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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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”).
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.
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.)
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.
“Future Shock by Alvin Toffler is ‘Where It’s At'” was Marshall McLuhan’s blurb for the book. ↩
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. ↩
Alvin Toffler, “Introduction: Probing the Future” in Alvin Toffler (ed.), The Futurists. New York: Random House, 1972, 8. ↩
Alvin Toffler and Heidi Toffler, Creating a New Civilization. The Politics of the Third Wave. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1995. ↩
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. ↩
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 cherry–picking 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.
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?
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:
Reminder of how the EU advances: 1. Crisis 2. Chaos 3. Sub-optimal solution In #Brexit we are now in phase 2. Will take a while to get to 3.
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.
.@alexstubb: we're seeing the.birth of a true pro European movement in Britain. Let's make the most of it. #ecfr16
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
“You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
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.
”We” live in Trumpy times, indeed. Caricature by DonkeyHotey (CC BY-SA 2.0)
A quick note at the top: Donald Trump’s candidacy is obviously happening in the present. This essay on Thus, History! is not so much concerned with past events as it is with “historical thinking” in the sense that Jim Grossman recently explained it.
Twitter is seldom a fount of timeless wisdom, but in February it provided a nugget. Concise, as all tweets are, it was also incisive, which few tweets are.
”Most of America’s problems come down to who you regard as ‘we’” wrote Merlin Mann; podcaster, productivity geek and all around internet impresario. (Or in his own words ”Indie Writer, Speaker, and Broadcaster”). If you just want the TL;DR, stop here. You would miss a few choice morsels from the kids’ table that is this year’s election cycle, though.
Most of America's problems come down to who you regard as "we."
Most of America’s problems, anywhere, anytime, seem to come down to this formula. It has not by far been the only thing fought over, and certainly was not the only issue ever of pressing importance. The occasional war or Cold War, for example, figured prominently as well. But even then, ”we” was a matter of record. It was ”we” who fought a ”them”, be they black-legend Spaniards, German huns or an Evil Empire. This is not just true of America, but it is true of America. It is true of Donald Trump.
There is so much writing on Trump and the world that created him that it seems unnecessary to produce even more. I will produce more. I have a very good reason: hardly anyone talks specifically about the importance of ”we.”
”We” is what makes a nation. ”We” is what makes any community. It is necessary to distinguish us from them in order to get us to believe, say and do things. ”We” is what created Donald Trump, and ”we” is how and why so many oppose him viscerally. It is easy to oppose Donald Trump, especially from a left-liberal perspective, but the explanations offered usually fall short. Yes, Barack Obama has a point when he says that racist backlash against him and against his ”socialist” policies created Trump. But it wouldn’t have been sufficient. It needed a context in which to grow. If you want to understand that context, at the American Enterprise Institute (a place not particularly known as a leftist stronghold), Norm Ornstein has a most compelling narrative to offer.1
The short version is: blame Newt Gingrich. Or, the values and campaign strategy that he best represents. Following in the footsteps of the sorcerer’s apprentice, Gingrich, in order to win elections, called forth spirits he ultimately could no longer control. Considering that Trump is reportedly considering Gingrich as his running mate, it appears the strategy has perhaps not worked out all that well for the Republican Party in the long run, but it continues to work out for Newt Gingrich. Trump is tapping into a base of Republicans who may have gone along with Gingrich’s spirit pals, but may never have liked them very much, and who by now definitely have had enough. As George Packer writes in the New Yorker:
”[T]he ideology that has gripped their Party since the late nineteen-seventies—anti-government, pro-business, nominally pious—has little appeal for millions of ordinary Republicans. The base of the Party, the middle-aged white working class, has suffered at least as much as any demographic group because of globalization, low-wage immigrant labor, and free trade.”
