U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Reading and Reflecting on Election Day, 2016

I find myself unsure of what to write about on this day, only a few days after the surprising victory of Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. At this point, I have read far too many essays debating what went wrong for Clinton, why Trump won, and what the Republican nominee’s victory means for the future. On these, and other 2016 campaign questions, I have some thoughts—but no easy answers. Frankly, anyone who exudes confidence about his or her own prescription about what to do next, or how the Democrats could have (and, perhaps, should have) beaten Trump, should at the very least acknowledge that history has disrupted many similar “sure ideas” time and time again.

Instead I wish to think out loud a bit about books. As an intellectual historian, time and again I find myself looking back to books from the past and how they provide a map, as it were, to another country. Those books cannot provide a direct map for the present. History never can. But what history—and well-written books filled with ideas, passion, and energy—can do is to help us think through the present. In that sense, I wish to offer a few books that have come to mind in recent days as attempts to think about the history of how we got to Donald Trump as president of the United States.

Tony Judt’s writings near the end of his life on social democracy and the West should be read to understand this present moment. Judt, a European historian whose works on France in the nineteenth century and post-World War II Europe are essential readings for understanding the present, dared to ask out loud serious questions about the fate of social democracy in Western Europe and the United States. His book Ill Fares the Land, released the same year as his death in 2010, gets as some of the major questions that have animated American, and European, politics in the last decade. Understanding why so many Americans felt that going with Trump was not the catastrophic break with the past, as most political commentators termed the possibility of his victory in the months leading up to now, means reflecting on how basic questions of democracy, capitalism, and citizenship have changed in the last forty years.  It is too bad we could not get the thoughts of Judt on events such as Brexit, the Greek economic crisis, or the rise of Donald Trump, but his writings in books such as Ill Fares the Land show that Judt was already considering the deeper questions of modern life that still dominate modern political and intellectual thought.

George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America also provides some intellectual fodder for our current crisis. Much digital ink has already been spilled about the plight of white, working class Americans. Packer’s book is a nuanced look at this, and other, groups of Americans struggling to adjust to modern life since the 1970s. I went back to my copy a few days ago, after I had grown tired of yet another argument online about which groups delivered the election for Trump (or, to put it another way, failed to deliver it for Clinton). Books like this—or J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, Eugene Robinson’s Disintegration, or the works of Susan Faludi—all in their own way get at the cultural and political impact of the last forty years of American history, that “age of fracture” with which we’re all familiar. In other words, it would be foolish to focus on just one group of Americans to attempt to understand how we got here. Intellectual historians looking back on our era will conclude (in my humble estimation) that we’re a nation of “bubbles”—all siloed off from one another due to politics, class, race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on.

Of course, that assumes that we were actually one nation before, and are only now experiencing problems of disparate outlooks on national problems. America has always had division, dissent, and debate. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the idea of certain groups of Americans being ignored in the political arena is not new either. What makes our era unique is the combination of factors that have made the nation so polarized.

Then there is the fact that there seems to be no way out of this polarization. I know that the world seemed bleak to Michael Harrington when he wrote of a “Collective Sadness” in 1974. Martin Luther King, Jr. only imagined a “beloved community” in the 1950s and 1960s, hoping against all hope that he could help forge a vision of a better tomorrow. When Frederick Douglass gave his speech titled “The Lessons of the Hour” in 1894, he could not have known how long the struggle against white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation would last—nor could he have even dreamed that the struggle would still be part of national political battle lines in 2016.

The one concrete, sacrosanct lesson I have learned from history is that when one lives through momentous events, you cannot reliably predict the outcome of those events. Once again the United States faces just such a moment. The possible future of the nation gives me pause. But we must remember to turn to books—and the ideas contained in them—as sources of intellectual sustenance in the journey ahead.

6 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert,

    I’m wondering what the reactions to Presidential Elections today reveal from a long-term vantage point? Do outcomes of these rituals induce different emotional and intellectual reactions that find continuity with the nineteenth-century or do you see a significant break somewhere in the twentieth?

    Sometimes, it appears that the ironies and contingencies of history go by the wayside when predicting the future paths (or lack of) initiated by the election of this or that person. Maybe this is due to our embodied nature that some see as preventing us (at times) from connecting our “head” knowledge with what our bodies are telling us.

    “Of course, that assumes that we were actually one nation before, and are only now experiencing problems of disparate outlooks on national problems. America has always had division, dissent, and debate. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, the idea of certain groups of Americans being ignored in the political arena is not new either.”

