On Patriotism: How to Practice a Constitution

Grundgesetz

Playwright Tony Kushner wrote of “beautiful systems dying, old fixed orders spiraling apart” in the 1990s, referencing the changes palpable at the end of the decade or so of Reagan America. As the world power system of the Cold War gave way to what Francis Fukuyama – perhaps a bit too hastily – termed “the end of history,” many things were in flux.1 A generation later, we are again at such a point in time, especially regarding the recent election in the United States. It is an upset not merely of the American political landscape, but of the balances of alliance and trade that define the world in which all of us live. It is a troubled and troubling time. A time that looks for guidance.

The United States, more than most countries, perhaps more than any other country on earth, is based on an order that is itself based on the guidance of words. Its founding credo, ringing true to some and hollow to others throughout the ages, holds that “all men are created equal.” Every human being has the same rights. This is a North Star. Like the North Star, it sometimes shines brightly and is sometimes covered by dark, dreary clouds. But that it cannot always be seen does not mean that it is not always there.

Its message of equality, though trampled on by the very same people who wrote it, shone through nonetheless. It is what moved abolitionists to tackle slavery, despite the unlikeliness of success. Slavery was, after all, the very economic basis of half the nation. When women fought for the vote, they used the words of one of the nation’s founding documents to make their case for it. There was something potent in the Declaration of Independence’s repeated accusations against King George III: “He” had “refused,” “dissolved,” “forbidden,” “obstructed.” The Declaration of Sentiments which argued for female suffrage in 1848 took the words by their literal meaning. “He” now stood for men in general. The men who had “deprived her,” “taken from her,” “denied her,” stood accused of committing the gravest offense: to have been like a king. To have betrayed the spirit of America’s founding words. In the twentieth century, too, the Civil Rights Movement marched in Selma and marched on Washington and repeated these words, and held accountable those in power to hear these words and finally act accordingly.

We the People
We the People

The founding documents of the U.S. are positively what created the nation. Above mere geographical distance from England and above the creation of a culture of its own, the words contained in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and its Bill of Rights, born out of a revolution, set America apart from Britain. Indeed in its creation of a wholly new system of government never before tried on such a large scale they set it apart from the world.2 It behooves anyone to know and read these documents, whether they are American or not. In important ways these texts are the beginning of a long winding road to the recognition of human rights as a universal good. In important ways these documents also, for the first time, gave central notions of Enlightenment philosophy the full force of law – albeit only for some.

Germany, in contrast, is a country defined by its past as a negative. No today peaceful and democratic nation got this way without condemnable acts committed on its territory, no country can claim to have always held the white banner of freedom and pretend the stains have never quite washed out. Germany outbid them all by descending into a cruelty so all-consuming that it has served as a byword for unspeakable terror ever since. Let’s not mince words: millions were killed as a result, in the Holocaust and in World War II. Religious and ethnic discrimination dropped swiftly onto a glide path into extermination. Here, too, words mattered. They were words of hatred that many too long denied were potent, words that many too long thought were just words and did not carry with them the power to become acts of evil. But that they did. Words have that power.

When Germany emerged from the rubble of a devastating war it had inflicted on the world and on itself, the framers of a consitution for one of the nations founded on its territory were influenced by the victorious Allied Forces, most of all the United States. They were influenced, too, by the ideas of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The framers of the new Western German Basic Law – a name that was supposed to express the transitional nature of the constitution drafted, which was hoped later to apply to Eastern Germany as well – had the lessons from Nazism well in mind.

With the will to create a democracy that would not again fail and fall prey to extremism as had the Weimar Republic a decade and a half earlier, they began the document with nineteen articles given special status. These cannot be changed. As long as the Basic Law is valid, they are valid, too. They include a robust bill of rights and guarantees, contained in nineteen articles of Basic Rights. Most prominently, in article 1, paragraph 1: “Human dignity shall be inviolable. To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.” From this, meant originally as a preamble to specific, guaranteed rights, and since widely interpreted as being the “right to have rights,” every other civil right flows.

Würde des Menschen Inschrift
“Human Dignity Shall Be Inviolable.” (Image by Dontworry, Wikimedia Commons).

As state authority in combination with an ethnic nationalism had become discredited, Germans turned to that constitution to rally around. If there was patriotism to be had in the Post-War Era, it needed to be an altogether different kind of patriotism than the destructive, ethnic kind of the past. The philosopher Jürgen Habermas is most closely associated with the term for this kind of patriotism. “Verfassungspatriotismus,” or “constitutional patriotism”.

Habermas took the word and concept from its inventor, Dolf Sternberger, and elaborated on it, rooting it in his own idea of the public sphere.3 In essence, constitutional patriotism calls on people to identify not with the country they live in as a mass of land or the place in which a biologically identifiable “people” live. Instead, patriotism flows from the adherence to and identification with a constitution and, above all, its guiding democratic principles. It connects both to the past – to the writing of the constitutional documents – and to the future, in which their promises can be more completely fulfilled, or in which the principles and freedoms laid out in them will have to be defended.

Philosopher Jürgen Habermas. Image by Wolfram Huke.
Philosopher Jürgen Habermas. (Image by Wolfram Huke, Wikimedia Commons).

To be clear, despite the lofty rhetoric that constitutions use and that satiates discourses of national pride and civil religion, I am not here advocating for an originalism of constitutional interpretation. Instead, I am arguing in favor of what Anna Stilz has called “not a constitution in the fixed sense, defined by appeals to Founding Fathers, a sacred document, or the ancestral heroes of the nation” but “an ongoing constitutional practice that is at the same time a collective practice of self-definition.”4

This brings me to the current day. You start with words, the words of a constitution. But it is not these words alone, the words of flawed people in flawed times, that will help you on your path. It is the practice of your constitution that will. Make this practice your shield, your bow and your arrows. It may not protect you in every moment, but it will let you fight.

When truth itself is under attack from the highest places, buried under a barrage of bullshit and hidden in the tall grass of fake news, as it is in so many places today, look again and again to your constitution. Look at the letter and sense the spirit of its laws. If ever you find anyone in power to infringe upon either, make yourself heard. Act, organize. Raise hell, over and over again. Do not stand down. Get loud and be uncomfortable. It’s what patriots do.


  1. As many “big ideas,” this one, too, is often simplified too much. Fukuyama in fact allowed for a possible end to the end of history, when the capitalist consensus could break down. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History and the Last Man” (New York: Perennial, 2002). 
  2. Gordon Wood’s “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” (New York: Knopf, 1992) is a go-to book here. This is not to say that Wood’s interpretation doesn’t at times suffer from the fact that it is somewhat too celebratory and “Whiggish”. It is, however, a good starting point. 
  3. Forgive my oversimplification of a long, complicated discussion. Here is not the place for a full elaboration of the notion of constitutional patriotism, which has naturally seen its critics and varying interpretations. Perhaps the best English-language book for further reading is: Jan-Werner Müller, “Constitutional Patriotism” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007). 
  4. Anna Stilz, “Liberal Loyalty. Freedom, Obligation, and the State” (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), p. 168. 

There’s Precedent for All of This Except Everything

Lives of the Presidents, Cover

Donald Trump will put all his business dealings in a blind trust. Except it’s not a blind trust, because it will be run by his kids. Not to worry. It’s happened before and America was fine. Lyndon Johnson put his money and the management of his radio station in a blind trust that he controlled obsessively. It wasn’t blind. It was a clear conflict of interest. Donald Trump is also a pathological liar. And hey, so was Lyndon Johnson. America was fine. Well, minus Vietnam.

So there’s a huge potential for corruption in the coming administration, but that’s not out of bounds, is it? Think of Ulysses Grant! Think of Harding, Nixon, George W. Bush. Sure it’s infuriating if it comes to pass, but we’ve been there before. Nothing new.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson. Populist, self-made man with a temper.

Donald Trump has a temper and is railing against the establishment. Welcome back, Andrew Jackson!

Donald Trump is seeking Top Secret clearance for his son. Par for the course, it’s a family business. John F. Kennedy made his brother Attorney General. Never a problem.

Lyndon Johnson
Lyndon B. Johnson. Shady dealings.

Donald Trump will be chosen by the Electoral College despite not winning the popular vote. Don’t look back too much, that’s 2000 all over again!

Donald Trump is keeping a list of enemies and wants to sue journalists he doesn’t like. His Attorney General in waiting has said that there are laws that don’t apply to the president. Not a good look on a leader, I admit, but at worst that’s comparable to Nixon. Sure, Nixon had to step down, but that was just because the media overreacted.

The Ku Klux Klan endorsed Donald Trump and is planning to hold a victory rally for him. I know, this looks bad, but remember that Woodrow Wilson was a true progressive and he had “Birth of a Nation” screened at the White House and loved it.

Woodrow Wilson
Woodrow Wilson. No distancing from the KKK.

