Monday, November 29, 2010

All in the Family

My last post noted the Tea Party tendency to use any allegedly historical argument to make a political point.  David Frum on his blog recently criticized this comment from Sarah Palin's forthcoming book:

But from what I’ve read, family life at the time of the founding was a lot like family life for Americans today: full of challenges, sure, but also full of simple pleasures.

Frum's point is that Palin basically defines African-American slaves out of the picture. That's true enough, but I think the problem with Palin's statement goes far deeper.

Unless she means it in the most general sense possible (i.e., there were moms and dads and sons and daughters then, too!), this assertion is simply ridiculous.  It represents an utter failure to imagine any experience significantly different from one's own. That, by the way, is one of the most compelling reasons to study history—the past, as the saying goes, is another country.  Good historians teach their students that history is both continuity and change over time.  Certainly some things remain constant.  But we should never let those similarities blind us to how different the past was.

I have rather deep doubts that Palin has actually read any scholarly work on what everyday family life was like in the era of the revolution, but fortunately, such work does exist for those who take the trouble to consult it.  So what was life like?

At the time of the revolution, the entire white population of the colonies was about 2.5 million.  Today, more people than that live in Chicago, and more than 3 times that number live in New York City.  Much of the area of the original 13 states was unsettled:  most of Maine, New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Georgia had few if any white inhabitants.  Spartanburg, South Carolina, where I live, was the western-most frontier of the state.  The largest city, Philadelphia, had only 40,000 people; today, there are 50 American cities with over 350,000 people.

Population density matters in how we live our lives.  (The Spatial History Project has a map here showing how it has changed from 1790-2000.)  Raising a child in an urban environment is different from doing it on a farm. During the revolutionary era, about 90% of the American population lived in small villages of no more than 8,000 people, and most people lived on farms and in small hamlets, effectively isolated from significant numbers of other people.  This inevitably gave parents far greater control over the influences that reached their children, to cite just one obvious consequence.

There was, of course, no public school system, so whatever education children received would have been at home or in small, informal village schools.  Today, the average American high school has 750 students in it, meaning that the typical American student today might see more people her own age in a single day than a revolutionary era child might have seen in her entire childhood.

Most people then spent their days growing food—more than 90% of the people were involved in agriculture to make their living, as compared to fewer than 5% today.  A typical workday was sun-up to sun-down working on the land; for them, the workplace was the homestead.  A typical childhood likely meant doing chores and farm labor rather than going to school.

Not only were families more isolated, they were also larger.  In the early 1800s, a typical white American woman would give birth to 7 children; today the number is barely more than 2.  Due to the extremely high infant mortality rate, however, average life expectancy would have been anywhere between the mid-20s and the low-40s, depending on race and region.  As late as 1850, more than 1 in 5 white infants died, and it was 1 in 3 for black children.  Today, the number is less than 6 per thousand for whites, and 14 per thousand for blacks. 

Think about that for a moment.  Medical issues that today are often resolved with over-the-counter medicine or a quick trip to the doctor would then end in death.  The terrible trauma of a child's death was not an atypical experience for women in that era.  Neither was the death of a spouse or parent at a young age.  Both of those things must have had enormous effects on family dynamics.

Can any reasonable person know all of that and conclude, as Palin so blithely does, that it was all basically the same as today?  The answer is obvious.  So why do it?

Politics, of course.  The Tea Party has this obsession with returning to the ways of the founding generation, to the "original" Constitution.  The obvious response to this ignorant nostalgia is that we do not live in the late 18th century.  Times change, conditions change, society changes, and so government must change along with them.  Since the Tea Partiers reject that conclusion, it makes sense to also reject the premises.  So we end up with someone with aspirations to presidential power making the ridiculous claim that family life has not changed much in the last 230 years.

This is the epitome of indifference to historical reality.  We do not honor Americans of the founding generation when we reduce the travails and tragedies of their lives to characters playing dress-up on a modern-day movie set for the benefit of our amusement—and political agenda.  Palin may enjoy playing frontierswoman in the controlled environment of her "reality" show.  Somehow I suspect she wouldn't last long in the real America of 1780.  But I'd love to see her have to try.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pilgrim's Regress

The Thanksgiving feast is in the past for another year, but the misuse of the holiday for political purposes marches on.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an illuminating piece about the way Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and various Tea Party figures have tried to make the Thanksgiving story into a parable about the evils of socialism and the merits of capitalism.

The story is worth reading in full, but in short the case is this: the first settlers at Plymouth engaged in a kind of socialistic sharing of property and only succeeded when they abandoned it and embraced capitalism.  The substance of the Times piece demolishes this absurdity.  What I'd like to address is the way the story is framed.

