Most Americans don’t know much about history. But history is our great political teacher.
I don’t care about history
Cause that’s not where I want to be
Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, The Ramones
Most Americans don’t know much about history. They may know highlight events, or events that are personal to them, or events that support their particular ideology. But the big, long-term picture—not just America, not just recent times—is outside their interest or learning.
Which is unfortunate from a political perspective, and especially in critical political times. Which these are.
One thing we learn is that history is neither a continuum nor a pendulum. It is messy and nonlinear. Leaders, movements and eras may last much longer than we think. Or they can be over in a wink. The only way to see that is the long and wide view.
China is a good example of this perspective. Over the course of thousands of years, China has seen, if not all, then most of everything. Some of its historical eras lasted longer than America has been a nation-in-the-making and nation. Chinese citizens may not be better studied historians than their American counterparts, but they don’t have to be. History is baked into Chinese culture, and not just in our Fourth of July way. If you don’t believe it, listen to Xi Jinping’s long policy harangue at the recent Communist Party Congress, where he became essentially dictator for life.
How does this fit into politics and the upcoming election?
We are living through a time when a formerly quieter movement, a regressive and reactionary one, has found its voice and its votes. How that plays out in elections and policies is an open question, and will be even after these midterm elections are over. Short-lived and reversible? Long-term and foundational?
As smart as we think we are, as smart as some pundits think they are, we don’t know. Even though we don’t know—because we don’t know—we are obliged to act, to do the best we can.
Which means, good or bad historians, in a democracy we vote and encourage others to vote. However it turns out, that’s our contribution to history.
© 2022 Bob Schwartz