U.S. Intellectual History Blog

A Quick Note on Historical Analogies and This Presidential Campaign

During this year’s presidential primary, I became fascinated by the use and abuse of historical analogy.  Would disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporters turn the Democratic Convention into another 1968?  Would the #NeverTrump movement succeed well enough that the we’d enter the Republican Convention without a clear candidate, as in 1976?  Was Trump Goldwater in ’64? Or Wallace in ’68? Or even Buchanan in ’92?  And of course all such analogies provide opportunities for historians to weigh in on pasts which, suddenly, seem very present.

Back in July, I blogged about the then-current uses of 1968, which had then emerged as the media’s favorite analogy for this political year.  I felt – and feel – that using 1968 simply to stand for Things Falling Apart – which was the dominant mode in which it was invoked earlier this year – missed out on a lot of what made the actual 1968 the year that it was.

But then a funny thing happened. As this year’s campaign got more and more unusual, the historical analogies seemed largely to disappear.  Of course, any campaign analysis will be based on comparisons to the past: what kind of bounces do candidates get from the first presidential debate? How big a lead can candidates erase in X number of days? And so forth.

But the game of finding a fateful date in history with which to compare 2016 seems to have faded from our public conversations. Perhaps this reflects the sense that this campaign season – and especially the campaign of Donald Trump – is unprecedented…as well as the hope, even in some Republican quarters, that things will return to “normal” after the dust has settled next year.

But while I felt that the It’s 1968[*] All Over Again arguments during last spring and summer were fascinating but often overblown, I think the current sense that this campaign us utterly unprecedented is also an exaggeration.  Every political year brings something new. And there’s surely a lot new about this campaign: the first female nominee of a major US political party, the first non-politician / military nominee since 1940. And that’s not even touching on the movement that brought Trump the nomination.  But every political season also shares commonalities with other previous campaigns.  If we talked a little to obsessively about past campaigns during the primaries, we are probably talk too little about them now.  And if this year’s campaign is less unlike the past than many have suggested it is, my guess is that it’s more like the future than many observers would like to think.


[*] Or ’64, ’72, ’76, ’92 etc etc