Publication Date

August 19, 2020

Perspectives Section

AHA Activities, From the Executive Director

I woke up this morning (July 30) and learned that the president of the United States had tweeted, “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”

At least there were question marks. But the calculation was clear—as was the threat—in the president’s readiness to float an idea that proved unthinkable, even among Republican leadership inside the White House and on Capitol Hill.

That idea was merely an extreme example of an old ritual: the invocation of “fraud” as a justification for suppressing voter participation (“extreme” because the very idea of not holding an election raises the possibility of rather substantial interference in participation). The invocation of fraud has a long history, dating to the overthrow of Reconstruction and then to the late 19th century, when southern states systematically stripped African American men of the right to vote (women, already unenfranchised). The mechanisms were varied, and sometimes creative, but they shared a rhetoric that emphasized fraudulent elections as the justification for eliminating Black Americans from the polity.

Rhetoric is not the only element of voter suppression that has a history, of course. The reality does too. There was no evidence of widespread voter fraud then, and there is no evidence today. But for more than a half century, historians were complicit in the propagation of this insidious myth: that Reconstruction was an era drenched in political corruption and “redeemed” by white southerners, who recognized Black disfranchisement as the key to ensuring the “integrity” of their democracy. Historians have since scoured the landscape of the 19th-century South: the only significant voter fraud they’ve found was the fraud necessary to enforce disfranchisement. The same holds true today. As Tom Ridge, the first secretary of homeland security (under George W. Bush), explained: “There is absolutely no antecedent, no factual basis for [Trump’s] claim of massive fraud in mail voting.” In this issue of Perspectives on History, Julian Zelizer refers to the sophisticated statistical work that political scientists use to corroborate Ridge’s informed observation. Given what we know about the use of fraud by those who claim fraud, it is important to watch what is happening at the US Postal Service, which historically has an excellent record of providing access to the ballot, in states with a wide range of political profiles.

So, yes, the AHA is “taking sides” on voter suppression and the integrity of American elections. We are taking the side of integrity in our own discipline. Regular readers of this column are well aware that I have advocated for a decade on behalf of framing policy issues historically, bringing historians to tables of policy formation and analysis. In this case, historians at the table will point to the red flags raised all around it that say: we are seeing something that has happened before. Voter fraud is the stuff of conspiracy; voter suppression, the stuff of history.

Voter fraud is the stuff of conspiracy; voter suppression, the stuff of history.

The president himself has centered our discipline in the electoral arena by casting debates over public memorials in terms of “preserving” or “erasing history.” Debate over the fate of Confederate monuments is nothing new. But in June, an executive order raised the stakes:

Key targets in the violent extremists’ campaign against our country are public monuments, memorials, and statues. Their selection of targets reveals a deep ignorance of our history, and is indicative of a desire to indiscriminately destroy anything that honors our past and to erase from the public mind any suggestion that our past may be worth honoring, cherishing, remembering, or understanding.

In case anyone hasn’t gotten the message yet that history matters, the executive order continues:

It is the policy of the United States to prosecute to the fullest extent permitted under Federal law, and as appropriate, any person or any entity that destroys, damages, vandalizes, or desecrates a monument, memorial, or statue within the United States or otherwise vandalizes government property.

Hence the administration’s justification for dispatching unidentified but heavily armed federal law enforcement personnel to Portland, Oregon, despite the opposition of local authorities. This has a history, but not good precedent. President Washington had a court order to send military personnel to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794; President Eisenhower sent clearly identified National Guard and 109th Airborne troops to protect court-directed rights of children in Little Rock in 1957.

This fall, history matters to public culture, public policy, and politics more explicitly than it has in recent memory. As historians, we typically draw on our expertise to explain the imperatives of thinking historically. This time, the president of the United States has explicitly put our discipline on the table.

We approach an election in which not only history sits front and center; so too the values of historians. This is no small matter—and in less dangerous times, these issues can be complex and ambiguous. The AHA frequently invokes its Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct in response to queries about ethics, or to establish procedures in such venues as our annual meeting or online members forum. We are an evidence-based discipline: “All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence.” It matters to historians when a president makes false or misleading claims (20,000 as of mid-July). It matters to historians when an administration removes data from federal websites. It matters to historians when overwhelming evidence about life-threatening health issues is summarily dismissed.

This fall, history matters to public culture, public policy, and politics more explicitly than it has in recent memory.

This issue of Perspectives on History marks the 10th anniversary of my first executive director’s column, in which I invoked “the importance of history to public culture” and encouraged readers to “Take risks. Get out there in public and talk about history and why it matters.” I never imagined, then, writing an AHA column like this one, and I hope never to do so again. This issue of Perspectives offers historical context for four questions facing us in the November election; next month, we’ll add three more. That is what we should be doing, rather than worrying about the integrity of our elections or the role that institutions like the AHA must play to help maintain them. Last October, when I stepped out further than I’d once expected, I explained why:

Like the media, the infrastructure of scholarship is a bulwark of a free society. I have not been among those who see fascism creeping into our political processes, but I do see something happening that differs from anything I’ve seen before. If a clear and present danger does exist—and I recognize the legitimacy and imperative of debate here—then we must recognize the obligations of institutions of civil society when the rule of law itself comes under threat from those sworn to enforce it. Under such circumstances, the AHA has a responsibility to participate beyond its normal conventions.

This is not Weimar Germany. But I take seriously the increasing levels of concern expressed by our colleagues who study that era, and who bring to the table comparable expertise on relevant issues. This president has threatened to call off an election and refused to promise that he will accept its results. We have become accustomed to White House staff assuring us of their boss’s love of sarcasm and overstated provocation. But whether the president’s words are empty threats or denial of evidence-based medical science, it is clear that, in the moment, he has meant what he said and said what he meant. A clear and present danger apparently exists, and as a historian and a citizen I am obliged to call attention to it.

James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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