My first objection is to the author's reference to the Tea Partiers as people "who revere early American history."  If there is one thing the subsequent article shows, it is that the people who believe this myth have no respect at all for history.  The same sentence notes, correctly, that Tea Partiers "hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States."

Precisely—they want any argument, true or not.  That is not reverence.  It is blind dedication to ideology, the facts be damned.  For these people, history has no independent reality.  It is merely a tool to be used, it is a means to an ideological end.

The article refers to "competing versions of the story," as if they are both equally valid.  That is simply not the case.  The actual historians quoted in the story show that the Tea Party "version" is not merely a different interpretation, it is simply wrong.  The settlers were not practicing "secular communism," they were engaged in a business enterprise.  This is not a matter of interpretation, but fact.  There was no famine due to "socialist" practices.

The article says: “Historians quibble with this interpretation.”  No, they don’t “quibble” with it.  They refute it.  There’s a difference.  The word “quibble” suggests petty differences over unimportant matters.  What historians note in this instance is the distortion of fact for ideological purposes, and there is nothing petty or unimportant about that.

What strikes me as incredibly corrosive about this article is that real historians are placed on a par with people, who, to put it bluntly, have no idea what they are talking about.  The article refers to “Tea Party historians” but none of the people espousing this view are actual historians.  The three people cited by name are Rush Limbaugh (no elaboration required), Dick Armey (former congressman and economics professor) and W. Cleon Skousen (who was a lawyer).  The article also refers to a web site with a 25-year-old article written by a high school economics teacher.  Not a historian in the bunch.

And, on the other side, a real historian, Karen Ordahl Kupperman: a woman with a PhD in history from Cambridge, currently a professor at NYU, and the author of seven books on American colonial history (two of which won prestigious professional prizes).  And the reader is supposed to see these “two sides” as equal?

As a historian, I could read this article and easily see that there is no "debate" here in any meaningful sense of the word.  But I can imagine a casual reader picking up the paper on a Sunday morning, sipping some coffee, and thinking that there are two equally valid points of view on this subject.  There are not.  There is the view of professional historians who have studied the subject, and there is the lie told by ignorant people who will make things up to suit their political agenda.

Now I know how the evolutionary biologist and the climate change scientist feel.

Monday, November 22, 2010

What Water’s Edge?

Recently, I made a non-attributed appearance on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, The Daily Dish.  Sullivan had noted that Rep. Eric Cantor, soon to become the Republican House Majority leader in the new Congress, had told Israeli Prime Minister that Congressional Republicans intended to “serve as a check on the Administration” and that “the Republican majority understands the special relationship between Israel and the United States, and that the security of each nation is reliant upon the other.”

Cantor’s clear implication is that President Obama does not understand that relationship and that Congressional Republicans would stand with the Israeli prime minister rather than the American president.  Sullivan incredulously said: “There are no parallels with this kind of direct undermining of the president on foreign policy that I can think of. Am I wrong?”  (You can read my response here.)

Sullivan’s reaction to Cantor’s statement exposes how widespread is the notion that it is unusual, even unheard of, for foreign policy to become so openly partisan.  This, however, is one of the great American myths: that politics stops at the water’s edge.

As a student of diplomatic history and American politics, I can tell you that nothing could be further from the truth.  Foreign policy played a large part in forming the first political parties.  As my reply to Sullivan states, Alexander Hamilton was so committed to the idea that good relations with Great Britain were essential to American national security that he undermined other members of the Washington administration who he feared were not nearly pro-British enough for his liking.

American history is filled with examples of Congressional opposition to foreign policy—even wartime is no guarantee of national unity: witness the lack of support for the War of 1812 on the part of Federalist New Englanders, or the Whig opposition to the Mexican war.

So where does this myth come from?  It is, I suspect, rooted in two things.  One is simply ignorance of American diplomatic history in general.  When I teach my diplomatic history survey, I usually find that the knowledge base on American foreign is particularly thin.  That, I think, is a cultural/educational manifestation of the reflexive American disinterest in (and sometimes disdain for) the rest of the world that goes back to colonial days.

The second is a more recent phenomenon.  In the modern American imagination, World War II was the “good war.”  It was when Americans put aside their differences for the common good.  What was an aberration historically has, for many people, become the expected norm.  So powerful is that illusion that it tends to purge our collective memory of many of the partisan disputes that have often accompanied foreign policy.

Vietnam, of course, is the exception.  Everyone knows that the country divided over the war.  But Vietnam is also considered the “bad war” (exactly why it was “bad” differs depending on one’s interpretation of the war).  The political divisiveness of that war, however, is undeniably part of what made it “bad,” making it the object lesson in why politics should stop at the water’s edge.

