History as political argument: Unleash your inner Harry, Barry (please!)

Victory from the jaws of defeat!

Victory from the jaws of defeat!

Last week, Michael Lind published a thought-provoking article that urges Barack Obama to uncover his inner FDR or Harry Truman.  (“Give ’em hell, Barry?”  I’ll take it!  H/t to The Daily Howler.)  Lind has some interesting things to say about how Democrats today fail to use the compelling power of their own history and of the great movements for social justice in American history to make the case for the main progressive concerns in our times:

Last but not least, you need a narrative in which today’s campaign is not an isolated technocratic attempt to solve a particular public policy problem, but part of the ongoing story of progressive reform in America. In his 1964 Democratic convention speech, Lyndon Johnson invoked American history in laying out the vision of the Great Society: “The Founding Fathers dreamed America before it was. The pioneers dreamed of great cities on the wilderness that they crossed.” It’s hard to make that appeal if you agree with elements of the academic left that the Founders were self-seeking crooks, that the pioneers were genocidal monsters and that great cities on the wilderness are ecological disasters. The consensus liberals of the mid-20th century and the multicultural liberals of the late 20th century have been too busy exaggerating the anti-Semitism of 19th-century populists or emphasizing the racist attitudes of the 19th-century labor movement to invoke the ideals those precursors share with post-racist 21st-century liberals. But we can be inspired by the universal ideals that we share with our predecessors without endorsing or excusing their parochial prejudices.

Now, I seriously think Lind overstates the influence of professional historians, who might in fact be “busy exaggerating the anti-Semitism of 19th-century populists or emphasizing the racist attitudes of the 19th-century labor movement.”  After all–with print runs of 800 or 1,000, university press books have a limited audience, and those of us who read (or write) those books aren’t a large or terribly influential part of the Democratic party’s coalition.  (I don’t take Lind’s dismissive comments about “multicultural liberals of the late 20th century” or the “college-educated upper middle class” personally–it’s a little tic of his, like Gore Vidal’s sneering asides at the “Assistant Professors.”  If Lind and Gore want to establish their populist or intellectual creds by dissing me, well–wev.  I get it that I ain’t exactly normal.) 

So what’s stopping Dems from portraying universal health care, working to halt global climate change, and putting an end to torture as part of the great American tradition of redefining and extending the protections of citizenship to more people?  Huh?  Why are Dems alienated from American history, and even the distinguished history of their own party?  What’s your theory?

Lind finishes his article with a draft of a speech he wants Obama to deliver:

“They can draw a Hitler mustache on me. They can draw a mustache on the Mona Lisa, for all I care. They are wrong and we are going to defeat them.

“We won the elections and we are the majority. We would like to build the biggest consensus possible, but progress is more important than consensus. Our job is to help the American people, not split the difference between right and wrong by giving a veto to the party that the American people have rejected.

“In this fight, as in earlier struggles, powerful interests are opposed to the needs of the people. In the 19th century, we the people defeated the Southern slave owners, freed the slaves and saved the nation. In the 20th century, while fighting alongside many other nations to save the world from militarism and totalitarianism, we the people here at home tamed the corporations for a generation and fought segregation based on race, gender and, more recently, sexual orientation.

“Today the campaign for affordable healthcare as a right, not a privilege, is opposed by powerful interests in the medical and insurance industries. They seek to deceive and confuse you. And they seek to bribe or intimidate your elected representatives into serving their will rather than the needs of the public.

“They may win this battle. They may win the next. But we will never stop fighting for the needs of the many against the greed of the few. For more than 200 years, from the time we threw off the tyranny of the British empire and established our republic, we have worked to realize the spirit of ’76 on this continent and in the world beyond. The enemies of progress have money on their side. We have history on ours.”

Now that would be a game-changing speech–but I’m not holding my breath.  My prediction is that tonight’s speech will be that of the Great Conciliator, once again, and Presidents Max Baucus and Olympia Snowe will rule our world this fall.  (I’d like to be wrong, for a change.)