And all those people protesting in the streets before Donald Trump even takes office? People protested against George W. Bush, and, well before that, against Lincoln. So we’ve seen this, too. (Don’t mention the wars.)

Donald Trump wants to decrease American involvement abroad. Sensible, I mean, George Washington warned of foreign entanglements, and you surely can’t go wrong following George Washington.

And he wants to hold rallies after he’s sworn in, Donald Trump. Surely that can be accommodated. Obama held big rallies. Not really all that often after he was sworn in, but hey, there’s precedent for a popular speaker in the sitting president!

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon. Lashing out against journalists.

Donald Trump uses Twitter for hot takes and opinions. Why, certainly other presidents had a knack for the media of their age! Need I say more than “fireside chats”? Franklin Roosevelt knew how to make radio work for him!

Donald Trump is unprepared for the office because he has never been elected to a government office before. But neither had Dwight D. Eisenhower, and let me tell you, he was pretty great.

Donald Trump has said racist things. Meh. Presidents said racist things quite often until the 1960s, if not in public. This should not trouble you now.

And that Donald Trump isn’t interested all that much in governing, come on! Neither was George W. Bush! Reagan had to be shown little movies or he would lose interest.

So there really is nothing special about this unremarkable President-elect.

Except all of the above.

It’s not the same because we have never seen this combined in one man before. Because Donald Trump’s business interests are more extensive than those of any other president before him. Because questioning American support abroad is not the same in the 21st century as it was at the beginning of the republic. Because his popular vote loss is larger than the margins some presidents won while actually winning the presidency. Because his unpreparedness is not just the result of him never having been elected for anything before, but also because he was never appointed to any political office or held a military command. Because not distancing yourself from the KKK is not the same in 2016 as it was a hundred years ago.

Because if you put things together that all have been done before, you have something that has never been done before. You have uncharted waters when the stakes could not be higher.

But sure, nothing to see here. Move along.

One Nation, Divisible

Tattered U.S. Flag

There’s no sugarcoating it. This is it. This is the end of a noble dream of progress, dreamt happily and fully still a week ago by those who thought the meaning of America was unity and equality. That this dream’s fulfilment was distant yet, but visible just over the horizon. A dream it was, to be sure, but it could have been dreamt longer. The rude awakening was unexpected and in cold sweat at 3 a.m., and it shocked starkly into consciousness the division of America. Unity and equality would have been a sham no matter which candidate had been elected. But an establishment operator like Hillary Clinton would not have prompted the worst fringe opinions to emerge in force just a day after her election. An outsider with no debt to parties and no pretension to the normal restraints of civility like Trump could and did enable them.

While many white Americans are holding their breaths and are eager to see whether President-elect Donald Trump will live up to the promises he made on the campaign trail; some with hope, others with trepidation, many of those belonging to minority groups are reeling already. Their grievances are real, and their fears justified. Yet even if further violence and denigration does not come their way – and to some, it already has – what will be lost for a generation at least is any semblance of trust in the political elites to protect their rights. This is true even if there is, against all odds, no change in civil rights legislation or enforcement in the Trump administration. It is true simply because Trump’s coarse discourse of othering made it thinkable to be racist and admit it, to be sexist and embrace it. To allow this may not have been the intention of many Trump supporters. It is, however, a direct effect of their votes.

The unity of America, evoked in Barack Obama’s lofty rhetoric of “no red states and no blue states, only the United States of America” less than a decade ago, is no more. Not because it was lost since, but because it has not been believed by most since decades before then. What is also true is that, while nearly half of those who voted chose Trump, and a slightly larger contingent chose Clinton, the largest portion of the electorate chose no one. They did not not vote. The plurality is silent. The country, then, is divided about equally between those who supported either one of the two candidates, or no one at all. It is divided by an electoral system that makes third parties essentially irrelevant, forcing those who do not agree with any of the few serious choices in any one contest to sit out yet another election, yet another chance to make their voice heard. Or perhaps, these voices are heard very clearly. They are just not listened to. They are a pool of buyers to whom can be sold every election cycle a bill of goods they do not want but have no choice but to accept if they want to participate.

As the shocking normalization of actions that are not and ought never to be normal continues, exemplified by the installation of Breitbart News agitator, self-proclaimed “Leninist”, and avowed white supremacist Steve Bannon just down the corridor from the Oval Office, it is still unclear what this election means. It is certainly unclear what it will mean in the long run. Gathering from the behavior of both those elected and the fact that those who did not want them elected are already protesting in the streets, nothing good can come of this for the United States as a whole.

Autocracy may be in the offing, yes, and this is terrifying to contemplate. Sure, America in 2016 is not Weimar Germany, Trump is not Hitler, and Steve Bannon is not Goebbels. History, as Joanne Freeman pithily tweeted, does not repeat, but it teaches. America does not have to become a dictatorship, however, in order to betray its core promise of liberty and justice for all. It needs only reach back into this history.

Newt Gingrich, who is poised for a role in the new administration, suggested just this past summer that he was for creating a new House Un-American Activities Committee. History appears to have taught Gingrich the lesson that the first time around, this blight on liberal democracy was ineffective because it wasn’t done right. He has no compunction about its abuses and its basic premise, which flew then and flies now in the face of what the United States has told itself it stands for. This callous attitude towards what should be rights enshrined and revered is what we must beware of.

HUAC
HUAC. A spectre ready to rise again?

From nineteenth-century nativism (“no Irish need apply”) to anti-German feeling during World War I, to the anticommunist Red Scare of the 1920s and the McCarthyist crusades of the 1950s, there are many long, dire moments in which the supposed promise of America failed its citizens. Most glaringly, of course, in terms of its original sin of slavery, and the resultant segregation, and discrimination. Division runs riverine through American history. Yet, among the many unforgiveable reasons why the anti-Trumpers lost (both during the Republican primaries and during the general election) was a heartening one. They thought better of their fellow citizens than that enough voters would condone, stomach, or tolerate such behavior.

The power structures of the new administration have yet to fall into place, but it is already becoming clear that some of the loudest voices in the camp of those who vowed never to support Trump have made their peace with him and are ready to play the game of politics. They are ready to do this in order to come out on top as the next election cycles roll around. To become profiteers of a wave of hatred ignited by Donald Trump, sustained by a willing cadre of hatemongers, and abetted by those for whom economic, class, or security issues were front and center, but who were ready to forgive the racism, sexism, and general xenophobia. While not nearly on the same level, it also did not help that Hillary Clinton infamously called Trump supporters a “basket of deplorables.” Division reigned during this election season.

This, above all, is already the most insidious legacy and most pertinent lesson of an election not even a week old: that divisiveness pays dividends, that haters with appeal will find support.

Note to Self: Do Not Normalize the Trump Presidency

Normal

You’ve already heard and read much about what the stunning result of Tuesday’s U.S. election means. Opinions are about a-plenty, so I won’t make this complicated.

I’ll ask instead for one thing.

The one thing I would like you to ask through the upcoming years of a Donald Trump presidency is this: do not normalize it.

Do not pretend, as much of the media and most Republicans in Congress are doing, that there will be a return to the normal business of politics after January 20. That after a vitriolic and erratic campaign the only person ever to win the presidency who has not had any experience in either government or the military will be a normal president just because the weight of the office forces this on him.

It’s already begun. Truth be told, it’s been going on in the media for a good long while. In a way, the whole election campaign was just a lead-up to this: the normalization of Donald Trump. There’s a cover story in People Magazine. The Huffington Post, bastion of the progressive internet bubble, decided to remove its reminder that Trump was a racist, misogynist liar. There’s been a rush to paint the transition to the Trump administration as a typical part of the script.

Capitol Building
The U.S. Capitol Building

I caught myself thinking along the same lines. I thought about cabinet positions, the ramifications of Congresspeople and Senators agreeing or disagreeing on points of foreign policy, all of it. But neither was this campaign politics as usual, nor will the upcoming presidency of the most – literally, not hyperbolically – unqualified person ever to hold the office be in any way normal. The simple truth, beyond delusions by his supporters that he will immediately fix all their problems and “Trump-is-Hitler” rhetoric from detractors is that Trump is an unknown quantity. The alarmists may be on to something, or Trump supporters may be, or both because depending on your perspective, these two things could well be the same.

The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is.

Very likely, no living president voted for the man who will occupy 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue from January on. This should give us pause. Not one person still alive who once held the job found Trump fit to hold it. A record number of officials from Trump’s own party called on him to drop out, refused to endorse him or withdrew their endorsement. Or did whatever the devil it is that Paul Ryan did or did not do. This is new in modern American politics. Whatever it might come to mean, it contributes to uncertainty.

As humans, we are wonderfully adaptable. We can respond to changing situations and make them the status quo. It’s a survival instinct. It will not serve us well here. There is a high likelihood that President Trump and a Republican-controlled Congress will pass at least some legislation that candidate Trump put up on his campaign website. Aside from that, there is simply no way to know what else he will attempt to do beyond what’s written down, perhaps cut to size somewhat to make it digestible by Congress.