And as they suffer (bear in mind that this is not suffering in absolute terms of who has it worst in contemporary America, but suffering in the sense of a relative decline of their position within it), they lash out and demand to be heard. A media culture in which news and entertainment have become all but inseparable, and in which the path between reality TV and politics has become well trodden, has ”made the candidacy of a celebrity proto-fascist with no impulse control not just possible but in some ways inevitable” Packer finds.2
Trump is successful with his constituency because he speaks at the intersection of all things ”we” for a large number of non-minority Americans. The ”Trump we” connects to the ”we” that Samuel Huntington used in the 1990s. ”Who are we?”3 he asked. Huntington’s battleground of ”we” was an ”American Creed” which came from England and that English influence made the US the US and not, say, Brazil. Huntington was afraid that a twofer of Hispanic immigration, in his view fundamentally different from all previous waves of immigration, and the fall of the Soviet Union which took away the common enemy that ”we” had relied on to strengthen American identity, would ”bifurcate” the United States and essentially create a second Quebec — a region different in language and culture from the rest of a country – in the American Southwest. Trump, on his vision quest to ”Make America Great Again” (which immediately raises the question what ”great” means, how ”great” is measured, and when exactly the time was when America was great that Trump wants to go back to) is playing on national identity and pride, and on a ”we” that rings true to a considerable number of Americans.
”We” is a presumed unity, but who is part of it and what these partakers of ”we” are supposed to look and think like is changeable. This ”we” that provides the constant, never-thought-about background noise to much journalism (and by extension, any discourse, really) in places like the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post or Fox News is typically an ill-defined thing, but it’s defined nonetheless. The ”Times we,” for example, considers itself universal, but it’s pretty much a ”we” of the upper middle class, liberal in outlook but still conservative at heart, mostly white, male, and educated – in short, the whole intersectional enchilada in reverse. Any publication has a voice, of course, but once you have picked your go-to source of news, that voice fades into the background. If you’re a Times person, the ”Times we” will be your guide to make sense of the world. If your preferred news source is Fox News, talk radio, or political satire of the brand popularized by Jon Stewart in previous election seasons, then you’ll go along with that ”we.” (I somewhat clumsily called this process of joining a ”we” club and then remaining enthralled by it ”reparticularization” of the news in the internet age back in 2008.)
”We” can also be a political statement meant overtly to divide. Lyndon Johnson’s Senate career began with a statement anti-civil rights ”We of the South” speech in 1949. (Incidentally, Johnson is presidential history’s poster child for a ”we” flip-flopper. His next prominent use of ”we” was in 1965, as part of the sentence ”we shall overcome.”)
To be clear: I am not advocating for an avoidance of ”we” because it is loaded in so many ways. I use it. I use it in this article. I am advocating for more thought to be given to when, why, and how ”we” is used, and with what consequences before deploying it.
A ”we” needs a ”they.” That ”they” is a big thing in human thinking. It creeps up everywhere; politics – yes, but also business, games, anything people bother to do in groups, essentially, and some things they don’t. It’s a given in popular culture, whether you’re watching the slightly derailed X-Files revival or reading a Thomas Pynchon novel. We posits a they. A ”they” has to exist for ”we” to be powerful. And that ”they” had ideally be sinister, threatening, foreign, not trustworthy and not understandable. Understanding breeds communion. We do not want to commune with they. We want to defeat they. If we knew why they did what they do, we might lose sight of who we are and why we are against they. That can’t happen. That is the logic of ”we” and ”they,” it’s the logic of George W. Bush’s ”you are either with us or against us” claim in the run-up to the Iraq war, and it’s also the logic behind every conspiracy theory ever.
Trump’s use of ”they” can give you a bit of a headache. As a self-confessed rich person, he at the same time points out his business acumen and money-having as a plus in the ”why I’d make a great president” column, and attacks the ”one percent” of rich people who supposedly have given regular middle class people a raw deal for the past generation. He pillories the same elite that he is proud to be a part of because being part of it proves he has what it takes to be a great president, which is why you should vote for him. It’s a kind of circular logic that probably works so well because you have to spiral around it a couple of times to figure out this is an incongruence in the first place, and frankly, who has the time?
