Narrow Ground

Kenneth L. Pomeranz, October 2012

Kenneth L. PomeranzAfter the last debate, Dan Rodgers made a very good point on the AHA Roundtable: The discussion had been historically impoverished, he noted, not so much because this or that fact was absent (or inaccurate) but because both candidates often spoke as if a President's policies could simply remake reality: as if the historically-given constraints of powerful institutions, deeply-held beliefs, business cycles, and so on could simply be pushed aside by a strong leader with he right ideas. (Romney, of course, had more reason to speak this way than Obama, since it made the imperfections of the real world seem like things the incumbent should have been able to vanquish, but to a surprising extent Obama accepted this framing.)

This odd feature of contemporary American political rhetoric is hardly limited to the Presidential debates—candidates' discourse regularly minimizes the ways in which historical legacies limit what any individual actor, or even a powerful collective actor, can do. This is, I think, powerfully connected to strongly held ideas about the United States as a place with few (or even no) limits. But since we often seem more willing to admit that other societies are not completely "free" from history – after all, for the U.S. to be "exceptional" in the usual sense, other places must be more limited – I had expected a foreign policy debate to feature a bit more historical realism.

On this night, though, there was little sign of this. Romney seemed to me to have the most cavalier disregard of historical limits: saying, for instance, in his second comment of the night, that "the right course for us" had been laid out by a group that said we needed to promote economic development, gender equality, education, and rule of law throughout "the Muslim world" without any explanation of how one would do that, what obstacles would need to be overcome, how these changes could happen without some of the "tumult" he continually decried, or why even many people who shared those goals might have doubts about the merits of U.S. attempts to influence their societies that would not simply disappear by our pledging allegiance to these goals. But to a considerable degree, Obama again chose not to question this framework: that is, he generally defended his record by insisting that things had gone reasonably well over the past four years—or at least that Romney had offered no consistent plan for doing better—rather than by talking about any limits on what we can expect American foreign policy to achieve.

Strategically, this was probably the logical choice. Obama is, after all, trying to get re-elected, not pass his orals with distinction, and he is probably right that trying to start a more sophisticated discussion about what we should and shouldn't expect policy-makers to be able to do is not the best way to achieve that goal. Even when Romney accused Obama of saying something that most historians would probably say was true—that the U.S. has, in fact, sometimes dictated to other countries—it would almost certainly have been a big political mistake for Obama to defend such a comment (whether he ever actually made it or not, which I don't know). I was reminded of once hearing a former White House speechwriter say that even in the format of a presidential speech—in which one has much more chance than in these debates to develop an idea without interruption—he would never try to introduce new historical information or ideas. The best one could do was take history people already "knew" and assert or question its applicability—asserting, for instance, that "Vietnam" was a closer analogy for some current crisis than "Munich," or vice versa, but not introducing a less familiar analogy, or complicating either of the two more familiar ones. But as somebody who feels we desperately need to begin that more sophisticated discussion, the debate was pretty frustrating.

Also unsurprising but frustrating was the narrow range of issues on the table. Climate change—an issue on which no progress can be made without international cooperation, and which represents a profound "security threat"—was entirely absent, as were other environmental problems. Both candidates insisted that they stood for more and fairer trade, but what that might mean was left unsaid except for references to a few specific problems with China. The possibility that even with the right trade policies, good schools, and a favorable investment climate at home, millions of Americans simply might not recover the position that they had in a pre-electronic world in which most services were simply not tradable across long distances, or a pre-container shipping world in which even many bulky manufactures could not be shipped very far without huge costs was not even briefly entertained, much less made an occasion on which to think about how we might handle such an eventuality.

In short, the debates seemed to assume nearly complete freedom in many of the ways that history suggests we need to recognize constraints; and, on the other hand, it remained stuck within a very narrow chronological window, without much thought about where we have come from historically (Romney's rather odd comparisons to the number of American military ships and planes in 1917 and 1947 were the only references I caught to anything before the end of the Cold War) or about where the large sweep of history might be taking us. The absence of the climate question seems to me the greatest omission here, but there were others. The rise of China—and of India, Brazil, etc.—for instance, surely pose questions beyond those connected to our immediate economic difficulties, and nuclear proliferation is surely an issue that needs to be considered in terms that go beyond the immediate issue of Iran. As a citizen who supports Obama, I guess I should be pleased that the debate stayed on fairly narrow ground, where the recent policies and comments of the two men left Romney little room to make headway; but as a historian it is hard to avoid being discouraged at how predictable the talking points were, and how little this debate did to make listeners reconsider any of what they take for granted. The job of opening new perspectives on our times was passed up, leaving it to—among others—historians.

Kenneth L. Pomeranz is University Professor in History and the College at the University of Chicago and president-elect of the AHA.