We might as well call it: The American left is dead. Faced with the greatest crisis of capitalism in almost a century, the left has mounted no effective mass protests, inspired no significant uprisings, spawned no major institutions or policy revolutions. In Wisconsin, labor unions lost their greatest public battle since Ronald Reagan’s showdown with air traffic controllers. In the midterm elections, the Tea Party, not the left, took advantage of economic discontent to upend the status quo. Today, the dream of socialism exists mostly as a far-right phantom, to be conjured up when Democrats dare to imply that Medicare or Social Security might serve the public good.
In 1970, just months before his death, the historian Richard Hofstadter called on U.S. historians to engage the subject of violence. For a generation, he wrote, the profession had ignored the issue, assuming that consensus rather than conflict had shaped the American past. By the late 1960s, with assassinations, riots, and violent crime at the forefront of national anxieties, that assumption was no longer tenable. Everywhere, Americans seemed to be thinking and talking about violence, except within the historical profession. Hofstadter urged historians to remedy their “ inattention ” and construct a history of violence that would speak to both the present and the past.
Over the last four decades, the historical profession has responded to that challenge. Studies of racial conflict, territorial massacres, gendered violence, empire, crime and punishment, and war and memory make up some of the most esteemed books of the past generation. Yet on the subject of “ terrorism, ” the form of violence that currently dominates American political discourse, historians have had comparatively little to say.
Today’s conservatives often describe themselves as strict constructionists, seeking the “original meaning” of the nation’s founding texts. In the case of the Pledge of Allegiance, a much fetishized if not legally binding document, this approach is unlikely to yield the desired political result. As Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer note, the original author of the pledge was a former Christian Socialist minister who hoped to redeem the United States from its class and ethnic antagonisms. Interpretations of its meaning have been growing more conservative, not more liberal, ever since.
When historians rank the American presidents, Woodrow Wilson almost always secures a place in the top 10. This seems to be an honor accorded successful wartime leaders; in the last C-Span Presidents Day poll, the highest three spots belonged to Lincoln, Washington and Franklin Roosevelt, two war presidents and a general. Yet compared with the reputations of other members of that august pantheon, Wilson’s lags far behind. George W. Bush was described as “Wilsonian” after 9/11, but that was hardly meant as a compliment. Barack Obama, like Wilson a scholar, political neophyte and Nobel Peace Prize winner, prefers to be compared to Lincoln and the second Roosevelt, or even to Truman and Reagan — practically any other member of the top ranks. Today, the only major public figure who seems to be interested in Wilson is the Fox News host Glenn Beck, who traces the roots of our current “socialist” predicament back to the dark era of Wilsonian income taxes, war propaganda and obscure monetary symbols.
On March 11, 2003, about a week before President George W. Bush began bombing Iraq, the cultural historian Jackson Lears published an Op-Ed article in The New York Times pleading for sanity. He sensed that it was already too late, and suggested that war opponents might be “fingering a rabbit’s foot from time to time.” As a historian, however, Lears couldn’t help asking when the “regenerative” impulse to seek national glory through war first took root. The result is “Rebirth of a Nation,” a fascinating cultural history that locates the origins of Bush-era belligerence in the anxieties and modernizing impulses of the late 19th century.
For 10 exhausting months, Americans worried that Barack Obama might be too inexperienced to serve as President. On Nov. 4, a majority of voters decided that he is in fact “ready to lead”–or at least that he had better be. This suggests that Americans know their history. When it comes to presidential success, experience isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.