Why Political History is Really, Really Important

My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Occupation Safety & Health Administration
  • National Transportation & Safety Board
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children
  • Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation

I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies.  No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal.  When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own.  What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda.  Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism.  No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.

At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican.  Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.

I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources.  Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory.  Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.

The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter.  On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party.  Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well.  History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.

The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context.  We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades.  When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties.  Perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Just a thought.

13 responses... add one

As I am sure you know, the originator of the modern industrial social welfare state was Otto von Bismarck, who initiated a number of such programs during his time as Chancellor of Imperial Germany. Bismarck is about the last man who should be called a “socialist.” My understanding is that he did this to undercut the Socialists at the polls. I suspect that Nixon’s support for many of these programs you list could be explained similarly: he needed political support in other areas, and these were the “political coin” necessary.

That’s right about Bismarck. And he did do it to undercut support for the Social Democrats, who were the main party pushing for parliamentary democracy in Germany. Bismarck even put through a law banning the party for several years.

Related bit of trivia: the first major advocate of that kind of Bismarckian social reform in Germany was the conservative, Catholic philosopher Franz von Baader (1876-1841), who was also the person who introduced the word “proletarian” into German (from French) to refer to the industrial working class in an article in 1833, 15 years before the “Communist Manifesto”. Even in Germany and Austria among today’s social democrats, the term “proletarian” is no longer used in a contemporary sense. (I don’t think even the “postcommunist” Left Party in Germany uses it as more than an historical term.) The short form “Prolet” is used even by industrial workers now to mean tacky, crass, “low-bred”. The term “working class” (Arbeiterklasse) is still commonly used.

The 91st Congress had Democratic majorities in both the Senate ( 57/43 ) and House (243/192). The 92nd Congress had a slightly smaller majority of Democrats in the Senate (54D/44R/1 Conservative / 1 Independent), but the conservative was Senator Jim Buckley of New York, an old school conservative conservationist and one of authors of the Endangered Species Act. Yet the 92nd Congress also gave us Title IX and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. It may have been on Nixon’s watch, he may have had the option to force an (unpopular) veto showdown, but this is more a reflection of the composition and structure of the legislative branch in the early 1970s with a weak Executive than a predictor of Nixon’s political agenda.

Glenn Beck literally tells his viewers that Nazis and Communists and socialists and liberals and progressives and “European” are all the same thing. When you get into that level of political fanaticism – and that what it is, Beck is really talking John Birch Society conspiracy theories – then you have to toss out basic political and historical literacy to think in that mode. Someone trying to apply that bizarre, ahistorical framework would literally be unable to grasp even the most basic outlines of 20th century history, like the Second World War, as anything more than a series of events happening at certain dates. As common as it is to use “Hitler” and “Munich” as analogies in current politics, there’s just no way anyone using Beck’s Bircher framework could begin to understand the political processes that led to Hitler taking power, or even events that superficially fit the framework, like the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact. Any kind of minimally honest history would fall outside Beck’s fictional world.

What perplexes me most is the analogy drawn by many arch-conservative freely alternate between Hitler’s Fascism and Communism as synonymous… clearly not informed by a nuanced or even clear vision of history.

I recognize my own biases, but I simply don’t see mainstream liberals engaging in the aggressive “othering” that I witness even run-of-the-mill conservatives using. What I find most interesting is that many conservatives focus on getting to “the true American people,” which, according to the rhetoric I’ve been hearing lately, does not include liberals. (This does not, of course, keep in mind that a majority of Americans voted Barack Obama into office.) Not only is it unfair, but it obscures our inherent commonalities.

Kevin, I think that’s a great exercise, but part of the reason it’s a great exercise is because of the composition of your student body. If I were teaching at an Ivy League college, though, the comparable tactic would be to do something that would garble the comfortable assumptions of a left-leaning student body. Maybe give them JFK’s inaugural address and ask for the partisan affiliation of the speaker–that the President who was the dynastic predecessor of Ted Kennedy, the fallen lion of liberals, sounded a lot like George W. Bush in his Inaugural. Of course, at Ivy League schools, this tends not to happen, because the faculty share the assumptions of their students, and every group of people naturally thinks that they have a greater share of reasonableness, especially in a society like ours that puts a strong value on holding the rational political center.