Trump’s ”they” is everyone he happens to be against at the moment, and it’s contextually changeable, though it always includes some unholy coalition of Democrats, fat cats, establishment Republicans and immigrants. That this ”they” is not exactly clear cut seems to have helped Trump in his primary campaign. But the vagueness also contains potential for an unravelling of the strategy: if there is no clear enemy but Hillary Clinton, then who are ”they” and why should Trump be any better at getting back at them than anyone else? Clinton’s weak spots in the campaign are that she is establishment (with all the usual shady dealings this status either actually or purportedly brings with it), and that she is a woman in a society much more sexist than it is ready to admit. But are those two things really going to draw enough voters away from the Democrat camp to Trump? Norm Ornstein puts the chances at 80/20 against Trump, and all the likely 538 electoral math points in the same direction. That’s not to say it is impossible for Trump to get votes that would have gone to another Democratic candidate because some people just patently dislike Clinton. Both candidates’ unfavorable numbers – whatever these mean at this point in the game – are unprecedentetly high. But it’s just as likely that many solidly Republican voters will stay home on election day because they just patently dislike Trump. His ”we” might not be their ”we,” and his ”they” might shrink to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats, since a Republican presidential candidate cannot mine all that much from anti-establishment Republican feeling among Republicans when he is now their standard-bearer.
John Oliver, hero of all those who once watched The Daily Show and do not like the new guy, stayed out of the comic assault on Donald Trump for months. Then he jumped into the fray full-force. ”Make Donald Drumpf Again” he exclaimed in true Trump spirit in one of his signature highly researched and produced segments, ready for YouTube virality. Having found out that the Trump family name had been ”Drumpf” at some point in the 1600s, the Oliver team built a twenty-minute comedy bit that culminated in this information.
On first viewing, this was funny. Taking the opposing candidate down a notch by giving them a funny name or byname is a staple of electioneering. It survived hard cider for a reason. But on second thought, it’s also a bit lame and it fans the same fire Trump fans with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. That Oliver takes up the same line of argument as Trump himself and therefore happily connects to a long tradition of xenophobic depictions of ”not-we” foreigners in the media has gone almost, but not wholly unnoticed in the press. S.I. Rosenbaum, writing in The Washington Post, pointed out that ”‘Drumpf’ feels so satisfying to critics of the Republican front-runner partly because it sounds funny and foreign; it sounds funny BECAUSE it is foreign.” She elaborated that ”Drumpf, to an American ear, conjures up a dough-faced Bavarian Nazi on his stumpy way to murder all the Jews in his village. (At least, that’s what I think of, as a progressive Jew who opposes Trump.)”4
”Call Him Drumpf,” then, is just a variation on a theme that earlier in the same musical production of Election Season 2016 was chanted in the hit numbers ”I Will Build a Wall” and ”They’re Rapists.” Though, as a progressive German who is having a hard time rooting for anyone in this election, I would argue that a veiled derogatory comment on the German-ness of an unliked presidential candidate is not in the same league as promising to build a wall that will keep out Latino rapists. Still, the opposition to Trump does not do itself any favors by pulling out the same blunt tools the object of their discontent uses with gusto.
It is very hard for many people to understand that someone else being wrong does not automatically mean they themselves are right. This implicit (and sometimes quite explicit) dichotomy is at the heart of ”we” and ”they.” It’s at the heart of the current media battle as well. From its adversarial legal system to its two-party elections to its popular culture (Coke or Pepsi, Burger King or McDonald’s, boxers or briefs) Lady Liberty is a Manichee. Your choice is Kierkegaardian. You can be either – or. The middle ground is not just shaky. You’d get contemptuous looks for just trying to stand on it, as if a ”keep off the lawn” sign was posted there, and a small white picket fence surrounded it and some tulips were planted there that you can’t be trusted not to squash.
Even if someone, a presidential candidate say, tries to occupy that patch of lawn by trying to argue that complicated is not always bad, the accusation that invariably follows tends not to acknowledge that what they’re attempting is to occupy the middle ground. John Kerry in 2004 was accused of flip-flopping. He had committed the political no-no of having moved from one of the sanctioned sides to the other. There was not even room in the debate to acknowledge there may perhaps be a third, fourth, n-th side.
