Monday, December 03, 2018

History, politics, elections and getting from here to there

Jill Lepore is a Harvard historian and New Yorker magazine writer whose new book, These Truths: A History of the United States, is receiving a lot of current attention. This post is not about that one. I'll get to it soon enough: I'm currently sitting at request number #109 for 62 copies at the San Francisco Public Library.

But today I want to muse on a short introductory passage from an earlier Lepore volume. In The Story of America: Essays on Origins she writes:

Politics involves elections and votes and money and power, but the heart of politics is describing how things came to be the way they are in such a way that you know how to make things the way they ought to be.

This is curious, and worth pondering, because it reveals how much politics has in common with history. Politics is a story about the relationship between the past and the future; history is a story about the relationship between the past and the present. It's what history and politics share -- a vantage on the past -- that makes writing the history of politics fraught. And it's what they don't share that makes the study of history vital. Politics is accountable to opinion; history is accountable to evidence.

I find myself asking: is this true? and if not entirely true, what parts are true?

Actually working in our current partisan tribal politics does little to confirm the idea that politics is about successfully describing how we might get from where we are to a potentially better future. The broad mass of voters who don't focus on politics, elections, and government on a daily basis, neither have a very firm sense of where we sit now nor any articulated thoughts on where we ought to go. I'm not saying they are dumb. Rather their knowledge does not consist of information so much as feelings. They mostly can't tell you who their Congressperson is nor what a Governor does. But, if listened to, they can tell you whether they feel good about their lives as they are and, sometimes but not always, who they blame for the impediments to good lives they experience. Grievance comes relatively easily, but does not automatically lead to much of a sense of what might be more desirable. Nor does it lead to action to move somewhere else. Most people, especially most infrequent voters, don't understand themselves as part of, or actors within, a story that leads from somewhere in the past to some future which they are contributing to shaping.

That said, I agree with Lepore that democratic (small "d") politics is about people adopting a picture of their own past that might imply the possibility of a desired future. But experience makes me skeptical that this has much to do with "opinion" (or information.) It seems rather to be about feelings whose potency waxes and wanes -- and which politicians and other political actors strive to bend to their purposes, whether purely selfish or less so.

That "history is accountable to evidence" is the precept I try to live by. It's very demanding. All our impressions of what went before are shaped by the times and currents within which we live. To take the obvious contemporary example which is causing some consternation and often panic among white people in the United States, as we become a "majority minority" (absurd locution) country, we are forced to notice that our history consists in great part of conquering white tribes inflicting death and exploitation on people of color within our expanding boundaries. We also, gradually and haltingly, have pursued a vision that all people were created equal. But faithfulness to evidence requires that we stare at our exclusion of and indifference to laboring people, most women, and people that whites have defined as "different" by race throughout that history.

Faithfulness to evidence when looking at the past can hurt. It can also inspire. Each era creates its own unstable balance.
...
Lepore's Essays on Origins are fun. She skewers campaign biographies, tries to resurrect the anti-slavery influence of what we read as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's insipid patriotic verse, and gives us a glimpse of Thomas Paine's radical essence which has confined him to the status of a "lesser Founder." Of particular delight to me is the essay "Rock, Paper, Scissor" which explores the tumultuous history of election mechanics and voting in the 19th century. All highly recommended.

1 comment:

SF Rob said...

Jan, this is so intriguing. Another good reality check for those of us who think information matters. Thanks for sharing.

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