Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece. Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:
As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.
Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.
Read the entire piece here
Nixon’s resignation speech (Wikipedia)
Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Martin Keller wonder if current comparisons between Watergate and the firing of James Comey are just another way for liberals, progressives, and Democrats to score political points.
Here is a taste of their conversation at The Atlantic:
Morton Keller: Julian, yours is a strongly argued, but highly partisan, criticism of Trump’s action in dismissing James Comey from the directorship of the FBI. My view of the episode is more complicated—as I think the episode itself is.
Watergate was a steadily expanding scandal: the break-in, the coverup, the dirty tricks campaign against the opposition using the FBI, the CIA, and the IRS.
This was hardly a one-party event. The Senate established a Select Committee in a 77-0 vote. Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment—of necessity a two-party threat.
And what is the current status of the supposed Russia-Trump connection, the current counterpart to Watergate? To paraphrase Chicago’s former Mayor Daley: lots of allegations, but damn few alligators.
Let us accept that Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to see Trump elected (though given Hillary’s reset efforts, and the isolationist, small-American profile of her party, that preference needs more explaining). But how much solid, Watergate-like evidence is there that Russian hacking, etc., made much difference in the election? Or are we supposed to swallow whole the risible idea that the disgruntled working-class (and middle-class) Trump voters of Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin were receptive to Putin’s blandishments? Even in the current out-of-control politics of our time, that is a stretch.
I’m quite ready to see what emerges with respect to Trump, his associates, and Putin. But to airily equate the still far-from-demonstrated fact of significant Russian influence in the election (compared, say, to Hillary’s massive missteps) with the incontrovertible facts of Watergate is something I’m not prepared to do.
There is another defect in any meaningful Watergate-Comey comparison. The departures of special prosecutor Archibald Cox and Attorney General Elliot Richardson were sought by Nixon and his aides alone. The Democrats have been baying for Comey’s scalp since the days of the election. To erupt in high dudgeon when Trump—quite legally, if questionable politically—fired him, is to bring political hypocrisy to a high level indeed. Do you think for a moment that if Hillary Clinton was president, Comey’s tenure could be counted in more than milliseconds? Would she have bounced him because he had been a political detriment? Of course.
Did Trump do it because of the Russian inquiry? Perhaps—though there was good reason for him to have had doubts about Comey from the beginning of his presidency. Did he do it with typically Trumpian ham-handedness? You bet. Can more come out about Trump and Putin, Russia and the election, than we know now? Possibly. Has it yet? Not to my knowledge. As historians, we should not rush to judgment until there is good and sufficient evidentiary reason to do so.
At present, I don’t think the action is a demonstration of authoritarianism—any more than former President Barack Obama’s playing fast and loose with the handling of illegal immigrants or the specifics of Obamacare was. That’s just the sort of things that presidents do.
Read the back and forth here.
In the second part of their conversation about the United States in the age of Trump, Princeton University historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis University historian Morton Keller wonder if our current challenges are novel.
Here is a taste:
Morton Keller: Julian, here are some historian-style ruminations:
The public life of the 19th and early 20th centuries was shaped by the ideas of the Enlightenment, the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the new science of the time. Out of these came the American and French Revolutions, and—less auspiciously—the Terror and Napoleon’s autocratic rule; the rise of the commercial and professional bourgeoisie, and the initially immiserated, eventually improved life of the working classes; liberalism, representative government, and the welfare state—and the class and racist despotisms of Stalin and Hitler.
In short, for almost two centuries modern history was chiefly determined by social and economic forces, which now are long in the tooth, and are ever more subordinated to new forces, new ideas, new social realities.
But is this indeed the case? Or are we experiencing today what can best be described as new consequences of old facts of life? Is the computer-internet revolution just another turn of the technological wheel, which began to spin with the steam engine and picked up speed with electricity, germ theory, and the idea of evolution? Is Islamic terrorism essentially fascist and communist totalitarianism in a more explicitly religious form? And is the new stress on the evils of inequality, and the growing gulf between the educated urban privileged and their minority allies, primarily a replay of the old capitalist/bourgeois-worker class struggle?
On the whole, I think not. The computer and the internet bid fair to be as innovative and consequential in their effects as was the Gutenberg movable type revolution of the 15th century. Islamic militancy is very much a modern phenomenon, on a scale not seen since the 16th century. The current surge of nationalist, anti-party, anti-immigrant populism, evident in the British Brexit referendum, the 2016 American election, and the first round of the 2017 French election, is a dramatic turn away from the mainstream politics of the past three quarters of a century. And the growing separation between better educated, more affluent, big city or college town-based people and their less-educated, more economically and socially fragile, small town or stagnant city-based fellow-citizens, is evident not only in the United States but in England and France as well.
The consequences of these developments are still far from clear, and far from over. There have been discomforting signs of a taste for authoritarianism in both the Trump administration and the college campuses: two ideologically opposite but behaviorally similar responses to the new realities of life in the West. But there have also been signs of a turn to a more moderate and familiar style of governance in the administration, and an uptick in support for free speech among faculty and First Amendment advocates such as the ACLU (though not yet among students or administrators). How long-lasting this will be is anyone’s guess.
Read the entire conversation here.
I love the way Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, is bringing good American history to the magazine. Today Princeton historian Julian Zelizer and Brandeis historian Morton Keller put Trump’s first 100 days into some historical context.
Here is a taste:
Julian Zelizer: President Trump’s first 100 days in office are coming to a close. The grades will soon come out. Politicians, journalists, historians are all starting to evaluate how well or how poorly he has done. This does not go down in the “unprecedented” part of this presidency. Ever since President Franklin Roosevelt pushed through Congress a historic legislative agenda in the early part of his term, the 100-day mark has been a standard part of the political lexicon.
There are many reasons for why we keep using this measure. Once FDR set the bar, it became difficult not to make this comparison. For journalists the 100 day-mark is a nice, clean, and simple way to measure how things are going, while politicians look for ways to gauge the strength of the commander in chief. In our current culture of quick, instant satisfaction, we want presidents to deliver on promises right away—and we have little patience for waiting.
But the first 100 days in office don’t really tell us much. Some presidents who get off to a strong start, like Jimmy Carter, go on to struggle during the remainder of their terms. Others, like Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, have tough early months, but then go on to serve two terms and end their term with strong approval ratings. Some of the biggest presidential achievements, like President Richard Nixon’s trip to China or President Obama’s health-care reform, come long after the 100 days are over.
It’s also not clear what we should measure. In the current era of strong presidents, executive orders and action should certainly be part of what we evaluate. So, too, should actions by Cabinet leaders, as we see in the current administration when rightward leaning agency secretaries are working hard to undercut the missions of their own programs.
Putting too much pressure on success in the first 100 days creates incentives for quick, and sometimes hasty, action. Great legislation can take time to produce. The legislative process requires what political scientist Nelson Polsby called periods of policy incubation when experts revise and strengthen ideas, where policy makers build support for a bill, and when elected officials can evaluate and when elected officials can evaluate what kind of legislation will work best. Doing everything up front and right away is often antithetical to success especially in a polarized age when “no” is usually the easiest answer to new ideas.
I am as guilty as anyone else for still using this concept but it is probably time to move on to other measures. Asking how presidents did in the first 100 days usually tells us little about what is to come and might even create the exact political incentives we need to avoid.
Read the rest here.