A Note about Thinking Historically

I see my off the cuff idea that the 1940 presidential election might have some telling similarities to the current race triggered a lively response in the comments section. That was my intention (and among the “silent majority” of readers), not to imply that it was a particularly tight comparison. Yes, as many have pointed, I’m aware of how different Willkie is from Romney, even if both are businessmen. And how different FDR, seeking a third term, is from Obama. And the vast differences between the economy and the international situation, too. And I might have mentioned the power of the labor movement. It was actually a very big deal who organized labor would support. (John L. Lewis, the head of the CIO and the then very powerful mineworkers union, endorsed Wilkie).

This post was an exercise (a “heuristic”, as Obama’s “colleagues in the faculty lounge” would say) for thinking in historical terms. History raises questions of how individuals and groups address the relationships of power between them. Those questions, no matter the particular details, recur throughout the annals of recorded time. And, unlike the social sciences, good history makes an analysis more contingent, more multi-causal, and more, I would argue, tragic. We need the clarity that social science can often provide us. But we also need history’s attraction to complexity about human motivations and our determined efforts to remake what we’e already made–often without remembering that we’ve made it in the first place.