But the reality is that Vietnam was far closer to the norm than most people realize, and that World War II itself was preceded by incredibly deep, acrimonious and often partisan divisions over foreign policy.  It took the shock of the attack on Pearl Harbor to create the unusual degree of national unity that people look back on so fondly.

Recent days have brought yet another example of the political opposition trying to undermine the sitting president: the decision by Senate Republicans to block ratification of the START arms control treaty with Russia.  Despite the fact that exhaustive hearings were held last spring, and that votes on the treaty have been delayed repeatedly to alleviate all Republican concerns, “Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, who voted for the treaty in committee, said Tuesday he now questions whether it’s ‘even practical for the administration to rush passage of the Start treaty during this lame-duck session.’” 

Sen. Richard Lugar, the most respected Republican on foreign policy and arms control issues, thought that a vote should have been held in August.  Three months later, other Republicans now say it would be a “rush” to vote.  As this fact-checking by Salon makes clear, the objections to this treaty are about politics, not national security.

The transparent partisanship behind this ploy is truly breathtaking.  Take for example this article.  The author, who has no argument other than his blind hatred of President Obama, opposes ratification:

This is all about Obama's effort to take America down to size and to show the rest of the world that we are no longer the big bad evil aggressor we were before he took office.

He says this AFTER noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates (who was appointed by George W. Bush) as well as former Republican Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker, and Republican Senator Lugar all support ratification.  Does this deranged argument mean that these prominent Republicans are also determined to “take America down to size,” or that they are too stupid to see how Obama is using them?

Yes, American like to think that politics ends at the water's edge.  but as today's Republicans in Congress seem determined to prove, it just isn't the case.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Let Obama be Reagan

I think the first midterm elections I paid close attention to were in 1982.  I was in college, and no fan of Ronald Reagan or his policies.  Two short years after the desolation of 1980, there was a sense of jubilation among liberals that Reagan's presidency was effectively at an end.

Tom Wicker in the New York Times wrote a premature obituary of the administration:

There is no Reagan Revolution. American voters made that clear on Nov. 2, by substantially strengthening the Democrats' control of the House of Representatives and of state governments, and narrowing Republican control of the Senate.  Thus just two years after the Reagan landslide of 1980, the electorate reaffirmed the essential centrism of American politics.

This memory is prompted of course by the hubris of Republicans after Tuesday's election results.  Perhaps they will be right where Wicker was wrong.  But before declaring the end of the Obama administration and its policies, it is perhaps worth taking a deep breath and thinking about that first Reagan midterm election.

In its aftermath, moderate Republicans panicked.  ''You can't govern this country when it's polarized,'' said Senator William Cohen, a Republican moderate from Maine. ''I think the President has got to compromise on most issues until the unemployment rate comes down.''  The election results meant that Reagan was damaged political goods, a New York Times new analysis concluded: "In sum, the President's political impact has diminished. He is not the feared figure of 18 months ago."

The parallel of 2010 with 1982 is flawed, of course.  Republican losses in 1982 were not as great as those suffered by Democrats this week (Republicans in 1982 lost 26 House seats or 13.6% of their pre-election total, while Democrats this year seem to have lost at least 60, perhaps 25%).  The result, however, was worse for Reagan: a 269-166 Democratic majority.  At the moment, the projected Republican majority is 242-193.

Nonetheless, Republican leaders John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, clearly reading from the same script, have argued that the elections mean that President Obama must "change course."  The irony is that their hero, Ronald Reagan, did precisely the opposite.  His theme was "Stay the course."  In his State of the Union address in January 1983, Reagan did not change course at all (despite the fact that his approval rating was at 35%).  In fact, he blamed Jimmy Carter for the economic situation that hurt Republicans the previous November:

The problems we inherited were far worse than most inside and out of government had expected; the recession was deeper than most inside and out of government had predicted. Curing those problems has taken more time and a higher toll than any of us wanted. Unemployment is far too high.
Imagine the howls of indignation on the right if Obama were to say the same thing today, and use that as justification for staying the course!

Instead, the president has struck a conciliatory tone, and has spoken of compromise.  While this has earned him the wrath of the commentators on MSNBC, I suspect Obama has the Reagan model in mind.  In the same address quoted above, Reagan also talked the bipartisan talk:

So, let us, in these next 2 years – men and women of both parties, every political shade – concentrate on the long-range, bipartisan responsibilities of government, not the short-range or short-term temptations of partisan politics.
This, of course, is not what we remember about Reagan, because it did not mean he did not also "stay the course."  Yes, Reagan worked out a bipartisan deal on Social Security, but he also defended his signature issues: tax cuts and increased defense spending.  And he won re-election in 1984, with a higher percentage of the vote than he got in 1980.

No one knows today if Barack Obama will be able to replicate that record.  (Much depends on the economy: if it improves, he will likely be in good shape in two years; if not, he will be vulnerable to any potential Republican nominee.)  But my hunch is that he will try.

