Again and Again: Historians, Politics, and Public Culture
Given the decibel level of the presidential primaries, even a hermit would be aware that we are in election season. While the rhetorical pugnacity of the primaries has descended to 19th-century standards, the historical analogies drawn most frequently are facile, if not misleading. Most obviously, the Trump phenomenon has inspired comparisons to the popular appeal of Andrew Jackson (and not because of his current association with cash), as well as to Mussolini and Hitler—but it’s probably best understood in a fictional context: Frankenstein’s monster.
The science for that creation began—or at least took shape—with the 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon, whose “southern strategy” targeted precisely the white southern voters whom Lyndon Johnson had predicted would abandon the Democratic Party in the wake of civil rights legislation passed during his tenure. That process bore fruit in the form of Ronald Reagan’s successful appeal to white working-class Democrats and culminated—or was most recently manifest—in the refusal of a critical mass of Republicans to accept the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency and the ensuing virtual paralysis on Capitol Hill. The latter obviously emanates from a variety of factors, but arguably the rapid rise of white southern conservatives in the GOP has contributed significantly to polarization and the influence of the Tea Party. Polls in the year after the 2008 election variously counted up to a quarter of all Republicans nationally not believing that Obama was eligible to be president, with those “not sure” raising the skeptics above 50 percent. Even after the president produced a birth certificate in 2011, one in eight Americans remained dubious. Numbers ranged far higher when controlled for race (white) and region (the South). The leading Republican candidate to succeed President Obama was also, and not coincidentally, skeptic-in-chief.
It is possible to attribute the breadth and depth of “birther” discourse, especially after the release of Obama’s birth certificate, to a widespread disregard for facts and evidence—a cultural and intellectual trend that makes this historian as nervous as it does our colleagues in the sciences. One could equate skepticism about Obama’s eligibility for the presidency with resistance to scientific consensus over such issues as climate change and evolution, or the continuing appeal of conspiracy theories relating to the 9/11 attacks. Sizable swaths of the electorate have probably for a long time equated informed knowledge with opinion. Today an influential segment of Congress similarly places expertise on the same plane as engagement, deeming research unworthy of public funding when the focus of evidence and knowledge lies in such realms as guns, the economics of health care, and scholarly research on Congress itself.
But historians are tempted to look beyond this explanation, plausible as it might be. The history of race and American politics—from resistance to Reconstruction across the postbellum South to the refusal of late 20th-century Chicago aldermen to approve any expenditures and appointments made by the city’s first black mayor—impels skepticism toward narratives that exclude race from explanations of current Capitol Hill obstructionism and its popular base. The toxic environment that emerged during the Obama presidency, the fundamental denial of legitimacy, was the final element in the chemistry that roils current Republican constituencies. Everything has a history, and the marginalization of the Republican “establishment” can be read as a tale wherein the creator confronts the terrifying implications of its political alchemy.
Indeed, history lies at the center of the narrative itself. What has been so striking during the campaign is the invocation of history, even if only by implication. “Make America Great Again” is a historical claim as much as a campaign slogan and vague policy agenda. What is the bygone era to which it refers in the invocation of “again”? What did that period actually look like? The first question can be answered only by the candidate; the second needs to be addressed by historians, and based on evidence.
Earlier this election cycle, an immigrant in Florida summarized her support for Marco Rubio with the sentence “Marco wants the country I came to 30 years ago.” What was that country? Another historical question for which empirical evidence abounds, begging fresh scrutiny. When Hillary Clinton begins a sentence with “I,” followed by a verb in the past tense, that autobiographical claim should be subject to biographical research. For its part, the media has largely confused history with analogy: anyone who played a role in either of the last two contested Republican conventions is therefore in demand despite the massive changes in rules and culture. One of those conventions was held in 1952, so the pool of experts is small—but not nonexistent.
I end with my usual plea to colleagues. Find a way to enter these conversations as historians. Point out in local press and radio, social media and other online spaces, at the dinner table, in bookstores and bars, the PTA and public meetings, that history’s relevance need not be proven by imperfect analogies or mere precedent alone, but also by exploration of process and rhetoric, reading widely and weighing evidence with care. If my crude narrative at the beginning of this essay is accurate, it took nearly a half century for Frankenstein’s monster to emerge fully empowered, with the similarly historical language of Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” (beginning with “restore” and ending with “again”) a crucial step along the way. That process matters, as does the fact that incessant invocation of history invites empirical challenge and interpretive expertise.
James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA. He also urges all AHA members to vote in the Association’s election, which begins June 1. The level of civility is higher, the expenditure of funds considerably lower. But whether the arena is a scholarly society or civil society, democracy requires participation.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.
Please read our commenting and letters policy before submitting.