As an historian, it’s hard to be hopeless


Like many people, I’m still wrapping my head around the 2016 election results. And while I’ve done my fair share of asking, “What happened?” I’ve (fortunately) moved on to the more-useful question of “Now what are we going to do about it?” To that I’m still working on an answer, but here is something I posted on Facebook a few days after the election, explaining why–even for as much as I worry about the next 4 years–it’s hard for me to be hopeless.

(As a side-note: Call me lucky or count me cursed, but this year my 26th birthday fell on Election Day 2016).


herbert-gaston-and-henry-morgenthau

Press photo of Assistant Secretary of the Treasury Herbert Gaston with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr., following the latter’s appointment as Secretary of the Treasury. January 2, 1934.

Thank you for the birthday wishes, everyone. Like many of you, I’ve been thinking a lot about this election, and while I, too, am still finding all the words, let me say this: As a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Here’s why.

For my birthday, I got two sets of gifts. The first was a collection of signed books (both published in 1920) about the insurgent, agrarian-based Nonpartisan League. Included with these was a 1934 press photograph of one of the authors, a former-NPL organizer, serving as FDR’s Assistant Secretary of the Treasury and shaking hands with Henry L. Morgenthau, Jr. This is proof to me that eventually the “outsiders” get their turn, and the proposals that were once “radical” become the programs we take for granted.

herbert-gaston-nonpartisan-league

Two books about the NPL: The Nonpartisan League (1920) by Herbert Gaston and The Story of the Nonpartisan League: A Chapter in American Evolution (1920) by Charles Edward Russell.

The second gift is something I bought for myself, via international auction. It’s a handwritten manuscript page by French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, best-known for his work “On the Social Contract,” a cornerstone for democratic thought. Written sometime between 1748-1751, it includes a few notes Rousseau was taking for a planned work on the history of women (unfortunately, it was never finished). Holding the page in my hand, its edges brittle and the ink clearly visible through the other side, I feel I’ve gone back in time 260 years and am looking over Rousseau’s shoulder.

To engage with time in this way changes one’s whole relationship to the world, and without going too much into what I mean by this, let me focus on the following. There are few arrogances like declaring The End of Ideology or The End of History, both of which allegedly occurred the 1950s and 1990s, respectively, because as both people and economies change, so too must change our political institutions. The broader, timeless principles of liberty, justice, and republicanism must always be our cornerstones, but what we build upon them will necessarily vary. To have engaged with history as I have is to discover there have been many “End Ofs” in the last 260 years, and to declare the present The End must be categorically rejected, for where the principles I’ve listed are absent, there will always be tension, struggle, and eventually revolution.

jean-jacques-rousseau-handwritten-manuscript-page-preston

My personal copy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s On the Social Contract and a manuscript page of Rousseau’s unpublished book on the history of women.

What I like the most about this manuscript page is that when Rousseau was writing it in the mid-18th century, there were a few unquestionable presumptions about the state and economy, these “End Ofs.” One was the divine right of kings. Another was the institution of slavery. Both of these abhorrent concepts were so deeply ingrained in western culture that even to most enlightened minds they were perceived as impenetrable.

But by the end of the next century, both belonged to the dustbin of history.

Similarly, there are institutions and ideas around us now that seem impenetrable – so much so that that one can barely imagine what a society would look like if it embraced true gender and racial equality, organized around economic principles of equity, and substituted citizenship with cosmopolitanism. But 260 years ago the same could be said about many things we take for granted – this is because, as with the Nonpartisan League, over the centuries the outsiders have gotten their turn, and what was once radical became conservative orthodoxy, again and again and again.

So, as a student of history and political theory, it is hard for me to be hopeless. Because regardless of how many thinkpieces come out proclaiming what happened another “End Of,” as long as we keep fighting, nativism and authoritarian populism will fall. Don’t worry, millennials, we’ll get our turn.

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