U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Stray Thoughts on History and Politics

Former NPR reporter Andrea Seabrook recently debuted a new podcast called “DecodeDC” that promises to “decipher Washington’s Byzantine language and procedure, sweeping away what doesn’t matter so you can focus on what does.”  So far, at least, it’s a solid piece of work, worth listening to if you’re interested in politics and have fifteen minutes or so to spare.  But what struck me about the first two episodes (all that have appeared so far) is that each begins with history.  Episode 1, House of (mis)Representatives, concerns the enormous number of people represented by each Congressperson today, and the political problems that arise as a result.  Why are there so few members of Congress for a nation of our size?  The answer (probably well known to readers of this blog) is that, after frequently increasing its size during its decennial reapportionment process as the nation grew, Congress froze its membership at 435 in 1911 and it’s essentially stayed there ever since, while the country has grown from 92 million to 308 million people.  Episode 2, Mind Control, concerns the (non-rational) use of language as a political tool.  It starts with a history of the Republican habit of calling the Democratic Party “the Democrat Party.”  Relying on an old William Safire column, Seabrook credits Harold Stassen with coining the term while working for Wendell Willkie’s presidential campaign in 1940. After starting with history, each episode quickly moves on to other things. DecodeDC isn’t about history, after all.  The second episode, in particular, doesn’t make much out of the particular origins of the “Democrat Party.”

But DecodeDC’s use of history in its inaugural episodes, is I think, symptomatic of at least one of the ways in which history is frequently referenced in contemporary American political discourse.  If one’s goal is to “decode” or “decipher” American politics, one of the most popular methods of doing so is to reveal some (presumably obscure) fact from the past that will explain (or can be presented as explaining) why things are the way they are today.  In the case of DecodeDC, these reveals are pretty straightforward.  But this use of history comes in more baroque versions, too…such as Glenn Beck’s infamous whiteboards.  In each case, one of the purposes of this use of history is simply to denaturalize the present: if something that we take for granted has a (quasi-secret) starting point, perhaps it can change in the future. In the more conspiratorial versions of this move, the genealogical reveal also shows a (quasi-surprising) person or force pulling the strings of the present from behind the scenes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of history in politics (and vice versa) in light of the recent passing of Eugene Genovese, Eric Hobsbawm, and Henry May.  Though all three have been discussed on this blog, more attention has been given Genovese and May, presumably because, unlike Hobsbawm, they were Americanists.  Elsewhere online, however, Hobsbawm and Genovese seem to dominate the discussion. And what most clearly distinguishes them from May is that both were, more obviously and deeply than May, engagé historians, though the relationship between history and politics in their work was far more complicated than the history-as-code-ring we get from Andrea Seabrook (let alone Glenn Beck).

Both Genovese and Hobsbawm, of course, started their careers (and Hobsbawm ended his, as well) as Marxists.  Marxism provides a particularly rich theoretical connection between politics and history. And in the work of more sophisticated Marxist historians (a category that surely includes both Hobsbawm and the younger Genovese), the understanding of the historical record and of political theory mutually inform and shape each other.  Like its Hegelian predecessor, the Marxist understanding of history sees the possibility of reading the future out of the record of the past.  But for Hegel, unlike Marx, the future foretold by history was, essentially, the Prussian present. Leopold van Ranke, and the other German historians who helped create modern historical practice in the 19th-century, also tended to be politically conservative, essentially seeing history as proving that what is ought to be.

But for all of these thinkers, on the left and the right, history was complicated, though in an ordered way.  This complexity was preserved even when, on occasion, they engaged in a version of the decoding / debunking mode (I’m thinking, in particular, of The Invention of Tradition, which Hobsbawm co-edited).  Though history certainly involved recovering past things now forgotten, for history to be understood, let alone for it to serve a political purpose, it needed to be properly interpreted.   The job of the historian does not end at simply figuring out that Harold Stassen was the first person to say “Democrat Party.”*

During my early years of graduate school, my fellow history students and I frequently told each other that much of what was wrong with American political life could be solved if only Americans could have a richer, more complicated understanding of history. I remember one student fantasizing that if historians were regularly invited on Oprah, they could totally transform the discourse on that show for the better. Another student, watching Reagan’s farewell address with me during our first year in grad school, was simultaneously enraged and excited by Reagan’s discussion of the importance of teaching history:  “we’ve got to teach history based not on what’s in fashion but what’s important.”  Though he and I knew we didn’t agree much with the President about the relationship between the “fashionable” and the important in history, we certainly shared his passion for teaching about the past…and his sense that teaching about the past could help mold the future.

While I continue to believe that doing (and teaching) history is important in many ways, including for our political life, I’ve long since lost the sense that simply doing good history is a panacea for the problems in our political culture.  To begin with, good history always has to compete with bad history. And though good history occasionally wins, bad history often has the political edge.  And simple history will almost always have an advantage over complicated history.  Invoking “Munich” (or “Vietnam”) as codewords in a foreign policy debate is far easier than grappling with the complexity of European politics in 1938 or the American presence in Southeast Asia in the 1950s and 1960s.

However sympathetic one is (or isn’t) with Hobsbawm’s or Genovese’s politics (and I imagine that few are sympathetic with both Genovese’s youthful politics and the politics of Genovese’s later years…though of course, Genovese managed the trick), it’s hard not to conclude that their political understandings enriched their (and, by extension, our) understandings of the past.  Yet I think neither of them — even Genovese, late in life, allied with a regnant conservatism — had anywhere near as significant a political impact as an historiographical one.

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* To be fair to DecodeDC, Seabrook does analyze Stassen’s coinage, but in largely ahistorical terms. George Lakoff is the most important analytic voice in the podcast’s second episode.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. The way Beck uses history can be thought of as “vulgar genealogy,” referencing Foucault.

    Luckily, if we wait a couple of decades, we can expect that Daniel Rodgers, in his sequel to AGE OF FRACTURE, will treat Glenn Beck as one of the more notable intellectual voices of our time.

    • Nils: Do you really believe that Rodgers would do that? Why the gratuitous swipe? Also, there will be an objective future historian that treats Beck seriously, for some past period, because some *today* do take him seriously. Historians of politics try, I think, to treat all contributors to discourse seriously, if not equally. – TL

  2. Great post Ben! On the subject of what *kind* of history works in political discourse, I’m not sure that either complexity or simplicity explains how a narrative is attractive to voters. As you well know, mildly complex theories and accessible simplicity can both work to sway voters. The former works if it just goes over their heads. The historical narrative woven by a candidate will appeal to the largest swath of voters if it captures something of the spirit of an age (i.e. the distress of all stripes of voters over the state of the economy, or the caginess of terrorists, or a sense of social/cultural decline). That narrative will likely contain some simple and some more complex points (within reason). – TL

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