Personally, while our national discourse could obviously be better, when we get the equivalent of Charles Sumner being caned on the floor of the Senate, I’ll start to worry, but right now, I just think a lot of the heat in our public discourse is simply a product of the democratization of media through things like blogs and the internet. While I certainly don’t think this is an unalloyed good, it has its advantages, and I’m not going to fret too much about it. Democracy always involves some degree of messy chaos, including lies and falsehoods. But I think things generally sort themselves out, and I’d certainly prefer that, than hope some anointed elite will adjudicate things, probably to their own advantage more than anything else.

I mean, is there any society in his history that in its public discourse has had a completely accurate and sophisticated (in academic terms) account of its own history? I challenge anyone to point out such a society out to me. There’s always some degree of slippage here and there, and the American right has hardly had a monopoly on garbled views of the past.

Our ignorance of these labels in history has paralyzed us to have an intelligent discourse in politics. While each party’s propaganda machine abuses our ignorance, I wonder if this generation of politicians is dumb enough to actually not know the correct meaning and origin of these agencies as well as the political and social movements of communism and socialism.

Also, thank you, James! That is refreshing to hear. I always go into my little “short intro into German history” when people explain to me that Bismarck was a socialist and I am from a socialist country; ) Also, the idea to mention communists and nazis in one breath as equals is utterly ignorant and dangerous.

I wonder if we can go back having an intelligent discussion about reforms without throwing around random labels. It has gone ad absurdum. I can’t be for health reform and in defense of the free market because the first certainly means I am a “socialist”??

For a long time I have decried the rise of “labelism” in American politics, in which someone throws an ugly label at an argument to de-privilege that argument. I dealt with this phenomenon when I lived in Alabama in the 1990s.

Micheala, I had a wonderful European history course in high school, and we did a lot on the Iron Chancellor. And my wife’s grandmother was from Lorraine, and used to say (cue German accent) “Even the Kaiser puts on his pants one leg at a time!”

Michaela-Unfortunately, a thoughtful discussion is the last thing that Glenn Beck and his ilk want. It is bizarre that they equate movements that were deadly enemies during the 19th and 20th centuries. They don’t have a clue that a Social Democrat (the bulk of whose leadership Hitler arrested and sent to concentration camps as soon as he took power) like Willy Brandt played important roles in opposing Hitler and in opposing Stalin.

My mother’s family is Scots (My maternal grandmother was born in the U.S. but grew up in Scotland; my grandfather was the only member of his family to emigrate). Scotland has historically been strongly Labour Party; the current P.M. Gordon Brown is also concurrently M.P. for Kirkcaldy (my family’s hometown where I still have a second cousin living) and Cowdenbeath.

My favorite personal conspiracy theory is that whenever you have a two-party system, they collude to most perfectly divide the electorate into 50/50, trading issues between themselves in order to make every contest as close as possible. Having each contest so close gives them the maximum opportunity to go to their base and scare them with the thought of the other side getting their way, generating a maximum amount of political contributions.

So when we have shifts between the parties on any given issue (such as those that helped Nixon’s Southern Strategy), I’m also suspicious that some group of them put together some focus groups, hashed out the numbers, and figured it would help things get closer to 50/50.

Of course, this is all just fanciful supposition, but it helps me acclimate to changes in party politics that otherwise defy logic. Considering that Lincoln’s war dramatically increased the power of the federal government, it’s especially funny that modern day Republicans decry big government (although, yes, we know that as much as they scream, they never seem to do anything except expand it further…like all politicians, transparent rhetorical tricks are par for the course).

I wouldn’t be surprised if in another 20 years Democrats are the ones screaming for smaller government, and Republicans are working towards buttressing entitlement programs.


I think we’re on the same schedule. I actually stole your “No Left Turn” picture to use in class today. I wonder how many people would be surprised to learn that Nixon – Richard Milhouse Nixon – proposed a national health issuance plan that was nixed by Congress. Nixon may have been a “Republican,” but in many ways he was also the last of the liberal consensus presidents. Given today’s climate, this can’t be anything but utterly confusing to a college freshman. Hell, it confuses me.

Why do you think they called him “Tricky Dick”? Much like Clinton, Nixon loved being at the center of the deal. He held no principles or strong political views (a la Goldwater). It was people like Nixon and McCarthy who kept the door to China closed for so long; until the chameleon-like Nixon decided unilaterally, to re-establish relations. He hated labor, yet signed the Occupational Safety and Health Act (and likened it to signing the Magna Charta).

Tricky was the ultimate political opportunist. If he was going to sign any legislation, it was going to be Democrat legislation.


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