Perspectives on Democracy: Introduction

Allison Miller and James Grossman | Sep 1, 2016

Thinking about democracy requires confronting contradictions. What makes a political system "democratic" in its workings? What makes a society "democratic" in its structure? Or a culture "democratic" in its ethos? In the United States, for example, a profound belief in political equality clashes with an increasing concentration of wealth, in the context of judicial legitimation of that wealth's electoral influence. Civil religion increasingly (though controversially) teaches children to respect people with backgrounds different from their own, yet insidious racism will hold some of them back and allow others to prosper more easily. Americans profess belief in representative government, while denying it to residents of our capital city and crippling the legitimacy of representation itself by not voting.

John August Swanson, Seeds of Brotherhood. Serigraph, 17.5" x 23". Copyright 1973 by John August Swanson. special section came together over several months as the editors of Perspectives on History puzzled over how to reckon with the 2016 US presidential election in the pages of a magazine dedicated to the imperative of historical thinking and historical work. What happens when an election—and its context—seem to veer from history? All around us, in the first months of the year, a new context was taking shape. It wasn’t only the unlikely campaigns of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders that turned our heads. From Black Lives Matter to the Brexit referendum to the humanitarian crisis over refugees fleeing state-sponsored violence, we watched the context shift in ways that would eventually confound the expectations of even the most acute observers. We also watched many of those observers search for historical analogies that created explanations outside of history.

If history was not providing parallels, the "lessons" the pundits were inclined to invoke, then what might be the role of historians? Two groups weighed in as partisans, through a series of videos and an open letter respectively, invoking their expertise in opposition to Trump's qualifications for office. A debate ensued, in print and social media, as to the appropriateness of historians asserting political authority based on intellectual expertise. (This conversation will continue at the 2017 AHA annual meeting, in a session titled "Historical Expertise and Political Authority.") These historians had moved beyond contemplating democracy as scholars to participating in it, as historians using the past to contextualize the present.

The question is not whether democracy and democratic citizenship matter to historians, but rather what particular insights we bring and what roles we should play. All historians care deeply about democracy, though we may fight over what it means. Indeed, going to rhetorical battle over its meaning (and the extent to which it has been achieved in this or any other society) must be counted as one of its signal virtues. Historians are comfortable chronicling democratic practice and ideas across time and place, as the forum in this issue of Perspectives shows. This is important work, because it highlights the ambiguities, the contradictions, and the implications of context. It also reminds us that historians bring expertise to the table. The merits of historical thinking shouldn’t be a matter of national debate, yet they are. Do the eggheads lord it over everyone else with book learning? Or can what we know and how we know it benefit democratic ­decision-making?

The AHA believes that historians have a legitimate role to play in conversations not only about democracy, but in its practice as well. The culture of academia sometimes promotes a sense that expertise is by necessity narrow, entitling scholars to speak only to topics relating to their research specialty, rather than to historical thinking itself, or even the broad issues covered in the courses we teach. This reticence complements a view of the academy as a place apart, obligated and privileged to maintain a critical distance. Analyzing contradictions is less messy than navigating them.

All historians care deeply about democracy, though we may fight over what it means. Indeed, battling over its meaning must be counted as one of its signal virtues.

Our expertise as historians extends beyond our specific knowledge. We may not be historians of the modern United States, we may not know anything about elections if we are, we may not even be citizens of the country. But we do know that context is everything, and we know that comparisons that don’t take context into account are invidious. Instead of stepping away from the debate saying “That’s not really what I work on,” we can point out that history is less a matter of learning from the past to avoid repeating it (oft misquoted Santayana aphorisms aside) than a way of thinking about both the past and the present. At least this is what we want students to take from our classrooms—new habits of mind, new ways of engaging the world—more than we want them to memorize a parade of facts and dates.

Historians also know how to learn from each other. In that spirit, we present the following essays about democracy, broadly construed, in six countries—China, the United States, India, Brazil, Senegal, and the United Kingdom—all of which claim the mantle of “democracy.” Our authors convey the immediacy of the contradictions particular to these areas, but they also portray the uniqueness of the definition of democracy and democratic practices within them. We hope the questions our authors pose can serve as models for thinking about democratic citizenship and as guides to challenging what we think is possible.

Allison Miller is editor of Perspectives on History. She tweets @Cliopticon. James Grossman is executive director of the AHA. He tweets @JimGrossmanAHA.

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