The American political system, for all its many failings, is both a stroke of genius and a stroke of luck so spectacular that we easily forget just how unlikely and amazing it is. It has protected some, however imperfect, version of democracy for over two centuries. Yet it, too, is fragile, susceptible to just the right kind of perfect storm. To assume otherwise invites hubris. Nothing made by actual humans can lay claim to perfection or eternity in any part of it.

Howard Chandler Christy's Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States
Howard Chandler Christy’s Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States

I have studied the culture, politics, and history of the United States for a decade and a half now. In addition, I have spent the last three years on a research project about books diagnosing society, many of which fall into the realm of futurology. Writings by people trying to predict the future. If you do this as a historian, you are in for a few good laughs along the way, and you shake your head because of apparently obvious signs that people missed much more often.

The most important takeaway I have from all this is as stunningly, annoyingly simple as it is constantly ignored: the future cannot be known. Stop yourself from thinking you can predict the future. No one can. Yes, there are ways of divining probabilities and reducing risk, and they’re useful and necessary. But the people who apply them to future problems have no iron-clad knowledge of what is going to happen. Ever. Call the worriers paranoid, but don’t for a second believe that you know something about what will actually happen that they don’t. You may have more information about what might happen, but it will always be based in past and present experience.

As a historian, I am happy that one of the few voices who saw this election result coming was also a historian, American University’s Allan Lichtman. Now Lichtman is suggesting that Trump will be impeached before too long because establishment Republicans – and it’s them who hold seats in Congress despite the success of Trump’s outsider upset – prefer a president Mike Pence. Let me just say that stating this is the definition of “no-sh*t-Sherlocking.” Of course they would prefer a career politician, someone who knows how government works, and who has not just ridden in on a wave of grassroots support.

Establishment Republicans would prefer a more “normal,” more controllable president. While I hope that Lichtman is correct (and yes, that means I am coming out saying that Pence would be a better choice for president despite, among other things, his record of statements and actions against civil rights for gay people), neither Lichtman nor anyone has much to go by when making this prediction. Lichtman himself ran in the Democratic primary for one of Maryland’s two U.S. Senate seats in 2006 and lost. If he had extra special mojo when it comes to all politics, we have to ask why he would have run in the first place.

There was never an aberration in the political system quite like the Trump presidential run before. You therefore cannot have past experience about this kind of situation, anecdotal, numerical, or otherwise. Yes, I’ve pulled out the Andrew Jackson comparison, and Ronald Reagan surely comes to mind, especially since the Trump campaign recycled one of his slogans to great effect. There are parallels. Context is everything in order to understand history, though. Context changes from one day to the next, from minute to minute, and surely, very surely from two centuries ago to now. There are no equivalencies to be had here. Jackson was president at the beginning of the nineteenth century, in a weak, newly founded nation. Reagan was a Cold Warrior in the Cold War. Neither of them lived in the age of Twitter. Context has changed.

It also has changed in terms of this election’s result of an Electoral College that will elect Trump while more people voted for Clinton by a margin that is actually higher than the winning margins of two candidates who became presidents. Protests, in such a climate, are not futile shows of unhappiness. They send signals. They need to be addressed in some way and therefore can change outcomes. Public discourse is a funny thing, it changes when enough people make this possible. Far from being only empty rhetoric, words of protest matter. They mattered when Trump enabled people to swing discourse away from political correctness to open race-baiting. This is something he did that no other major party presidential candidate has done or even attempted. Words matter from the other side as well. They can surely send the message that the man who will end up in the White House was not in fact supported by a majority, or even a plurality of voters, and that those who do not agree with him will fight back.

There are unknowns going forward. (Another Donald’s accidentally comical but spot-on take on unknowns comes to mind here.) In the face of the unknown, we have to make assumptions and we will often be wrong. I’m okay with being wrong when erring on the side of worry. Don’t just hope for the best, also warn of the worst. That is how you defend democracy, even on good days. Worry now because if you worry too late it won’t do any good. This is one lesson past experience through the ages truly suggests with force and might.

So I am putting this here as a reminder to myself and to others who may come across it: do not normalize the Trump presidency.

Don’t normalize this. It’s different.

After Trump, What Now? Tell True Stories Well

Story 8

True stories save lives and change the world. Historians, cultural anthropologists and other students of the culture, ideas and inner workings of societies past and present are unique among academics in that their primary concern is telling true stories.

That is not to say that other disciplines’ stories are not true. What is different about history? History, and I’ll use this as a shorthand for everyone who is going to the past to look for evidence to explain something and then tries to understand it for its own sake, is inseparable from narrative. History is never just what was, but always also how this is told.

Humor a quick nerdy aside. Wilhelm Windelband was a Neo-Kantian philosopher. That’s not really important here, though. What is important is that, in addition to having a pretty memorable name, Windelband had the memorable idea that scholarship could be divided into two equal camps.

Story 2
Story 2. Image by Paul Rehak, FreeImages.com

One he called “nomothetic.” The word translates from Greek into “that which creates laws”. The natural sciences are nomothetic. They observe things, they test hypotheses experimentally, and then they set down laws that will always be true under identical conditions. If chinks appear in the armor of such a law, scientists keep hitting at it until a new law emerges that can better explain the phenomenon. Think of Newtonian physics being replaced by Einstein’s. That, or watch Mythbusters.

The second camp Windelband called “idiographic,” meaning “describing the particular.” This is the camp historians are in. For the most part, anyway. There is no hard and fast separation of the two ways of searching for knowledge, and many of the best scholars in either camp thrive on pulling both approaches together. The idiographic approach relies heavily on narrative. The idiographic approach tells true stories. As a discipline, history has, at least in theory, moved past pretending there is one objective truth to be found, one gold standard to be adhered to. We should all be aware of our own situatedness, of our being born in a certain place and time, with certain cultural preconceptions and friends and family and knowledge.

Story 1
Story 1. Image by Paul Rehak, FreeImages.com

At the same time, we must apply source criticism when we rely on facts and hold to a voraciusly-stoked fire the feet of those who tell their stories knowing that the facts will not support them. In history as a discipline, the need to do this has given rise to the footnote. Footnotes have in the past been much abused, and they are not always well-liked today. They are, however, a great way of putting things in context. Footnotes point to what the basis of a claim made is. They can and want to be checked for accuracy. They do all this while staying out of the way of the story being told. They are hyperlinks in print. Use both, and where you cannot, still try to point people to where they can find reliable sources.

True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can. If you know how to tell compelling true stories without being ashamed of evoking emotions, you can get people to also feel instead of only understand. And that may make all the difference.

True stories told with care, conviction and craft can hold their own in debates dominated by lies. They are the only thing that can.

Stories are in large part what makes us human. Appeal to humanity. Now, more than ever, tell true stories well.

History Rhymes: The Trumpian Moment And Its Jacksonian Parallels

Donald Trump, caricature by DonkeyHotey

Mark Twain is credited with all sorts of things he never said or wrote. He did not say “history never repeats itself but it rhymes.” That exact line, as best can be established, stems from a 1970 poem by Robert Colombo, though the sentiment dates back at least to the nineteenth century.

To the nineteenth century is also where we need to look in order to make sense of the populist moment that by 2016 has erected a threatening proscenium in the political theater. The background of this play has been decided upon, the players cast, the lighting rigged. What is unclear is how many acts it will have, and which trajectory it will follow, though Donald Trump’s many not-likeable qualities surely combine into a hamartia worthy of any Greek protagonist.

History is not an exact science. It is a narrative view of the world, and as such can attempt to explain things that otherwise defy explanation. It does this by referencing itself, but also by turning to ever new methods of discovery and to ever new frames of analysis. The frames of analysis drilled into me as a student of American history were those of race, class, and gender. Along with economic concerns, this trifecta is one of the most useful ways of understanding changes in the United States. Look at one of them, or at several of them in combination, and you can see how the pieces move across the chess board. Knowingly or unknowingly, these four categories define every American voter. It is their intersection that is always hard to assess, and impossible to quantify.

Bill Clinton in 1992 made “It’s the economy, stupid” one of the catchphrases of his run. Hillary Clinton in 2016 did no such thing. She appealed to gender, and to racial minorities, but neglected the racial majority, and class. Lower-income whites, in a country with a changing demographic, are feeling threatened. The depth of this feeling was constantly underestimated. Part of the problem is the conversation in progressive circles that points to real economic benefits to some, but more seldom to real and also imagined, but just as important, feelings among the “basket of deplorables.” Deplorable they may be, but they vote. The Trump victory, as Van Jones rightly pointed out on CNN, is a “whitelash.” It is a screaming “We’re here, too and we don’t like what’s happening!” from working-class whites who may not think of themselves as racist, but clearly are. And of those who have no shame in calling themselves racist.