Most commentary in the last few days has taken for granted that Obama will have to emulate Bill Clinton after the 1994 midterms and move to the center.  I'm not so sure.

Remember that during the 2008 campaign, Obama said that he wanted to be a transformative president like Reagan, a comment that was taken as an implicit shot at Clinton.  He also said earlier this year that he would rather accomplish great things than be re-elected.  If he meant both of those things, he will be like Reagan and stay the course.  But whether it will work is anyone's guess.

Monday, November 1, 2010

The Archie Bunker "Wisdom" is Running High

You might think that the fact that one of my first year students two weeks ago said the exact same thing that the dean of Washington pundits wrote Sunday in his column would cause me to swell with pride.  Problem is, they're both wrong.

In my class, we were discussing Milo Minderbinder, Joseph Heller's satirical stand-in for the unrestrained business ethos in his brilliant novel, Catch-22.  We were talking about why Heller included this character, and my student said: "World War II ended the depression."  David Broder on Sunday wrote the same thing.  In a bizarre article, Broder suggests that President Obama’s political fortunes in 2012 could be enhanced by a war with Iran: “Look back at FDR and the Great Depression. What finally resolved that economic crisis? World War II.”

While it is stunning to hear Broder (someone who should know better) do so, I was not surprised that my student echoed this mistaken conventional wisdom.  I've been fighting this fundamental misunderstanding for as long as I've been teaching.  I think the first time I heard it was from the lips of Archie Bunker in Norman Lear's classic sitcom, "All in the Family."  In every class in which I've dealt with the Great Depression, I've heard this refrain repeated.

It's a classic case of mistaking historical causation.  It is indeed true that the U.S. fully emerged from the depression after the war began.  Despite Broder's implication, there's nothing magical about wars that ends depressions.  What ended the Great Depression was that the war removed all restraint on federal government spending.

A quick look at the numbers makes this clear.  While the same ill-informed conventional wisdom has it that the New Deal led to massive government spending, that is not true. In 1933, total federal spending was about $4.6 billion. It reached a New Deal height of $8.3 billion in 1936, much of that due to spending on the WPA, a jobs program that employed millions of Americans and built infrastructure (the stimulus bill of its day).  The economy improved, but spending was cut in 1937 to $7.6 billion and in 1938 to $6.9 billion, leading to what was called the “Roosevelt recession,” which wiped out many of the economic gains of the previous four years.

The huge increase in government spending came NOT from jobs programs like the WPA, or other New Deal social welfare programs, but from military spending.  In 1939, the federal budget jumped to $9.1 billion, in 1941 it was up to 13.6 billion, with almost all of that increase due to defense preparedness spending.  Once the U.S. entered the war, spending exploded.  By 1944 it was $91.3 billion—more than ten times the New Deal height.  The deficit that year was $47.5 billion, more than ten times the $4.3 billion deficit of 1936.  That is what ended the depression.

How?  The U.S. had tremendous underused industrial capacity during the depression.  What was lacking was demand.  Orders for military goods created demand.  When events in Europe and Asia made the prospect of American involvement in war more likely, FDR announced what were ridiculed as unreachable military production goals.  Not only did American industry meet his goals, it generally exceeded them.  In 1942, for example, the U.S. produced more planes than the three Axis powers combined.

The reason for this production success was fairly simple.  The federal government met its defense needs by granting cost-plus contracts: all of industry's costs (including labor) were met by the federal government, and a profit was guaranteed to contractors (talk about a bailout).  Millions of blue-collar workers were suddenly not only employed, but making good wages (often including overtime pay).  Business had profits to reinvest.  That meant that workers found themselves flush with disposable income.  They both spent and saved.  The increased consumer spending led to wartime prosperity and unprecedented economic growth, and after the war consumers spent their savings on goods (like cars) not available during the war due to wartime rationing, continuing the economic boom into the postwar years.

In short, war did not produce prosperity, massive government spending did.  The relevance of this truth about World War II prosperity is not Broder's mistaken belief that war ends depression, but that it helps explain why the American economy today is still struggling to revive.

As much most American voters seem convinced that we are today spending too much, that the stimulus bill was an abject failure, the reality is that, like the WPA spending in 1935-36, the stimulus was helpful but was not enough.  And the likely cost of this historical and economic ignorance is that Americans are poised to elect tomorrow a Congress that will make the same mistake that FDR made in 1937 and cut spending, and may send the fragile American economy into a new recession.

When Archie and Edith Bunker sang “Mister, we could use a man like Herbert Hoover again” in the 1970s, it was funny.  When today Americans from David Broder to a typical college student think the same, and worse yet vote accordingly, it is potentially tragic.