    Dave Chappelle had some interesting bits last night on Saturday Night Live regarding this idea (particularly the first skit about history, memory, and the embodied present). Frankly, ever since Wiig, Hader, and Armisen left, the show hasn’t been entertaining enough to watch. However, when I heard Chappelle was coming on, I figured I’d give it a try again. . .

    Mark

    • Your question is fascinating, and it is something I have been thinking about. I cannot give a good answer right now…but it is something I will look into for a future post.

      And the Chappelle opening monologue was definitely fascinating. I caught a replay of the last couple of minutes and was intrigued by both the history behind it and the occasional raw show of emotion within it.

  2. Someone elsewhere linked to a quite good post-election discussion at Brown Univ with Mark Blyth and Wendy Schiller. I watched the first 40 mins., but if you watch just the opening remarks of each, it’s about 24 mins. Blyth is particularly good, I thought, in placing the result in European and global context.

    [link in next box]

    On another tack, Marc Fisher had a piece in the Nov. 9 Wash Post emphasizing, perhaps overemphasizing, the ‘renewal-seeking’ (as opposed to the uglier, which are also very real) aspects of the Trump appeal to some voters. Fisher quoted Langston Hughes’s 1935 poem “Let America Be America” as one example of the restoration-of-national-promise (or “greatness”) theme, one that obviously predates this election.

  3. Since the end of the “Era of Good Feelings,” how often has a political party held the office of Presidency for more than two terms? How often since the passage of the 22nd Amendment? So in the last sixty four years it has happened once with the election of George Bush.

    Presidential elections often hinge on the state of the economy in the year running up for the election. The most accurate measurement of the labor market is not the unemployment rate which only measures the percentage of the workforce receiving unemployment, but the EMRATIO which measures percentage of the civilian workforce aged 18-64 who are employed for at least one hour per workweek. Check out the official EMRATIO calculated by the Federal Reserve at https://fred.stlouisfed.org/series/EMRATIO Note the performance of the graph after the 2000 recession. Remember how sluggish the economy was back then, and everyone laughed at the concept of a “Bush boom” in the economy that Republican operatives tried to float as a narrative but the reality was that his presidency was on a par with the Hoover presidency when it came to job creation and prosperity. Now note the graph during the Obama presidency, it is worse on average than the George W. Bush’s performance. So he economy isn’t very prosperous. Don’t take my word for it. In 2005 and 2006, Citigroup’s plutonomy memos were leaked in which they were arguing for their corporate clients to abandon “middle class” goods for products catering to the wealthy because the middle class was ceasing to exist. We had the Occupy movements, but those were crushed and not resurrected for fear of cost President Obama the 2012 election.

    The economic problems of the vast majority of working families caused by neoliberal policies have been on going for a long time. In 1991, two Philadelphia Enquirer reporters, Donald R. Barlett and James B. Steele published a series of reports which were collected and published in book form as America: What Went Wrong? This book was a best seller in 1992 and was referenced by all three major presidential candidates. I recommend this book to understand how most of America experiences and understands neoliberal policies.

    So there exists a strong antipathy within the American electorate to award the Presidency to a political party for a third consecutive term, the economy isn’t exactly hitting on all cylinders, so perhaps the Democrats nominated a highly charismatic candidate with an outstanding record promising change or did they nominate a problematic candidate with a track record of problematic campaigns? David Alexrod tweeted about the same problems creeping up time and time again. Doug Henwood wrote a delicious book, entitled My Turn detailing Hillary Clinton’s baggage.

    So we have historical forces arrayed against a third consecutive Democratic term, an underperforming economy fueling desire for change, and an establishment candidate with baggage who promises more of the same, and this candidate getting beat is a surprise???? As an historian, I have to ask why is this a surprise? Is it from spending time in relatively prosperous college towns in an echo chamber surrounded by like minded professionals? Film maker Michael Moore saw the Trump victory months ago. http://michaelmoore.com/trumpwillwin/ Is it the sources of information supplied by the media? Read Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman’s 1988 book Manufacturing Consent for an answer.

    The interesting part of the election post mortem will come out of the assigning of blame for the Trump “win.” Will it be because of a flawed Democratic candidate couldn’t buck the fundamentals to win an election, or will a narrative be foisted upon public which absolves Democratic elites of any guilt. Creating the narrative that the electorate which elected Barack Hussein Obama twice is racist does just that. It doesn’t explain why Clinton did worse than he did among African-Americans, Latinos, and women. It doesn’t explain the thousands of urban voters in the Rust Belt who cast no vote for either Presidential candidate. I find that the “racist” electorate narrative serves the same purpose as the “structural unemployment” narrative is used to make unemployment the fault of the worker for not having the “right” skills.

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