This, however, is not enough to explain Trump’s appeal. Racism has been rampant throughout American history. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court is part of this story, as is everyday racism and sexism. Would the election have turned out differently if a male candidate had run against Trump instead of a woman, even if everything else had been the same? To expect that women will automatically vote for a candidate because she is a woman is just as patronizing as to expect that men will not. It is impossible to ignore that a large number of Americans appear to be casually fine with Trump’s sexism, but it is uncertain in how far sexist backlash motivates voters.

Which narrative, then, are we to pick to explain the Trumpian moment? It is a narrative that encompasses all four aspects; race, class, gender, and the economy. It’s a story that goes back further than the many comparisons to Weimar Germany, Agrarian populism, and the early and mid-twentieth century in general that are sure to emerge as frames to measure the 2016 election.

Our story connects to the contentious election of 1800, to the vitriol a partisan media slung and the media space in which this occurred: one of partisan newspapers. Democracy, in order to function, needs, as the ultimately successful contender in that election, Thomas Jefferson, pointed out, a “well informed” electorate. How well informed the electorate was at the beginning of the nineteenth century is certainly debatable. But today, in a media sphere in which facts have become optional and in which bubbles have led to people assuming most others think like them, it is even more so.

Andrew Jackson
Andrew Jackson, by James Barton Longacre

The movement that helps explain Trump’s success is the movement behind Andrew Jackson in the 1820s and 1830s. Jackson was a “self-made man”, a political outsider, a populist, an irrascible figure and a shrewd operator in the arena of politics. He demonized the Alexander Hamilton-created banking system (as close as the Early Republic got to a “Washington Consensus”), he appealed to hatred of the other (the Trail of Tears reverberates in its inhumanity through the centuries, and the rhetoric directed against Indians as enemies of the republic has an eerily familiar tone to it as well), and he lashed out against personal enemies.

What I have earlier called reparticularization – the dissolution of a generally trusted mainstream journalism into a fractured mass of many small media outlets not bound to any ethical standards – has provided fertile ground for similar grassroots movements in the past decades. Trump, with his masterful use of new media, especially Twitter, has capitalized on this new media landscape. He is not the twenty-first century’s Andrew Jackson. But he sure as hell rhymes with him.

Chuck Klosterman’s Limited Wrongs

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Rich Fleischman for Kris Drake Photography.

Chuck Klosterman. Photo by Rich Fleischman for Kris Drake Photography.


Chuck Klosterman’s new book But What If We’re Wrong? sets out to look at the present as if it were the past. It’s a premise that’s bound to fascinate those interested in history.


But What If We’re Wrong? by Chuck Klosterman is sober-covered in white. Its title and author name are sprawled thickly across the front of the book in bold black Helvetica. The words stand on their heads. Points for style.

It’s a popular book, not an academic one, but it touches on a wealth of academic discourses, issues, and disciplines. It is on numbers 1 to 3 of the Amazon.com bestseller list for essays as I write (hardcover, Kindle, and audiobook edition respectively). People are interested in this. Historians especially should pay attention to it. Klosterman engages in historical thinking on a fundamental level. This is a good thing. Reflected historical thinking should spread far and wide. It should not be something that people only vaguely apply to problems out of habit. It should not be limited to a professional class of scholars.

Klosterman’s 272-pager asks questions about the present from the standpoint of an imagined future entity looking back. Or rather, from that of a present person attempting to think like someone in the future who is looking back at our age. In the book, he poses a question that historians should be intimately familiar with: How do conceptions of the world around us change over the course of centuries? That raises another question: how are decisions made about who and what to remember as great or not-so-great?

These could give rise to many more interesting and relevant questions. Throughout the book, Klosterman asks some of them, but not others, and then moves on to the next, not entirely related-seeming thing. Music, sports, science (represented mostly by astrophysics and cosmology), politics, whathaveyou. All these fields get name-checked, and Klosterman hops from one to the next like a bumblebee that has drunk up the nectar from one flower and then lost all motivation to stick around.

In the end, though, this isn’t all that bad. There’s much to like in Klosterman’s meanderings. His sentences carry you forward, and all the fields he looks at are interesting in their own right. You may disagree with his assertion, that classical music is appreciated differently and more intellectually than pop or rock (as I do), but Klosterman knows his stuff. He is not boring. He is insightful. Also, there are many facets of “wrong” to explore. If you only have that much space to explore them in, a bit of disjointedness is not all that unexpected, or even all that detrimental.

What is detrimental to the book, however, is that Klosterman bases his whole idea of wrongness on the pretense that there will invariably be a future unitary mainstream that decides what is right or wrong. And in that, Chuck Klosterman is wrong about what it means to be wrong.

He gamingly accepts that his predictions will turn out to be wrong. He gives the problem of predictability his own spin by inventing a caveat he calls “Klosterman’s Razor,” which, in analogy to Occam’s theoretical cutting device, posits “that the best hypothesis is the one that reflexively accepts its potential wrongness to begin with.”

But Klosterman does not follow through. His very assumptions concerning the levels on which wrongness can happen are limited. They all assume that there is a clear, discernible reality out there on which some theoretical observer can safely stand and make objective judgments about what is right and what is wrong. For anything where “wrong” is a cultural judgment by a group of people in a specific moment, this is an untenable position.

The funny thing is, Klosterman seems to know this on some level, but that knowledge goes into hiding whenever he actually goes ahead with one of his thought experiments. Using Melville’s Moby Dick as an example, Klosterman gives the story, familiar to English majors and those who had to listen to them at boozed college parties, that Melville’s magnum opus was panned by the critics when it came out. It was only rediscovered right around World War I.

Melville's White Whale. Illustration from an 1892 Edition.
Melville’s White Whale. Illustration from an 1892 Edition.

The nineteenth century, Klosterman basically says, was a bad judge of what we would appreciate out of it, and so the present will be a bad judge about what the future will like out of our treasure trove of culture. Fair enough. But Klosterman then marches decisively into the weeds by assuming that a wobbly vision of a mainstream canon in “the future” will be codifying, once and for all, what gets remembered from our time.

What’s beneath all this is a simple truth looking for a way out: every age thinks about things from another age in its own way. It chooses to highlight the ones that somehow strike a nerve. Klosterman understands that there is nothing inevitable about this. But he appears to not see that there is also nothing inherently irreversible about it. It is after all conceivable, though not likely, that in five hundred years’ time, no one will care anymore about Moby Dick, but everyone (in the elusive mainstream) will celebrate Melville’s earlier Typee, despite the latter’s much lesser status today. And if that is conceivable about Moby Dick, why should it be inconceivable when it comes to rock music?

The idea that there will be one mainstream voice guarding over right and wrong should work well for the natural sciences. Here, Klosterman pits Brian Greene and Neil deGrasse Tyson against each other as supposedly on different ends of a spectrum. Greene is accepting of a notion that science could be based on entirely different premises in the future, Tyson not. This is presented as a true division between the two well-known scholars.

Astrophysicist and Non-Kuhnian Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Astrophysicist and Non-Kuhnian Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Tyson, we learn is quite positivist and doesn’t much like Thomas Kuhn‘s immensely influential and wildly misunderstood The Structure of Scientific Revolutions for its relativist implications. This in itself is a morsel of information that might make a book worth reading for some. Here it’s taken as further evidence that Tyson’s position is on the extreme end.

But there is a conceptual difference undergirding the two scientists’ positions that Klosterman does not pick up on. While Greene’s point of view combines scientific discovery with its cultural embeddedness, Tyson’s separates them and concentrates on the scientific method. For Tyson, every discovery that followed after the establishment of the scientific method in the 1600s is on the continuum of one, essentially unitary and constantly improving science. For Greene, the question is more one of the idea of big concepts in science. That their answers might reply to entirely different interpretations of Klosterman’s questions is not a possibility Klosterman explores in the book.


Brian Greene. Here Seen Explaining String Theory. As You Do.

Even if we accept Klosterman’s conceit that there will be one future mainstream opinion of who best personifies rock’n’roll or who will be the author best remembered from the early twenty-first century, his concept of the future is another problem.

It is variously dated throughout the book as perhaps 200, 500 or 1000 years on. The numbers are just numbers. They don’t actually stand for different social worlds in which different priorities might be set. Klosterman, for the sake of his argument, pretends there is a world which invariably will continue to function in essentially the way in which he thinks the world functions today.

Here, But What If We’re Wrong? is an exercise in naïve forecasting in the technical sense that a current state is simply assumed to continue into the future. Considering the impossibility of accurately predicting any future, it is just as well to assume that this future will continue to do things the way we do things currently. But that should be a stated premise, not a hidden one.

