facts. Insisting that our biggest problems would be solved if everyone crowded into the middle of the road is a lazy attempt to avoid real debate about what divides us. It’s an extreme waste of time.
|Robert Bellah, 1927-2013|
As you may know by now, sociologist Robert Bellah passed away last week at the age of 86. Many know Bellah as the lead author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985), a seminal study of the relationship between religion and the common good. But most people don’t realize that Bellah also coined the term “civil religion” in a 1967 article in Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Over at The New Republic Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin reflects on Bellah’s use of the term “civil religion.” Here is a small taste:
But liberals and leftists in the U.S. have frequently embraced the same tradition, usually to make the case that protesting the status quo can be as legitimate as, and more virtuous than, defending it. During the 1890s, leaders of the radical People’s Party, composed mostly of evangelical Protestant farmers, compared their determination “to restore the republic to the hands of the plain people with which class it originated” to the second coming of Christ. In 1955, Martin Luther King, Jr. told an audience of bus boycotters in Montgomery, “we are not wrong in what we are doing. If we are wrong, the Supreme Court of this nation is wrong. If we are wrong, the Constitution of the United States is wrong. If we are wrong, God Almighty is wrong.” Obama struck a similar chord early in his Second Inaugural Address when he referred to the Declaration’s “exceptional” view of “unalienable rights” and quickly added, “while freedom is a gift from God, it must be secured by His people here on Earth.”
After last month’s Inaugural Address and this month’s State of the Union Address, everyone is talking about Barack Obama as a champion of a revived liberalism.
Georgetown historian Michael Kazin, author of American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, is having none of it. In an article at The New Republic, Kazin explains why Obama should not be seen as liberalism’s standard bearer. Here is a taste:
But to believe that Obama has truly revived the great tradition of egalitarian reform is to neglect the distinction between two species of modern liberalism: that which promotes the equality of rights and that which works toward a greater equality of opportunity and wealth. The latter, the social variety, emerged from the class tumult of the Gilded Age and inspired such key New Deal measures as Social Security, the WPA, and the National Labor Relations Act. The former harks back to the abolitionists and early feminists; it demands that the promise of individual liberty be extended to every American, regardless of their skin color, national origin, gender, or whom they happen to love.
Most contemporary liberals support both types. But since the 1950s, they have devoted more time and passion to fighting for individual rights—and American society has gradually warmed up to the idea as well. Liberal politicians, spurred by mass movements, did away with legal segregation and immigration quotas created by “Nordic” supremacists back in the 1920s, abolished the barrier between male occupations and female ones, won access for disabled Americans, and are moving ever closer to legalizing same-sex marriage. The scrapping of overt job discrimination did help boost the fortunes of non-whites and women of all races, of course.
Yet the goal of economic equity for the majority of working Americans now seems farther away than at any time since the Great Depression. Anyone who follows the news knows the basics: beginning in the late 1970s, productivity has shot far ahead of wages, the lion’s share of wealth growth has gone to the one percent while the wealth of the bottom sixty percent has declined, the real value of the minimum wage is lower than it was during the Carter administation, and the percentage of union members in the private sector is roughly where it was when William McKinley was president. The real unemployment rate is well above ten percent, while the poverty rate is sixteen percent, the highest it has been since LBJ declared a “war” on poverty almost half-a-century ago. Only federal entitlement programs keep it from rising much further.
What does Obama intend to say or do about these festering failures of politics and policy? Very little, it seems.
Read the rest here.
Georgetown political historian Michael Kazin asks which past U.S. president best exemplifies the ideology of today’s GOP and its presidential candidate, Mitt Romney. His answer: Grover Cleveland, a Democrat. Here is a taste of Kazin’s piece at The New Republic:
But at the same time, if Grover Cleveland could read the 2012 Republican platform, he would find much to smile about. The GOP calls for an offensive against both private and public unions through such measures as so-called “right-to-work” laws and a repeal of the bill, enacted way back in 1931, which requires contractors to pay a prevailing wage on federal construction projects. The party also warns that any adoption of a national sales tax (common in much of “socialist” Europe) “must be tied to the simultaneous repeal” of the federal income tax. The delegates in Tampa even voted in favor of appointing a commission to study the feasibility of returning to the gold standard. (Which is not to say that Cleveland’s support would have been unanimous: The Democrats in Cleveland’s day, as now, were pro-immigration.)
If Mitt Romney manages to win election, he will surely disregard much of his own party’s platform. (In Grover Cleveland’s day, when parties were much stronger as institutions, voters demanded a certain allegiance to positions adopted on the convention floor). If Republicans actually governed according to their own strict “free-market” principles, they would quickly lose the support of the large majority of Americans who like much of what the government does for them. But by echoing a creed that failed the nation at the end of the nineteenth century, the conservatives who rule the GOP make it almost impossible to have a serious debate about how to solve our problems in the early twenty-first. As Cleveland himself once confessed, “I am honest and sincere in my desire to do well, but the question is whether I know enough to accomplish what I desire.”
This might seem odd, given Americans’ long romance with wealthy entrepreneurs and the enterprises they build. But a talent for developing private companies and making big profits seldom translates into wooing a majority of voters or governing a contentious republic. It may, in fact, blind one from recognizing critical differences between those equally difficult endeavors.
The most famous example of this disconnect was Herbert Hoover—a multi-millionaire who, like Romney, believed that America needed a shrewd capitalist at the helm of state. By the age of forty, the dour Quaker from rural Iowa had made a sizeable fortune as a metal engineer and developer of mines in several foreign countries. During World War I, Hoover employed his skills for a large, humanitarian purpose, arranging for food to be funneled to the millions of Europeans impoverished by the war. Then, in the 1920s, he became a high-profile Commerce Secretary, bringing industries together in trade associations where they could regulate themselves. Thus, Hoover had gained fame as an unelected public servant as well as one of the richest businessmen of his day—in contrast with William Randolph Hearst and Henry Ford, self-serving contemporaries who had earlier flirted with presidential runs.