A recent meme collected all the then-viable presidential candidates for 2016 and put them alongside Muppets. The resemblance is funny, of course. Because Muppets are inherently funny, which is not something you can say about either Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, or even Bernie Sanders. No trouble making that leap for Donald Trump, though. His whole look and demeanor seems muppettish, all bluster and ridiculousness. But make no mistake, Trump is not a Muppet. The Muppets, Elizabeth Hyde Stevens reminded her fellow Gen Xers in 2014, were all about coming together. If you’re of a certain age and you don’t like the Muppets, Stevens contended, many children of the 1970s will look at you with suspicion. The Muppet Show ”[…] had the implicit message that all kinds of weirdos and goofballs can work together in peace, give or take a few explosions. Underneath the screwball humor, The Muppet Show had a message of brotherhood.”5
The Muppets’ brand of happy anarchy was itself based on influences from head Muppeteer (not a term he liked) Jim Henson’s childhood. Foremost among them, according to Brian Jay Jones’ Henson biography, was Pogo.6
Pogo, a cartoon oppossum and star of a long-running comic strip, frolicked with his own cast of ridiculous characters in the Okefenokee swamp. His creator Walt Kelly often used the parallel universe of oddball swamp animals to comment on political issues. Whatever the hot button topic of the day, Pogo had a take on it. As for the question of ”we,” Pogo had that figured out in 1970. ”We have met the enemy, and they is us,” his creator had him say, in reference to environmental pollution on an Earth Day poster published that year.
It’s a good thing to remind ourselves every now and then that ”we” might be our own worst enemy. No matter how we stand on Trump, the Muppets, or anything else, ”we” should be much more careful in using ”we” indiscriminately and without thinking. That is, if you wouldn’t rather wait out this election by dancing your cares away, or playing possum.
Andrew Prokop, ”The Political Scientist Who Saw Trump’s Rise Coming,” interview with Norm Ornstein in: Vox.com. May 6, 2016. ↩
George Packer, ”Head of the Class,” in: The New Yorker. May 16, 2016. ↩
Samuel Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004. ↩
S.I. Rosenbaum, ”John Oliver’s ‘Donald Drumpf’ Jokes Play on the Same Ugly Xenophobia Trump Does” in: The Washington Post, Mar. 3, 2016. ↩
Elizabeth Hyde Stevens, ”Millennials Just Don’t Get It! How the Muppets Created Generation X” in: Salon.com, April 6, 2014. ↩
Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson. The Biography. New York: Random House, 2013. ↩
Robert Caro’s growing multivolume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson is a lesson in how to do biography as history, and one in how power works in the American political system.
Once what is likely to be the last volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson, number five, is unpacked in bookstores and pushed out to Kindles and iPads everywhere, Robert Caro will have been at it for over four decades. When exactly that will be is still unclear, and I am not holding my breath. In 2012, Caro predicted it would take another two or three years. (“But why would you believe me,” he joked in a Guardian interview that year).1 It’s now 2016 and there hasn’t been an announcement. Caro’s ever-expanding research has turned what he once predicted to be three volumes into a now expected five, and made the third book, 1992’s Master of the Senate alone easily three books’ worth in size. Book reviews through the decades are thick with words like “magisterial,” “definitive,” “sweeping,” “masterful,” even “majestic” when they describe volumes of Caro’s Years. Less favorably, a Salon.com review of volume four called Caro’s biography “bloated.”2
If you’re only a little bit interested in power and the American political system, today and during the twentieth century, you should read the books. They are engrossing, and they are helpful reminders that deadlock in the US Congress and pandering political manipulation are nothing new. They are also, however, nothing eternal and unchanging. They are tied to historical contexts and historical actors. Institutions matter, but people matter as well. People who can shape, change, and dominate these institutions. Reading or re-reading Caro’s Johnson is an exercise in reminding oneself that history is never just about one thing. It’s not about academic arguments alone, or just about the political uses of the past. It’s messy, and fascinating, and alive.
The Books So Far
The series consists, in mostly chronological order as far as the “Years of” are concerned, and in order of publication, of The Path to Power (1982), The Means of Ascent (1990), Master of the Senate (2002), and The Passage of Power (2012). It’s worth listing them here. Despite Caro’s considerable craft with words, and a publisher who has preserved the integrity of the series throughout, the titles only really speak to the place of each book in the whole story after you’ve read them all.