To describe the relation of present and future, Klosterman uses the same terms as Luhmann’s present past and present future. But Klosterman seems to define these, it hardly seems possible, more confusingly than Luhmann. Instead of juxtaposing “present (past)” [our present which will become the past in the future] with “future (present)” [our future which will be the present], he chooses “present (future)” for the latter. This emphasizes that both are presents, but since Klosterman is writing from the perspective of the current present, thinking about a yet-to-come present as a future present does seem more natural.

Overall, despite its focus on the future, there is a dearth of reflection on work involving problems of prediction in the book, just as there is a dearth of reflection on the philosophy or historiography of history. That is, Klosterman does not read much futurology (in the widest sense), and not much actual history or theory. Despite some references to historians, his only in-depth conversation for the book concerning the meaning and construction of history is with Dan Carlin. In general, Klosterman’s choice of experts is somewhat eclectic, and as NPR’s Kelly McEvers points out, they are “[m]any of them dudes.”

As for Carlin, who is a brilliant broadcaster and the creator of Hardcore History, he specifically does not call himself a historian. Klosterman cites Carlin as making that exact statement. Klosterman nonetheless takes at face value Carlin’s opinion that academic history used to be more interpretive, more like the humanities, but then transitioned to become more social-sciency, more quantified and empirical. Klosterman extrapolates this to mean that this is how history will continue to be written:

Barring an unforeseeable academic reversal, one can infer that this fact-oriented slant will only gain momentum. It will eventually be the only way future historians consider the present era of America. And that will paint a much different portrait from the interpretive America we’re actually experiencing.”

It’s lucky he has invented “Klosterman’s Razor” so we can forgive him in this prediction for missing the point that this was a development during a specific historical moment, and may well be reversed. Again, Klosterman engages in naïve forecasting. He presents a continued status quo as common sense by framing another outcome as only possible because of “an unforeseeable academic reversal.”

In a book about how the future may look at our age that uses analogies of how this has happened in the past, it does not seem too far-fetched to assume that a reversal is possible by applying the same logic. During the course of history as an academic enterprise, the pendulum has swung back and forth between these poles several times, and never was there a complete and accepted dominance of one view over the other, even if it seemed that way. History is not a natural science. Its methods are fungible, not fixed.

As the above quote shows, Klosterman moreover fundamentally misunderstands how historians work. More facts, more quantified data, more pieces of information, and more statistical methods do not automatically mean less interpretation. It requires just as much judgment to decide which facts can be adduced to tell a specific story and which methods from the social sciences may yield helpful results as it does to construct a coherent narrative out of very few sources.

Chuck Klosterman Talking About His Book.

Klosterman, in an odd combination, is carelessly circumspect throughout the book, displaying at times the same “casual certitude” he deplores for having taken over our culture. He always seems to understand that it is more complicated, applying “Klosterman’s razor” and concluding that his conclusions might be wrong, but he never quite makes the leap to conclude that his premise might be faulty as well. Klosterman never assumes his concept of wrongness to be possibly wrong. But it is.

“Right” and “wrong” are often not a simple binary hanging from the fixed heavens. They are deeply and necessarily fraught concepts. To assume that there will be future thinkers who can dismiss ideas as wrong from the vantage point of a more complete, better knowledge assumes a philosophy of history that culminates in the never-achievable but always hoped for millennial bliss of complete knowledge. To my thinking, this is not to be had. To Klosterman’s, it seems fundamental. Yet, it remains unstated.

But What If We’re Wrong? is sometimes fun and thought-provoking. But overall, it’s a taxing read. Klosterman is right in thinking about the things he is thinking about. There is value to his approach as well. But he should have jumped up one meta level and realized that ultimately, we can’t even know what “wrong” will constitute in the future. He did not. Therefore, on the underlying concept of what it means to be wrong, he is wrong.

Prophet of the Present​​: Alvin Toffler Dead at 87

Alvin Toffler

As my current research project deals with popular diagnostic books about the state of society from the 1970s and 1980s, I have been thinking a lot about Alvin Toffler, who died this past Monday. Here are some quick thoughts on his (and his wife’s) influence.


It was always easy to not take Alvin Toffler seriously. Who was he, after all, this former factory worker, White House correspondent and Fortune magazine writer, to tell the world what was in store for it?

The slew of news articles and obituaries that have come out in the wake of Toffler’s death this past Monday, June 27, emphasize this status. But they also point to the lasting legacy of a popular and influential voice commenting on the state of a world that perceived (and perceives) itself in turmoil. A voice that should be taken seriously, if not for itself, then because of the far-reaching consequences some of its utterances have had.

Future Shock… is “Where It’s At”

Alvin Toffler1 began making a splash in 1970 with Future Shock, a book about “the dizzying disorientation brought on by the premature arrival of the future.” He was in truth though just one half, often the only credited half, of a writing team. His wife Heidi worked silently but vitally in the background.2 It was an arrangement seen not infrequently during a cultural moment when women’s roles in the workplace were changing, but the book-buying public was seemingly not yet ready to accept them as authorities in their own right.

Books by Alvin and Heidi Toffler
Books by Alvin and Heidi Toffler

Toffler, unlike others, was aware of the specificity of the arrangement. In the introduction to The Futurists, a volume of essays by leading figures in futurology — from Buckminster Fuller to Herman Kahn, from Robert Jungk and Olaf Helmer to Daniel Bell and Margaret Mead, to Betrand de Jouvenel and Ossip Flechtheim — that Toffler had edited in 1972, he wrote:

[H]usband-wife professional collaboration may, indeed, turn out to be a common feature of the future.”3

Toffler was also acutely aware of other factors of diversity in which the futurist movement lacked, apologizing for the overwhelming presence of the “white male middle-aged intellectual” in the volume: “I have deliberately chosen to reflect the movement approximately as it is right now, rather than as I think it ought to be.”4

Futurists

The shorthand for Toffler in numerous short reports on his work is “futurist” or “futurologist”. But what was futurology or future(s) studies? As a movement, it had broadly grown out of US Cold War science and by the 1970s was a many-headed beast with transatlantic and further worldwide connections. The belief that there was one predictable future had eroded. Futures, with the plural s, were now to be posited and investigated. The futurists were an eclectic bunch, though. Both politically and in their approaches to what futurology was and should do, they differed radically. Herman Kahn at the RAND Corporation developed and employed the positivist computer-aided scenario method to calculate the probabilities of various futures. Others, such as German-born Austrian writer Robert Jungk stressed that the future was a malleable thing, co-creatable by the people it would concern in “future workshops” (“Zukunftswerkstätten”).

Was Toffler a futurist, even “[o]ne of the world’s most famous futurists” as his Guardian obituary claims? The New York Times obituary calls Toffler a “self-educated social scientist”, while the Washington Post termed him “the Buck Rogers of predictive sociology” in a not entirely favorable 1980 story, in which it also quoted Toffler weighing in on the matter:

I regard what I do as an enriched form of journalism,” he said. “I’m a generalist. The trouble with academic social scientists is that they’re trained to ignore reality.”

The Futurists, the above mentioned essay collection, points to a related vagueness surrounding Alvin Toffler’s role in futurology. Was he a futurist? On the one hand, he was only a popularizer of other people’s ideas and research. Then again, he and his wife coined terms and developed concepts of their own. Many futurists and academics thumbed their noses at the popular popularizers. Toffler had become an authority on everything everywhere, and to many was woefully underqualified. At the same time, it was Future Shock, that “had elevated futurism into the stuff of watercooler conversation.”5

As Jenny Andersson writes, “Toffler annoyed ‘futurists’ with his sensationalistic account of what to them was a most serious activity.” Still, it was he who had collected them under one roof for the book. This helped the serious undertaking gain more public visibility, something futurology, in Elke Seefried’s assessment, always needed to bank on to defend its relevance.6 Toffler included himself in the mix of futurists, complete with a short biography that boasted that he “[t]aught [the] first course in ‘sociology of the future’ at [the] New School for Social Research.”7

Academic futurists may not have considered Toffler one of their number, but as Toffler’s popularity grew, and the fate of futurology as a recognizable — if never unitary — movement dwindled, it became more salient to call the popular author a futurist. The uneasiness with someone hovering so clearly between the popular and the serious never went away in academia, but as Toffler remained influential and academic futurism did not, the issue went away. Toffler could now wear the futurist mantle by default.

As popularizers, the Tofflers succeeded spectacularly. Their broad, far-reaching syntheses were always clad in a watchful optimisim. Their prose flowed musically off the page, as hip as the multicolored paperbacks of Future Shock Bantam Books put on flashy display in 1971. Future Shock was the first and most successful of a series of books the Tofflers would write during the next decades. All dealt with the imminent or already occurring changes in what they called The Third Wave in their eponymous 1980 follow-up, leading to, book three, a global PowerShift (1990) away from established structures and elites to the new, cellular and granular world enabled and created by digital technology.

