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Historians Must Contextualize the Election for Voters

This information is crucial for getting the election right.

Historians have been busy in recent months, and for good reason. Almost every day brings a stream of political questions from all quarters: Has this happened before? Is it truly unprecedented? Is it dangerous? What are the implications?

History has been used in two ways to answer these questions. First, it has been yoked to ongoing debates, with public figures deploying historical precedent (imaginary and otherwise) as needed. Front and center in this dialogue have been the Founders, a seemingly uncontestable source of authority for any and every claim.

Second, history has been a shorthand source of consolation in the face of an onslaught of wrongdoing and corruption that is evading, perhaps defeating, the rule of law.

Justice may not prevail at present, this argument goes, but the eyes of history will expose the ugly truth, a phenomenon that Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) branded “history’s rebuke.”

Historians have played a major role in both conversations. Well aware of the importance of understanding the roots of the current crisis, and faced with an onslaught of bogus historical claims, they’ve had much to say in the public sphere — and it matters. The New Yorker registered the trend last month with an article on “#twitterstorians,” historians on Twitter who engage with one another and with the public to “de-Trumpify American history.” There has been blowback against this trend, with some claiming that historians are scholars, not pundits. Others contend scholars who engage with the public aren’t “serious” about their work, an idea that is thankfully fading — albeit gradually. But in truth, given the unprecedented nature of our crisis, there could be no better time — indeed, no more urgent a time — for historians to engage the public with gusto.

In fact our country was founded on the very idea that the past has much to tell the present. The founding generation grounded its politics and ultimately our Constitution on that idea. The Enlightenment encouraged this kind of thinking, suggesting that close knowledge of the giant sweep of history could reveal universal patterns that could be deployed to serve the present day. Discover what toppled republics in the past and you could work to avoid that outcome. See what balances of political power proved most stable and you could craft a government built upon that base. As the French philosopher Charles Pinot Duclos put it in 1745: “Where we see the same faults followed regularly by the same misfortunes, we may reasonably think that if we could have known the first we might have avoided the others. The past should enlighten us on the future.”

A sterling example of this kind of thinking is James Madison’s “Notes on Ancient and Modern Confederacies,” written shortly before the federal convention in 1786. In preparation to reform or even replace the Articles of Confederation, he reviewed confederations to learn what worked and what didn’t. His historical analysis taught him that confederations were fragile, reinforcing his belief in the need for a stronger central government and guiding his actions at the convention and beyond.

However, when it came to precedents, the founding generation was at a disadvantage. There was no republic in the modern world, so where could they look for guidance on modern forms and practices? Great Britain was part of the answer, though a complicated one, given that the new nation was defining itself against the British example. Read the letters and papers of state-makers in the 1790s and you see a never-ending series of seemingly trivial questions about how the young republic and its officers should conduct themselves in a world of monarchies.

What title was best for the nation’s new executive officer? Too plain and simple, and he would never win respect within a world of empires. Too formal, and it would suggest that the president was a monarch. The same held true with clothing. What should a republican politician wear? How much lace seemed too monarchical? Even social calls had political implications. How much access to the president was proper for average citizens? At what point might it demean his status and his station?

There was no absolute guide for such questions, and the answers could warp the fundamental nature of the new government and the spirit of the nation — or so people assumed. The founding generation was feeling its way through the nation’s founding one decision at a time. “We are in a wilderness without a single footstep to guide us,” Madison noted in 1790. Sen. William Maclay of Pennsylvania captured that same feeling in his diary. “The Whole World is a shell,” he wrote, “and we tread on hollow ground every step.”

Maclay’s metaphor suits the current moment. Some of what we’re facing as a nation is unprecedented, and it’s impossible to predict the future. In some ways, we’re already off the rails. But unlike the founding generation, we have more than 200 years of direct precedent to call upon, and it is packed with insight into America’s past, how it evolved and how it got us to the present day. History doesn’t repeat, but it informs and echoes, and historians are trained to detect those echoes and explain their meanings.

How does this process of historical detection work? Consider what happened during the constitutional crisis we just endured: impeachment. For weeks, pundits and politicians argued about precedent, often inventing it as needed. Republicans, in particular, downplayed or even denied the role of witnesses in previous Senate impeachment trials. Historians countered such claims with facts. Every previous Senate impeachment trial — all 15 — had featured witnesses.

It was a telling discovery that seemingly had no impact on the Senate’s vote against witnesses. Yet the history-fueled debate did something crucial: It exposed the Senate vote for what it was — a partisan-driven aberration rather than a norm — and made that aberration a topic of public discussion. In the process, it armed the public with evidence and analysis helpful in thinking through the implications of the trial’s proceedings for themselves.

The 2020 election will require more such thinking — and acting. The implications of its outcome may be dire. The lies and propaganda flooding the Internet, the extensive power of social media, the unparalleled aspects of this electoral campaign, the possibility of a fundamental shift in government for better or worse: There are many ways for us to go astray in coming months.

A clear grasp of our past will be essential in finding our way through this maelstrom. To understand our current crises and imbalances, we need to know how we got here. To find our way to solid ground, we need to learn where every avenue might lead. The ways that local politics can have a national impact, the power (and failures) of popular protests, the ways in which racism and economic imbalance have led us to the present day: All of these things and more can be gleaned from pairing past and present to understand complex events as we live through them.

Historians will have much to say in this process of discovery, both in content and method. In recent years, our public sphere has slipped from truth, to “truthiness,” to truthlessness. If we have any hope of arresting that descent, we need historians to bring accuracy, analysis and evidence to public debate. In the process, they will bolster and protect the historical record — the basis of our profession and a fundamental key in defining our lives and times. The study of history is vital to understanding who we are as a nation. During the 2020 election cycle, that study has an urgency as well.

To protect democratic governance — to want to protect it — people need to know how it works and what it offers. To understand the risks at hand, they need to know their rights, how they were won and withheld in the past and how they remain threatened today. They need to know their history in all its complexity, diverse and conflicted, aspiring and deeply compromised, informed by voices new and old.

Of course, there is no single interpretation of our history. We discover and rethink things. We disagree. Meanings are shaped, reshaped and reassigned. New storytellers tell new stories. Old stories fall away. History isn’t set in stone.

Nor does history offer ready answers. As much as we would like it to, it doesn’t repeat. Even so, during the electoral frenzy that is already unfolding, confronting our past will arm us for the present. The defense of democratic governance demands no less.


Historians Must Contextualize the Election for Voters

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