0 thoughts on “History as political argument: Unleash your inner Harry, Barry (please!)

  1. I think it is not only Lind who overstates historians’ political importance. Those of us in the profession do it as well. I remember a recent discussion with a colleague of mine on this topic. When I said that I was tired of historians who trump up the “political” impact of their work, s/he shouted “Thank you!” and shook my hand. I then heard a diatribe about others in hir field who overestimated the contemporary political relevance of their work.

    It slowly dawned on me, however, that s/he was saying this as a means of distinguished hir work: “they” all wrote irrelevant books, but s/he wrote one that was very important politically.

    (Hir book had a print run of 1,800 copies, btw. This was offered as evidence of the wide cultural impact it would have.)


  2. Well, I’m still wondering why all that stimulus money didn’t go to public works programs, rather than to the banks who won’t use it as expected while we watch states go bankrupt and the infrastructure crumble…


  3. one of the things that exasperates me most about contemporary American politics is that I *don’t* have a theory and I *love* having a theory. Everything seems partially true: it’s Da Corporations! Gaming the system! Feeding lies to Da People! But also, it’s Da People! Clinging tight to the poisonous boxes of racism and sexism that they feel are the precious legacies of their forefathers! But also it’s Da Global Imperialism! Which the U.S. is struggling to stay at the helm of via ever more nakedly brutal means! But also it’s Da Local Alienation! With individuals feeling lonesome and cynical and selfish and not believing that they can be part of collective movements toward the good! But also it is Da Crazy! Which is apparently piped right into the water supply of all American municipalities!

    and so on. The thing is, even all together they don’t seem to cover everything and, obvy, put together are kinda mutually contradictory in places. But basically it feels like, things could so easily be better than this, and yet they are not. ?!?


  4. Yeah, the prez. should offer a five day window tonight, then start turning the federal lights out–those that fall within executive branch mandate, which are not all that inconsiderable–in congressional districts and even states that won’t get with the program(s). I’d red line the “they may win this battle” part. Just throw down the gauntlet, while/if he still has one.

    What’s this uni press “limited audience” part, though. My book’s at about 3,400 copies and counting, and I even have three more signing events set up for next spring. Not too bad for something with a 2002 copyright date. Limited influence? Yeah, I’d have to concede that. Limited royalties, check. Even limited inquiries about movie rights/options, which was the unkindest cut of all! 🙂


  5. In the UK, the main funder of historical research is the government, and applying for and getting funding is a big part of an academic’s job (rather unfortunately). As a result, all our research has to have an social and/or economic justification- why is it relevant today? What is it’s political impact? How does it contribute to current ishoos? All of this means, we are effectively trained to think of our work in terms of its ‘political impact.’

    This is not to say anybody reads our work or it has any impact, but this is constantly at the forefront of our work.


  6. Anyone else listen to or watch the speech? I was in and out of it, and it sounded like a little firey rhetoric but mostly more of the post-partisan unity schtick. I didn’t hear him specifically blame anyone (or any party) in particular for the misinformation, lies, and distortions in the health care debate, nor did he speak specifically about Social Security or Medicare as Democratic programs that were vehemently opposed by Republicans.

    (I thought I heard a call to history there towards the end–I’ll see if I can find the transcript and a link to show you what I mean.)


  7. Here’s the transcript, and the part of the speech I was thinking of above:

    This has always been the history of our progress. In 1933, when over half of our seniors could not support themselves and millions had seen their savings wiped away, there were those who argued that Social Security would lead to socialism. But the men and women of Congress stood fast, and we are all the better for it. In 1965, when some argued that Medicare represented a government takeover of health care, members of Congress, Democrats and Republicans, did not back down. They joined together so that all of us could enter our golden years with some basic peace of mind.