Influence​

Toffler’s name has lost the cocktail party currency it had in the 1970s and early 1980s, but the influence of Tofflerian ideas, concepts and language is still with us. Future Shock became a household expression. (Toffler had not coined it himself, but instead popularized a little-known neologism first used by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in a 1963 paper. They claimed it was “a relatively new phrase”). Curtis Mayfield wrote a song with that title.


Toffler terms are also familiar to those suffering from “information overload” or buying a “prosumer” camcorder. Both the words and their meanings come out of Toffler’s 1970 book.

The Third Wave was “a bible to many cyberpunks” and it influenced the creation (and name) of techno, the musical style. According to Toffler himself, it became the second-best selling book of all time in China. PowerShift had less direct influence in culture, but it had perhaps the most well-thought out theoretical backing of any book in the “Toffler trilogy,” culminating in a list of 25 assumptions on which it was based.

Toffler books wound up on millions of bookshelves, and they influenced many readers. Some of these readers would go on to achieve success in business and politics, quoting Tofflerisms and relying on Tofflerian frameworks to decode the world around them. Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim struck up a friendship with the Tofflers after having become rich by eyeing investment opportunities through the lens of their books. Steve Case, AOL’s co-founder even wrote a book also called, a bit confusingly, The Third Wave.

Former Speaker of the House in the US Congress Newt Gingrich, recently in the news again as a potential running mate for shock Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, has repeated often that he was deeply influenced by the Tofflers. (Not always to his advantage; during his 2012 presidential bid, Gingrich promised a colony on the moon by 2020, a notion widely ridiculed by the press, and one that can be traced back to his penchant for Tofflerian visions.)

Required Reading. Newt Gingrich Wrote the Foreword for This 1995 Book.
Required Reading. Newt Gingrich Wrote the Foreword for this 1995 Book.
Even as Gingrich held them up as his gurus, urged fellow congressmen to read their books, and wrote the foreword to a collection of essays excerpted from their works, the Tofflers and Gingrich disagreed on much. Ostensibly, the Republican firebrand and the former factory workers and once staunch liberals had little in common. Looking more closely, many Toffler books point toward, even seem to endorse the policies that have come to dominate business and politics. As cultural objects, they lend substance to Wendy Brown’s view that a “neoliberal governing rationality” dominates the era.

The Tofflers believed deregulation and market economies were, “basically right” although they warned that “[f]ree-marketism and trickle-downism twisted into rigid theological dogma are inadequate responses to the Third Wave.”8 But predictions of the inevitability of temp jobs and the “death of permanence” as early as 1970, or the implicit advice to readers that one needed to constantly re-learn to be prepared for the future,9 all fit within a world view in which the individual had to become an entrepreneur of themselves. This connects effortlessly with the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism. Today, the world is run according to such tenets.

In that sense, Alvin Toffler was truly a prophet of the future. A future that has become our present.


  1. “Future Shock by Alvin Toffler is ‘Where It’s At'” was Marshall McLuhan’s blurb for the book. 
  2. This working relationship makes it hard to pinpoint writings or ideas specifically to one or the other. For the purposes of this piece, I will use “Alvin Toffler” when the man Alvin Toffler is concerned, as well as when it appears in texts in which the author refers to themselves as “I” rather than we. The borders are sometimes necessarily and confusingly fluid here, however. 
  3. Alvin Toffler, “Introduction: Probing the Future” in Alvin Toffler (ed.), The Futurists. New York: Random House, 1972, 8. 
  4. Toffler, “Introduction,” 9. 
  5. Lawrence K. Samuelson, Future. A Recent History. Austin: The University of Texas Press, 2009. 124. 
  6. Elke Seefried, Zukünfte. Aufstieg und Krise der Zukunftsforschung 1945–1980. Berlin: De Gruyter Oldenbourg, 2015. 124, 259. 
  7. Toffler, Futurists, xiv. 
  8. Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization. The Politics of the Third Wave. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995. 
  9. Toffler quotes Herbert Gerjuoy in Future Shock: “Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn”. Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. New York: Bantam Books, 1971. 414. This is likely the basis for a similar quote often attributed to Toffler himself. 

Three Things: Brexit Battle over Britain

Union Jack Brexit

Brexit has happened. Britain will be out of the EU. The people have spoken, what will follow now is just the business of a lot of i-dotting on new contracts as the old ones have just been torn up. This is a given. Except, democracy and politics are more complicated than that. So are the reasons why 17.4 million people voted for Brexit. The vote has already proven divisive, and not just in the one way it way meant to be. It has pitted families against each other, friends against friends, and at least in a general sense, generation against generation. It has proven disastrous in the short run, and could prove even worse. It could, as defines a crisis, of course, also lead to a better tomorrow. Though the crux here is not just in the question „For whom?“ but also in its oft-ignored but highly relevant cognate „In whose perception?“ What has helped me the most in making sense of it all comes from the end of a blog post on UK pollster Lord Ashcroft’s website:

What did they expect?
Seven voters in ten expected a victory for remain, including a majority (54%) of those who voted to leave. Leave voters who voted UKIP at the 2015 election were the only group who (by just 52% to 48%) expected a leave victory.
The impact
More than three quarters (77%) of those who voted to remain thought “the decision we make in the referendum could have disastrous consequences for us as a country if we get it wrong”. More than two thirds (69%) of leavers, by contrast, thought the decision “might make us a bit better or worse off as a country, but there probably isn’t much in it either way”.

It appears that this is why so many protest votes were registered. People just did not think much would change either way. This is sobering, and should be considered in every analysis of the vote. A huge number of voters could not fathom their votes would actually matter. That they were enveloped by an establishment in which nothing would change. Under these circumstances, a Leave protest vote does not feel all that consequential.

Brexit Map
Brexit on the European Map

To understand why, one must look not just for one reason, but for a set of reasons. This bit is a bit obvious, but sometimes we have to say obvious things because they deserve to be obvious and they do not remain obvious if they are not pointed out occasionally. So I will point out more obvious things to myself. If ever you are tempted to think that there is one underlying reason for something that involves a whole nation, know that you are wrong. And your chance to be in the ballpark of accuracy does not necessarily increase by much if you increase the number of reasons by just one or two. It is a messy, messy, world.

In Our Time

Maybe an example from the British media that for a change has nothing to do with Brexit helps make the point. The only time I can ever recall palpable disagreement, almost to the point of fisticuffs, on that stayed BBC Radio 4 favorite, Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time, was when the panelists discussed the industrial revolution. „Historians like to give three reasons for everything,“ Bragg intoned. Then he asked historian Pat Hudson of Cardiff University: „What were the three reasons for the industrial revolution?“ She refused to give them to him. Her view was that structures mattered much more than individual inventions. Bragg kept pressing. Hudson kept on refusing. (This was never a major news story, but a few mostly partisan views can be found here, here, here, and here).

On a program known for its sometimes boring digressions into the high minded corner offices of the ivory tower, this came close to a revolution. It was uncomfortable to listen to. „Come on“, I thought, „this is mass media, do you seriously think anyone will engage with the history of the industrial revolution more than just superficially? I want to know, what were the three reasons?“ But after the program had run its course, the exchange stayed with me. Something was wrong here. When it finally occurred to me, I felt like I had initially failed at one of the simplest tasks asked of people in my profession: consider the context. Hudson had done just that and come to a conclusion that was not supported by the literature Bragg found convincing when it came to explaining the industrial revolution. Now I agreed: she was utterly right in her insistence. If she believed the industrial revolution was not reducible to three things, then letting a radio presenter and politician, as erudite as they might be, dictate that she nonetheless do so, would be a pointless exercise. I would normally make a point here about the fact that male Bragg’s dressing down of a female historian likely says something in and of itself and then connect that to its importance for the current poitical fracas, but while I believe gender and its perception are always important factors in analysing the world around us, Lord Ashcroft’s Brexit opinion polls show no difference in how men and women voted. Such a list of random bullet points would not teach anything. Worse, it would support beliefs untenable to her.

BBC Radio 4 is where Melvyn Bragg's "In Our Time" airs.
BBC Radio 4 is where Melvyn Bragg’s “In Our Time” airs.

Three things would not just not get the whole picture across, they would significantly skew the picture in people’s minds. If she truly believed that structures and therefore dozens, maybe hundreds of factors were at play, then picking three and running with those was akin to choosing to cross the Atlantic in a plane reduced to only the most essential components for take off. Sure, you could get it in the air with just the wings, the engine, and the wheels. But you would miss the windows pretty quickly, and the speedometer and the fuel gauge, and the artificial horizon. And that would make the ride dangerously unbalanced.

This, incidentally is a fitting metaphor for Brexit: it was a plane crash. Whether you were for or against it, the metaphor works: like a plane crash it was a completely unexpected anomaly in the supposedly normal workings of politics. It was, to stretch the metaphor a bit, decidedly not an automobile accident. While the former can easily kill hundreds of people and dozens of things have to go wrong at the same time for it to occur, it takes only one small mistake to wrap the family car around a tree, but likely only half a dozen people at most will be immediately affected.

