In August of 2022, AHA President James Sweet published a brief essay arguing that history was being misused by those with political agendas. "We suffer from an overabundance of history," he wrote, "not as method or analysis, but as anachronistic data points for the articulation of competing politics."
David Bell was one of the first historians to publicly weigh in, defending the importance of presentism – up to a point. "[G]ood historical scholarship requires maintaining a delicate balance between, on the one hand, trying to convey the sheer strangeness of the past, and, on the other, revealing its connections to the present and to our own concerns."
Joan Scott was not impressed by Sweet or Bell, writing that "for both men, the charge of 'presentism' is a way of avoiding confrontation with the problem of the politics of history." Those politics have determined what does and doesn't "count" as history, and thus, says Scott, are a legitimate focus of historians' attention.
Writing in the AHA's own publication, Malcolm Brian Foley and Priya Satia composed two very personal responses to Sweet's piece. Foley made the case that historians have an ethical responsibility to pursue questions that matter to people in their communities. Satia celebrated scholarly efforts "to recover values that have been silenced or realities that have been whitewashed so that we might envision alternative futures."
When conservative pundits seized on the controversy over Sweet's piece, journalist Jonathan Katz suggested some reasons why. "The real problem the most powerful people on the right and center have with the 'new' history," he wrote, "is not that it practices identity politics, but that it rejects theirs."
As the debate was still raging, The Atlantic's David Frum visited Sweet to get his side of the story. The result was a sympathetic article that reiterated some of Sweet's earlier concerns: "If old heroes 'must fall,' their disappearance opens voids for new heroes to be inserted in their place—and that insertion sometimes requires that new history be fabricated altogether, the 'bad history' that Sweet tried to warn against."
When historian Jonathan Wilson took stock of the debate, he saw many of the same arguments that historians have been making for decades. But he also saw major problems with Sweet's version of it – most notably in its elision of the structural dynamics making life increasingly precarious for many of the younger scholars who Sweet seemed to be attacking.
Taking a step back from the Sweet essay, anthropologist Arjun Appadurai coined the term "pastism" to describe what he sees as a zero-sum weaponization of history by partisans both left and right. "The biggest flaw of pastism," he argues, "is its presumption that all signs from the past are only signs of the past. This flaw prevents us from recognizing both the presence of the past and, worse, of traces of the future that can sometimes be found in the past."
Earlier in the year, historian David Armitage composed this deep-dive on the various meanings of presentism for an edited volume titled "History and Human Flourishing." It concluded that only by embracing presentism could historians make their greatest ethical contribution."Human flourishing," he wrote, "is at once present-centered, future-oriented, and past dependent."
Many of the same arguments were also hashed out in the Trump years, as historians debated the utility of analogies with 1930s European fascism. In this piece, Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins puts those conversations in their own historical context, explaining that anxieties about presentism are a legacy of the Cold War academy, and "are amplified during moments of political uncertainty, frustration, and disruption."
Commenting on one of those earlier Trump-era debates, Zachary Jonathan Jacobson wrote that like it or not, historical analogies are inevitable. "We use the past to understand the present (and vice versa)." The historian's task, argued Jacobson, is essentially to tease out the good analogies from the bad ones.