Arenas, Platforms, and Megaphones: The Dynamics of AHA Advocacy
In the early morning hours of March 16, a document titled “America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again” descended on the Internet. Within 12 hours, the AHA had dispatched a letter, reprinted below, to the inboxes of our members. It expressed our opposition to the proposed federal budget for fiscal year 2018 and encouraged members to contact their congressional representatives in support of the programs that make historical work possible.
Did we overreact? This was, after all, just a proposal, and by the end of the day even members of the president’s own party had expressed opposition to significant aspects of the 53-page plan.
If every AHA member agreed with everything we did, we would not be doing very interesting work. Rather than see that diversity as a shortcoming, we believe it makes the Association stronger.
The radicalism of that plan required a swift and decisive response. It was an assault on agencies deeply related to what many of us do, as historians and as Americans committed to the importance of history and historical thinking to public life and public policy. Never in its more than half-century of life has a president proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an agency whose minuscule budget (roughly a nickel per year from the average taxpayer) leverages millions of additional dollars in funding for humanities research and public programming. Ending federal support for the NEH—and for other agencies relevant to the work of historians within and beyond the academy—has little to do with fiscal prudence. Taken together, their cost represents rounding errors in the overall budget. They are targets because of what they do rather than what they cost.
My colleagues on the AHA Council and I recognize that not all members agree with this position, or with the four public statements that the Association has issued in 2017. We have received nearly a dozen messages from members strongly opposing our positions this year, in some cases declaring immediate resignation from the Association. I have responded to each of these messages (but not to comments of nonmembers) explaining that the AHA’s membership is diverse and that the leadership recognizes that not every member will agree with every position we adopt. A scholarly society should be both an arena for debate and a representative of its members’ interests. Our members are bound to disagree about those interests, and we take public positions only when the matter is especially compelling and directly related to our stated mission. If every member agreed with everything we did, we would not be doing very interesting work. Our members are thoughtful and informed, and they bring a variety of perspectives to the table. Rather than see that diversity as a shortcoming, we believe it makes the Association stronger.
The disagreements we’ve met have not been confined to a single political valence. Our Tuning and Career Diversity initiatives, for instance, have attracted criticism from perspectives that traverse the political spectrum, expressed in these pages as well as at the annual meeting and other conference venues. The AHA has members occupying multiple sides of debates about which issues require us to speak out, precisely what to say, and how often we should say it. Responding to that diversity by simply staying quiet would run counter to our mission.
So we continue to welcome—via e-mail, social media, or the Member Forum on our website—vigorous debate not only over our statements but about everything we do. We will not seek controversy for the sake of provocation. But we welcome the controversy that will arise when the AHA is not afraid to lead. We remain committed to confronting challenges to our discipline and seeking new opportunities for current and future members.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.
Contact Congress Immediately Regarding the FY 2018 Federal Budget
From: Tyler Stovall and Jim Grossman
To: Members of the American Historical Association
This morning the Trump administration released its “America First” budget blueprint. We are not surprised by either the breadth or depth of the recommended cuts, given the rhetoric, rumors, and policy rationales that have circulated through Washington over the past two months. Indeed this expectation has shaped our general “wait until the document lands” approach to action alerts. As we have emphasized before, we ask our members to act only when we think it’s an issue of vital importance and will make a difference.
It is now time to act. And a heads up: we will ask you to act again as the budget process proceeds.
This document is breathtaking in its potential impact on the work of historians and our colleagues in related humanities and social science disciplines. The blueprint calls for elimination of federal budgetary support for the National Endowment for the Humanities, National Endowment for the Arts, Title VI International and Foreign Language Education, Institute of Museum and Library Services, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
No doubt there is more to be concerned about. National Coalition for History and National Humanities Alliance staff are working through the details. It is not yet clear, for example, what the impact of this proposal would be on such agencies as the Library of Congress, Smithsonian Institution, National Archives, or various funders of social science research. It will take time to parse such details as the impact on National Park Service historic sites, and what specific programs are slated for either elimination or death by a thousand cuts.
Because so much is at stake, the AHA asks our members to contact their representatives in Congress as soon as possible to register strong objections to the massive cuts to programs essential to the cultivation of our national heritage and civic culture, such as the NEH; foreign language education; funding for museums, libraries, and historic sites; and social science research. This should be a short message that makes clear the scope of our concerns.
What to do today or tomorrow: To contact your members of Congress, you can use one of these two options. No matter which means of communication you choose, please briefly personalize your message as to your background or interest in history. If you are employed in the field, mention the institution where you work in your state and/or congressional district.
1. Make a phone call. All members of Congress can be reached through the US Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. A personal phone call is preferable to an e-mail.
2. Write a message. You can find your representative by going to the House website at www.house.gov. The system allows you to search using your zip code, which will take you directly to a link to your representative’s website and contact information. Congressional offices allow you to send an e-mail if you are from their district. You can also find and contact your senators by going to www.senate.gov.
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