Because Reasons

Many things on many levels contributed to Brexit becoming a reality. The gaps between voters came in terms of age, in terms of class and education, in terms of geography and culture, and in various other ways. The news stories, for the most part, have fixed on dichotomies and one-word explanations. These need to be exploded to be explained more. Most notably, the dichotomies were:

Old vs Young.

Old people overwhelmingly voted for Leave, young people voted for Remain. Yes. But the story overwhelmingly implies old codgers with hardened opinions willfully gambling away the future of the young. Older voters may well have been motivated by trying to help their daughters, sons and grandchildren. After all, they got to grow up in a UK that was not part of the EC/EU, and opportunities had beckoned then. Old and young live in different worlds, with different frames of reference. While such a view does not take away the dichotomy, it helps elucidate the result more than a “cranky old people” narrative would.

Voters vs Nonvoters (the former typically old, the latter typically young).

This is the natural counterargument supposedly invalidating Old vs Young. Fewer young people voted than old people. And surely many of the young who did not vote are now unhappy with the result. The next step, however, is an insidious type of victim-blaming that goes something like this: The young had a chance to care enough and vote and they did not, so if the result is not to their liking it is their own fault. This also does not carry far enough. While older voters had an inkling of just how momentous this vote was by dint of the fact that referendums are extremely rare in British politics, younger voters had no such chance to understand this from experience. If any previous vote they could have cast was a chance to be scyllad by a constantly re-self-disintegrating Labour Party or charybdized by Tories who apply austerity as if it was a snakeoil tincture, and thus seemingly no vote ever really mattered, then why should this vote be any different? That young people had every chance to educate themselves about the implications of the referendum is true. But history read and taught, sadly, is never as viscerally felt as history eyperienced.

Racists vs Immigrants.

While it is true that the racist right overwhelmingly voted to Leave, not all the Leavers are racists. And not all racists, for the sake of completion, are Leavers. 4% of UKIP voters were against Leave. It is safe to assume at least some of them shared anti-immigrant sentiments still. I have to admit, however, that this one carries special weight, considering the Lord Ashcroft polls published in the Brexit aftermath; and also considering very real attacks on foreigners and foreign-looking people in the UK immediately following the vote.

Referendums are bad vs Referendums are the democratic will of the people.

Now voices abound of political scientists saying that the referendum should never have been called. That it was the wrong tool for the job. Others say that more direct democracy is needed, not less. These are not analyses, however. They are pre-held opinions on the tools of governance and governing. A narrow majority, in Britain’s first-past-the-post election system, has always meant a win. It would upend British democracy as a whole if this was not followed now.

The British Houses of Parliament. Where should decisions be made?
The British Houses of Parliament. Where should decisions be made?

More generally, there is a fascinating construction at work in any referendum: that a simple question, asked on a specific day in specific circumstances is inherently more democratic than a decision taken by a democratically elected governmental body after extensive deliberation. That referendums represent the „will of the people,“ itself a fascinating construction because it equates a majority-held belief with a universally held one. Shades of Tocqueville much? Democracy is a practice as much as it is an ideal, and the way it is defined in practical terms is both highly important and highly changeable.

Why, those who want to void the referendum, ask, was it not made binding? This is indeed a good question, but one that presupposes that there would not have been any scenarios in which a non-binding referendum would not have been the best possible solution. It is easy to imagine such a scenario, one in which the result is much narrower, say 49.9% vs 50.1%. Add to that accusations of defrauded voters through some bureaucratic foul-up or partisan intervention, and a binding referendum with essentially a 50/50 split giving the edge to a tiny sliver of a majority would have been hard to defend. Nigel Farage ironically even set this bar at 48/52 had the vote gone the other way. A tiny majority might have led to immediate dismissal of the election results. One of 1.6 million people cannot, and should not.

In fact, betraying the outcome of the referendum now would be a seriously bad decision. Only unrest can result from ignoring a democratic dictum (as inappropriate as the tools by which it was arrived at may have been). And on the part of the EU, it does not want Britain to reconsider now. Never fully committed to the European project, Britain was all too often a stumbling block in its completion, wanting special deals and pressuring the EU to give it more than others. To have to keep in a UK in which a majority of the people have voted out would be to welcome a potential blackmailer with open arms. Overall, this might do more damage to an already-weakened EU. It would be doubly unable to move anywhere without British consent. This could be worse than having to scrape by without the world’s fifth (or, depending on the current state of the pound, sixth) largest economy.

What Price Brexit?

It still is possible that the decision could be reversed, but this would have to be in the wake of a decisive victory in an early election by politicians and parties who clearly support remaining in the EU. Failing this, what beggars belief is how the Brexit boys could possibly not have foreseen the horrible negotiating position they have maneuvered Britain into. As German chancellor Angela Merkel already pointed out, there can be no cherrypicking in negotiating future trade deals with Britain. If Brexit ends up benefitting the UK somehow, that is one thing. If it benefits the UK in the shape of more favorable terms than would have been possible under EU membership, then it endangers the whole European project. If you can trade happily with the EU but do not have to abide by the regulations it imposes you do not like, then you won’t be the only one wanting that in the future.

Thus, the British decision leaves even the most fervently pro-British EU negotiator only the option to steer a hard line against capricious wishes such as wanting access to the single market but not accepting freedom of movement. Plainly, if Britain does not emerge from an EU exit significantly worse off in real, tangible ways, then these negotiators will not have done their jobs well. Because these jobs, whether they like it or not, also include keeping together the rest of the European Union. And the EU cannot hold if it does not stress the benefits of being a part of it, which makes it necessary to emphasize the disadvantages of not being a part of it.

The ostensibly accepted narrative is that the existence of the referendum in the first place is all David Cameron’s fault. That he risked too much with too little information. David Cameron, after all, is the poster child for an elite bubble existence. His world is that of Pippi Longstocking: according to his own creation. Such delusions led him to make a stupendously bad judgment call. We are here because of a stunt gone horribly wrong. Perhaps.

Perhaps, however, there is a compelling alternative story, or even several stories to be told. And even if not: to what degree is Cameron’s decision a result of hubris or outside pressure, or of a fundamental misunderstanding of the way Britain actually felt by a collective class of ruling elites who will not be overly affected by the outcome one way or another? Boris Johnson, who, as Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a brilliant post-Brexit commentary — and as several news stories have also pointed out — “veered around like a shopping trolley” before declaring for Leave, is another Oxbridge-Eton-elite politician for whom this description is apt. This elitism is one piece of the puzzle. But if you ask people a simple question and they answer one way and not another, there has to be something has to their decision. To be more precise, specifically not “some thing,” many things.

In the meaning-making department, the department that has been in full swing since the vote, what do reactions to the vote mean? Take the almost unquestioned acceptance of Nicola Sturgeon’s knee-jerk reaction to call for a second referendum for Scottish independence. To a huge contingent of europhiles this seems a wonderful idea. That way, you both keep, at least geographically, almost half of the UK in the EU and weaken the newly exited Britain right out of the gate, perhaps with hopes of quickly luring them back on terms more palatable than any last-ditch turnaround (i.e., the UK never invoking article 50 in disregard of the referendum) would allow.

SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon
SNP Leader Nicola Sturgeon

The alternative view is that Sturgeon represents a detestable nationalism. One blog post arguing this was published by the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. It further took issue with people cheering on a host of Tweets disparaging US presidential candidate Donald Trump in colorful terms for, essentially not knowing very much about either Brexit or how Scotland had voted in it. The author linked all of these to Scottish nationalist “Cybernats”. This is an angle not considered in many reports. The reason may be that it is an unpopular view. Or it may just not pass muster.

The point here is that we like, once again, our narratives neat: because Brexit, Scottish independence. No mentions of what other reasons Scots have or claim to have for independence. Not many mentions of the irony that Scotland voted to remain part of the UK also to remain part of the EU. Nationalism is not akin to nationalism. And is Scottish nationalism inherently less legitimate than a British nationalism which has always had an uneasy partial congruence with English nationalism and which fuelled the Leave camp?