    You see, our predecessors understood that government could not, and should not, solve every problem. They understood that there are instances when the gains in security from government action are not worth the added constraints on our freedom. But they also understood that the danger of too much government is matched by the perils of too little; that without the leavening hand of wise policy, markets can crash, monopolies can stifle competition, and the vulnerable can be exploited. And they knew that when any government measure, no matter how carefully crafted or beneficial, is subject to scorn; when any efforts to help people in need are attacked as un-American; when facts and reason are thrown overboard and only timidity passes for wisdom, and we can no longer even engage in a civil conversation with each other over the things that truly matter – that at that point we don’t merely lose our capacity to solve big challenges. We lose something essential about ourselves.

    (Additional emphasis mine.) It’s great to know that Republians and Democrats together made sure that Medicare passed! (Um, or not.) Everyone’s got good ideas; no one in particular is to blame. Is this supposed to fire me up?


  8. I thought it started off a little too ‘come let us reason togetherish,’ a la Lyndon Johnson as his domestic programs began sinking in the South China Sea. Then some damnnable Tory in the well of the House began yelling “Liar,” and I thought for a second we might be seeing the Second Caning of Senator Sumner. When this didn’t happen, I have to admit I dozed off for a few seconds, but was brought back awake by some gauntlet-throwing rhetoric. So I ended on a sort of gratified note, though I can’t quote any specific textualities in support of that sense.


  9. That’s the part! Apparently what he said was “you lie!” This was in response to Obama’s denial that immigrants would receive free health care. Some sidewinder named Joe Wilson from South Carolina, or maybe the guy’s name was Preston Brooks, or something like that. You found yourself wondering, ‘where’s the Sergeant-at-Arms?!?” One legislator, presumably not a Blue Dog Democrat, was also spied holding a big hand-written sign on his lap that said “B–ls–t!” My grandma would have come running down the aisle with a big bar of Lava, that’s for sure!


  10. Good lord! Preston Brooks, indeedy. But the problem is that Obama is no Senator Sumner–instead of attempting to stand and fight and unbolting his Senate desk in the process, he just takes the beating and is crucified on the cross of bipartisanship.

    Interrupting his speech to lecture Mr. “You Lie” would have been a great lesson in the lies and distortions of this summer’s appalling “debate” on health care reform–but since the tenor of his speech was all about how both parties have good ideas, and both parties can cooperate to win, I suppose that would have been too “divisive.”


  11. Well, comparing people who are opposed to health care reform to slaveowners and segregationists is wildly inaccurate and insulting, but I suppose that it’s no more so than the Republican attempts to portray universal health care as some sort of proto-fascism.

    On the national level, Republicans have definitely been more willing to go for the demagogic attacks than Democrats, at least for most of my lifetime. I didn’t notice this growing up in Massachusetts, since a lot of the people I knew who were strongly liberal didn’t pull any punches when it came to derogatory comments about conservatives. In fact, one of the reasons I became a conservative was because the limited number of conservatives I met seemed to be much more open-minded and less apt to use demagogic slogans than the other side. This hugely affected my perceptions of both sides for a number of years, and I have only gradually come to realize and accept that the situation is very different in the country as a whole.


  12. Well, I think it was intended more as a snarky allusion than a hard core comparison, but yeah, Historiann, I would have loved it if he had interrupted the flow of things the way you would if a student stood up with a dripping cheeseburger and walked out of a class, and really tied into him. Sending Rahm Emanuel out later to round up the truant just isn’t getting the job done

    How about if Theodore Roosevelt is lecturing Congress on the malefactors of great wealth in, say, 1907, and the senior senator from the Pennsylvania Railroad, I mean from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, mutters something about “@#%&# mustachiod anarchists?” I think the resulting fray would have been well worth clicking on the “Pay Per View” option at whatever the asking price, probably about $5 (in silver dollars) back in the day.


  13. Wow, what a surprise, Obama was ONCE again seen as a failure on the Historiann website! Because he doesn’t spout enough socialist rhetoric…

    I just don’t think there’s much of an audience for that sort of talk here in the U.S., though the English professors in my neighborhood would certainly be receptive to it.

    Food for thought: I just taught a class in which two students defended AIG’s blowout at a five-star hotel after getting a bailout from taxpayers.

