Navigating the Intersection of History and Contemporary Politics

What it feels like to be a historian looking at contemporary politics.
What it feels like when a historian sees a politician abusing the past for his or her own ends.

Many of us who study history do so in part because we are curious to see how our current society came to be. When discussing anything like education, economic, or foreign policy, it helps to see how policies, theories, laws, and ideas have evolved over time. There is a seductive quality to historical thinking. Sometimes, for better or worse, it leads us to believe that studying the past can offer us stability, order, and a better understanding to the world. We should be cautious, however, about drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the past can really teach us about the present or what it can do in terms of mapping out a foundation for future policy. Likewise, we should be very cautions about drawing comparisons between historical events and contemporary politics. I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of articles lately. But of all the reasons one may be inclined to oppose Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I don’t think Zachary Taylor’s rise to the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1848 as an “outsider” candidate and the subsequent fall of the Whig party in the 1850s is one that would prevent many people from voting for Trump, even if there are some similarities between the 1848 and 2016 elections. (It also bears pointing out that Ulysses S. Grant was very much a political “outsider” when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination in 1868, and the party turned out to be just fine with him at the helm. So it seems like there is no accepted wisdom when it comes to choosing outsider candidates based on historical precedent).

Ultimately I think there is a very fine line between studying history for the sake of understanding changes over time and how things came to be, and studying history as a means of forming future policy. I often get lost in the gray area of the intersection of history and politics when thinking about the importance of historical thinking as a way of making sense of the world. I do think there are some connections to be made between past and present. Here in the United States I don’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that the states where the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed are also the states that most ardently supported Jim Crow laws and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. And yet at the same time I understand that the people of the past were not like us. There’s nothing suggesting that today’s society will act a certain way because of what happened in the past. I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But how we understand the past is contested in part because we disagree about the historical connections and comparisons that make sense for explaining the world today. As a society debates its history and competing interpretations vie for the most compelling understanding of the past based on available evidence, politics fills the void left by an uncertain, incomplete, and inchoate understanding of the role of history in shaping present circumstances.

Are there any “lessons of history” to be gleaned from studying the past? There are a few that come to mind for me.

One “lesson” is that humans are complex figures and nothing is predictable. Historical precedents often give us imperfect answers for solving contemporary problems. At the same time, while I value the contributions of social scientists in politics and economics, I tend to look upon their predictive models with great skepticism because they value generalizations that dismiss statistical outliers over complex interpretations that take a more holistic view of societal thinking, which is what historians try to do most of the time. That does not mean social science has nothing to contribute, but only that there will be incorrect predictions at times and human behaviors that go beyond numbers and trends. Nate Silver screws up sometimes.

The other lesson is that “progress” is a double-edged sword that always comes with a trade-off. The invention of standardized time in the 19th century provided order to an industrializing world and ensured more efficiency and larger production capabilities in a capitalist economy, but it also made people slaves to the clock and killed many workers who yielded under this unforgiving economic structure. The development of the world wide web, the internet, and smartphone technology quite literally gives us the world at our fingertips, allowing us the chance to access tens of thousands of books, articles, and bits of information that people in the past would have never had access to. And yet at the same time we have become addicted to our phones. The internet is full of misinformation that spreads like a wildfire through social media and poorly-written memes. Whether or not we are truly smarter than those who lived before this technology is very much an open question. And, as Evgeny Morozov has so convincingly demonstrated, the internet doesn’t make us freer and in fact can be used to prop up authoritarian governments. I subscribe to the Walter Benjamin theory of progress and his conception of history as a storm that we crash into while we have our backs to the future.

In the end I like what historian Ian Beacock has to say about history and contemporary politics. To wit:

Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.