Power  /  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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Julian Zelizer: Harvard University’s Moshik Temkin published a provocative piece in The New York Times titled “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” Temkin offers a stern warning to those in his profession who participate in the news cycle that they should avoid the “rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented” these days, “mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.”
Temkin is a terrific historian but I wasn’t persuaded by the piece. To begin with, the article is somewhat odd, given that Temkin is making an argument about avoiding punditry, in an op-ed piece in the Times written by a scholar at the Kennedy School of Government (which teaches policymakers) that ends with recommendations about what kinds of conversations historians should be having in the media about the presidency. I suspect that the title—aimed at generating eyeballs—didn’t come from Temkin. Regardless, it ends up distracting readers from the substance of the piece.

The substance, however, is also problematic. Temkin underestimates the value that many historians do bring to the punditry table by focusing on poor analogies that have allegedly been made by historians over the course of the past year—Donald Trump was like the populist Louisiana Governor and Senator Huey Long; the president is like Adolf Hitler; or the Russia investigation will inevitably have the same outcome as Watergate, with the president paying a price for wrongdoing, because our system works. I agree wholeheartedly that none of these are very good arguments, but are they really arguments that came from the mouths and computers of historians? Did many historians claim that Trump’s populism was just like Long’s populism? Did many of them not see the very clear difference between the genocidal totalitarianism of Hitler and Trump’s brand of authoritarian politics? Are there many historians who have not pointed out that partisanship and the partisan media offer one obvious reason that the current investigation might not go the way of Watergate? Indeed, from what I have seen and read, I suspect that most of these claims emanated from persons who were not historians and who in fact could have benefited from having a little more academy in the conversation.