Memory  /  Argument

Why (Some) Historians Should Be Pundits

The question isn’t whether they have anything of value to offer. It’s whether they can avoid partisan vituperation along the way.
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Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

At the same time, a majority of historians have done a good job outlining the differences within the common contexts. I recently watched NYU’s Tim Naftali, for instance, point out how despite the similarities between Nixon’s attempt to stymie Watergate and Trump’s efforts to obstruct the investigation, the former president was far more sophisticated, cagey, and careful in how he used his power.

I would argue that we need good historians, like Temkin, to participate in our public conversations when we are living through such uncertain times. Doing this requires being on television, online, in print, and on social media—otherwise our voices will be eclipsed. To urge fellow historians to withdraw would be a massive mistake. That would in fact leave the entire conversation about the present and the past to persons who really aren’t as familiar with what’s come before. That would fulfill the very worst fears that Temkin outlines in his piece about how these discussions can quickly disintegrate into false myths and misleading analogies.

Collection

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