William Goldman and James Caan
William Goldman (left), pictured with actor James Caan in 1976. Photo: Dutch National Archives, The Hague, Fotocollectie Algemeen Nederlands Persbureau (ANEFO), 1945-1989, Nummer toegang 2.24.01.05 Bestanddeelnummer 928-5444)

Nobody Knows Anything

One underlying truth of Brexit is starting to dawn: No one knows what to do, because hardly anyone really thought it would happpen. No one has done this before. The jockeying we see all around, be it from Farage grandstanding in the European Parliament asking MEPs for a fair deal and insulting them in the same sentence, from Boris Johnson pretending nothing much happened, from Liberal Democrats promising to run on a platform of revoking Brexit in a potential early next election, to EU leaders or US Secretary of State John Kerry, who suggests the UK leaving the EU could be “walked back” are all just a result of this. “In this town,” US screenwriter William Goldman said about Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” He meant the success or failure of movies. But you could just as well apply it to Brussels right now. As unprecedented as Brexit is, the general modus operandi of the EU, however, at least seems to be able to generally deal with the unexpected. As Alexander Stubb, Finland’s former Prime Minister tweeted:

For the EU’s sake, but also for Britain’s. If there is no strong EU as a trading block, no strong Britain can emerge in its vicinity to trade with it. In a tweet to Stubb, meanwhile, Economist columnist Tom Nuttall reported that while there had not appeared to be a strong pro-European movement in the UK before, now there seemed to be one forming.


The faces of protesters dressed in blues and yellows as well as reds, whites and blues, surely suggest that. Maybe Brexit will be remembered as the wake up call the European project needed to reinvigorate and reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. If the EU can truly reexamine what it does and does not need to do, then what could emerge would perhaps be a truly European demos, whether it has existed before and is now finally showing itself with flags literally flying, or whether it is newly formed. In a 2008 article, I quoted former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer saying that “in an an institutional way we have just now reached the level of the Federalist Papers,” adding that these fundamentally important documents for US constitutional history were published in 1787 and 1788. If the EU goes forward, it will continue to be a halting, contradictory process. It will be infuriatingly slow and fast at the same time. Whatever our wishes for its future, we can only hope there will not be the equivalent of an American Civil War to either dismantle or complete it.

The European Parliament
The European Parliament

In varying degrees regarding various things, we are all petty, thoughtful, prejudiced, high-minded, idealistic and moronic individuals. Individuals who decide with their heads, hearts, or guts or combinations thereof many times a day. We are caught up in structures we can partially control and change, but sometimes just have to live with.

And we are going to have to make this work. “We” are all of those somehow affected. To do that, it is not helpful to dismiss some options out of hand. And it is just as unconstructive to jump to rash conclusions and let hot-headed ire prevail. Those who, in the next months and years, will combine zeroes and ones into letters and analyses, those figuring out the intricacies of UK’s out on all sides must be well aware that unthinkables exist everywhere, and that they can be the ones to help make them thinkable if they deem this helpful.

One man had this figured out years ago: Nigel Farage. To make a British EU exit possible, he had to first make it thinkable. If his destructive brand of silver-tongued and cynical parochialism is to be countered, then we will need minds at least as flexible as his.

These Untied States: Thoughts on History and Brexit

EU Flag

This morning my first thought was about Erwin Schrödinger. The man with the thought experiment cat, you will recall, which owing to the intricacies of quantum physics, is both dead and alive in a box.

As I made my way from the bedroom to the living room to unplug my charging phone, Brexit still had and hadn’t happened. For a few more minutes, a few more seconds I had the power to decide when I would learn about the result. When I pressed the button and the screen came on, that decision was no longer something possible, something in the future. It had become something that had occurred. It had become the past. This morning, many people the world over will have had a similar experience. Knowingly or unknowingly. There was that moment, that turning point. The point at which the UK leaving the European Union transmogrified from just a possibility to a decision made.

At historical turning points, the historian’s mind turns to the importance of contingencies. But also to structures, discourses, and to the acts of single individuals, all in different doses depending on one’s academic affiliations and ontological premises. According to, that is, how much you value one way of explaining the world over another. For me, these pieces of the puzzle are always intertwined in a precarious dance; this event or political decision overriding, fortifying or reacting with that personal preference, born out of happenstance, dumb luck, genes or upbringing and ultimately unknowable, yet setting things on one track and foreclosing all the others. Structures exist around, with, and because of such things, and they have powers of their own both because they force or preclude certain actions and because they appear to make others possible or impossible.

The contingencies of Brexit will be analyzed by future historians, and they may be us. We may as well line up some source material on the day after. The journalistic efforts in the following days and weeks will likely concentrate on specific aspects of the vote, all pointing to a “How did this happen?” All the questions asked will be on some level important questions, but to explain historically what happened, we have to do more. We must attempt to tie together strands of explanation, and see if they hold together. We must examine corners and crevices of meaning and lay them out in various ways until some of those emerging pictures make sense of the whole, until they do not just convince as arguments, but actually help fashion out of the cornucopia of factors and causes a net that holds more weight than its parts ever could.

Ballot for Britain's Exit from the EU
The actual ballot for Britain’s exit from the EU

Some of the questions we should pose right away — not separately, but as moving parts in constant interaction — are: How did nativism and racism play into the Brexit vote? What was the role of British newspapers in fanning the fire, both in the immediate run-up to the vote and in the decades before? Could specific actions that David Cameron might or might not have taken have prevented this? (He did not want a referendum and aqcuiesced to it mostly as a way to silence EU critics in his party, and to contain the radical right around Nigel Farage. But was it inevitable that there should be a referendum at all, or did the politics of power within the Tories just make it seem like it was?) Why was there no coordinated strategy of EU leaders to counter this? Such questions also immediately connect to the larger crises of the European Union and their handling or mishandling by European leaders.

Further, how did the stupendous divide between age groups concerning “Leave” or “Remain” (with older people overwhelmingly choosing the former, and young people the latter) affect the dynamics of the vote? There are additional contingencies here. Let us speak of the weather. This is not just relevant, it is also appropriately British. Torrential rain and the resultant chaos in public transportation may well have affected younger voters likely to vote for “Remain”. Would the numbers have mattered? Would it have mattered if 16 and 17 year olds had been allowed to vote?

Polling Station Brexit
Way In? Not so much.

And finally, what was the Brexit vote actually directed against? The tag clouds seem to point to “immigration” as one of the largest talking points. Ironically, this is one of those things that will be least affected by the vote; if Britain wants access to the EU single market, it will have to swallow the pill of EU migration. Doubly so now that Brussels will be disinclined to accommodate the UK as a fellow member state.

In Germany, a popular cartoon shows a penguin carrying a sign with the word “Dagegen” (”Against”). The joke is that the sign never goes out of fashion, that it does not need to be specific. That it is just a general attack on the status quo. If general unhappiness with government was behind many of the Leavers’ votes, then that feeling will not disappear. Instead, it may grow. There is nothing the clown car full of Brexiteer delusionists, led by the ever self-serving Boris Johnson, can do about that. Especially not in a climate of such uncertainty as the referendum has created. The pound dropped more than 11% in just hours after the result became clear, its largest drop. Ever.

Currencies
The pound has dropped

Many arguments can be made about how Brexit shows that democracy works or does not work or how direct referendums work or do not work. Behind the immediate outcome, though, something much larger lurks. It is the loss of belief in an idea, that of of a better future, weakened over decades of neglect and myopia, while the economic benefits of EU membership were privileged over everything else in the discourse.

Europe today is in a Schrödingerian state. And no, not just the EU as its technocractic corollary, as the big thing that it is easy to be against. The very ideal and idea of Winston Churchill’s “United States of Europe” with trade and transfer of people and things, and most importantly, without war, hangs in the balance. It is both alive and dead. It is both shocked into reform and panicked into complacency. Its q-function — the probability of things occurring — encompasses both the living and dead cat, “mixed or smeared out in equal parts.”

T. S. Eliot photo
“Do you remember nothing?” T. S. Eliot in 1934, photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell

The contrast between the lifeline in an ocean of uncertainty and violence that is the idea of Europe and its ugly real world implementation; messy, co-opted by commercial and political interests; is stark. Yet, it is not seen as such. They are viewed as one. But ideas matter, and they can be used to hold a mirror to a reality that falls short. The idea of Europe, however, to generations who have become accustomed to its face, has lost its beauty. The fact that it presents itself a lumbering giant has deadened their vision to other facts: that it let people come together, that it immensely helped people find work, and furthered science. That it, most important of all, prevented war from coming again to a continent that had known nary a generation unacquainted with war. A hundred years ago, T. S. Eliot surveyed the wasteland created by one of those pointless, brutal, callous wars. He put forward a question:

Do 
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
“Nothing?”

I for one believe in the European project, but not in all aspects of its current form. It used to be that more people thought about it this way. The fact that mostly young people voted “Remain” lets me believe that it can be again. The ties that bind the UK to the continent have been untied, but they have not been cut. There is a difference.

I have seen disconcerting tweets, spitting gallows humor. “Happy 1933 everyone” one read. The danger is real. The chance to instead reinvent the reality of the EU from its ideals, however, is as well. But it requires a deemphasis of the Europe that gives or takes money, a cessation of rhetorically constructing every EU regulation into something that will take away your freedom or adversely affect your pocket book. Some do, some do the opposite. What we need to do is learn balance. And to remember what came before the European Union. To recall that above all, the EU stands for stability and peace.

Future historians may start decoding our age by asking how we forgot that in the first place.