    Did the students defending AIG come from wealthy families? No even close… one is a bellhop worried about his employer losing business because fatcats are reluctant to get caught living it up.

    I’m just saying we’re not a nation of class warriors. Meanwhile, might H-ann and her readers be willing to concede that the Obama speech revived some momentum and reminded Dems not to blow it?

    just a thought


  14. Justsayin’, what socialist rhetoric do you think the readers here were looking for? Me, I was just hoping for a full-bore defense of Democratic social justice efforts like Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and the like. You know, *liberalism*. While I would gently disagree with Historiann and Indyanna and say that I enjoyed the speech more than they did, I think we were all looking for the same thing.

    Regardless of whether or not there’s an audience for “socialist rhetoric” in the US, I would point out that the signs spotted at town halls enjoying politicians to “keep your hands off of my Medicare” and the uproar over Bush’s efforts to privatize SS in 2005 would seem to suggest that these *liberal* social welfare programs are, in fact, quite popular.

    As to the example of your student–I will admit that it’s a tough anecdote to refute. Mostly b/c there’s no context. Does your student work at the St. Regis Hotel, where the AIG execs were living it up? If not, it is not clear to me that hir job would have been affected if the AIG execs hadn’t splurged on their trip.

    As to whether or not hir job is in danger if bailed-out execs are afraid to get caught living it up….Well, maybe this sounds too class-warriorish of me, but the notion of trickle-down economics is pretty much empirically bankrupt at this point. Massive growth in income among the wealthiest Americans has accompanied miniscule income growth among everyone else.

    For a recent example, see yesterday’s report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Between 2002-7 (the meat of Bush’s presidency), the average income for the bottom 90% of Americans went up 0.8%. The top 1% saw their incomes rise 14.6%. How’s that trickling down working?

    I’m sympathetic to your student’s position. I am often loathe to sound “socialist” enough to tell people what their “true” interest is. I often like to let people decide that for themselves. But the fact is, there’s a basic economic ignorance on the part of your student if s/he thinks that the most efficient way for hir to earn a living wage is to pay AIG execs $85 billion and have them spend hundreds of thousands of dollars at a 5 star hotel. (And again–if your student doesn’t work at the St. Regis hotel where this event was held, I would say with 100% certainly that the most efficient way for your student to earn a living wage is *not* to pay execs a $85 billion bailout in the hopes that they might, someday in the future, splurge at hir place of employment.)

    Some might say that your students’ defense of the bailout was a teachable moment. Maybe just not in the way you’ve suggested here.


  15. (Sorry–that long rant was my intellectual response to justsayin’s comment about socialist rhetoric. My more off the cuff response to hir comment would be “Sociable? What’s wrong with being sociable?” Apologies to Nigel Tufnel.)


  16. It’s a question of what will be effective–and Obama’s approve/disapprove numbers haven’t turned around yet. (An imperfect measure, I know, but if he’s going to intimidate Congress, he’s going to have to pull those numbers us.) I was disappointed not by the absense of “socialism,” but by what appears to be his weak response to the far right. He still is singing the hopey-changey bipartisanship song, even as a congressman screamed YOU LIE! right in his face!

    His approval numbers are still hovering in the low 50s–we’ll see if this latest, Greatest Speech Evah will turn things around for him. Or more importantly, if it successfully intimidated President Snowe and President Baucus. My guess on the latter is no.

    Nice Tap reference, John!


  17. Yeah, as to a defense of liberalism, I definitely got that at the end of the Obama speech pretty unmistakably. Maddow (persona non grata at Historiann) did a riff on this but I don’t have time to get the original speech text.

    As for my students defending AIG, I did in fact try to make it a teachable moment, but I have to say I was pretty surprised. I agree that my anecdote is not evidence but I think my point — we are a pretty conservative nation, especially when compared to other wealthy nations when it comes to government programs — stands.

    The socialist rhetoric I referred to was inspired by the fiery Lind fantasy speech — I kind of liked it but it also seemed very Grapes of Wrath, and that mooment in history has passed.

    Maybe little hobbits will be lowered during the next Obama speech…


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