The Path to Power is the origin story. Caro vividly depicts the hardscrabble life of generations of Buntons and Johnsons, the two families of LBJ’s forebears, in the Texas Hill Country. He describes the emergence of Johnson’s deepest fears and most destructive personality traits, the less than idyllic country boy life, and the barely adequate education Johnson received. The shame he felt when his family, driven by Johnson’s father Sam’s romantic imagination, lost everything and had to live on the charity of townspeople. The Johnsons of Johnson City had once been respected, but as Lyndon Johnson grew into a man, they no longer were. Caro stresses the contrast between young Lyndon and his father, an idealist who Lyndon had once sought to emulate. No more. This all adds up to the making of a maker. Of a liar and abuser, for sure, but an occasional and effective advocate for the downtrodden all the same. There’s ample foreshadowing here for Johnson’s eventual turn as the last great reform president of the twentieth century. Ample as well is the back story to the situation in the Hill Country, a “hard land” that broke dreams, a place which Lyndon Johnson’s brother Sam Houston Johnson describes as “lonely” and where entertainment of any sort was hard to come by. “On the rare occasions on which a movie was shown, there was as much suspense in the audience over whether the electricity would hold out to the end of the film as there was in the film itself,” Caro writes.
On the many changes that electrification and the building of better roads brought to rural America, the book presents little new information. Yet, Caro’s evocative prose detailing the drudgery of Hill Country housewives on wash day and, the worst day of them all, ironing day, may just amount to a reader finally, for the first time, actually empathizing with what the change meant for the people it affected. Emotions are Caro’s trade, and he spends long pages detailing the process of heating and re-heating the “sad irons” over a sooty fireplace, and the sweat and disappointment this work brought with it. Canning and the preservation of fruits and vegetables, practices tinged today with hippie-hipstery faux nostalgia for a pastoral never-neverland, are described painstakingly as the survival necessities they were. Path follows Johnson through his college years and his early career as a Congressional secretary, and ends with him ensconced safely but unhappily in the House of Representatives after losing out on his first bid for the Senate.
The Means of Ascent is the book about money, though the “means” here is clearly employed in both senses. It is the shortest book to date, at a “mere” 506 pages (first edition). It is here that Caro shows how Johnson, through smart and borderline – if not downright – illegal, maneuvering involving inside connections to the FCC, turned an also-ran radio station into a powerhouse. His media empire (on paper his wife’s) would eventually encompass a television station as well. Buying advertising time on a Johnson station was the surest way of making sure political favors would follow.
It’s a book about morality and about amorality, and it usually finds Johnson on the side of the latter. The main showdown is between Coke Stevenson, beloved Texas governor and shoe-in senatorial candidate, and Lyndon Johnson, unlikely challenger, three-term Congressman from an almost inconsequential district in the remote Hill Country. The story is how Johnson takes down Stevenson with all the dirtiest tricks, and then goes to Washington on only 87 very clearly faked votes. “Landslide Lyndon” prevails through the following legal tribulations with only the thinnest margin for error, but prevail he does.
Means is the volume in which Caro starts really putting “vignette biographies” – notably of “Pappy” O’Daniel and Coke Stevenson – to good use. These chapter-sized excurses could easily be taken out of the books whole and stand on their own, as likely the only thing you’ll ever need to read on the person concerned. (Later books contain such vignettes on Richard Brevard Russell, and both John F. and Robert Kennedy. Some reviewers have panned these as unnecessary and unoriginal, but Caro is a completist, and these tangents always branch back into the ongoing narrative, like tributaries to a river.)
Means of Ascent is the book in the series that has been most controversially reviewed. Caro pretty obviously sides with Coke Stevenson on the senatorial race and ensuing legal battle. Stevenson, we are made to believe, clearly had the law on his side. The wide angle isn’t quite so clear cut, however. Stevenson was also a rabid segregationist, and was not entirely above the wheeling-dealing of Texas politics himself. Caro restates again and again that, even following the loose standards of morality then prevalent in Texas politics, Johnson went too far. But when does a difference in degree become a difference in kind? And, this is a question which he treats only cursorily but which touches on the heart of Caro’s project, what of the greater good? Would America have been better off without Lyndon Johnson in the Senate? And, consequently, without Lyndon Johnson as president, shepherding the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act to eventual passage? Once again, it is a question of means and ends. Any answer can only be uncomfortable, but that is, precisely, the ground on which politics thrives.
Master of the Senate is the centerpiece, both of LBJ’s life and the series. Not for nothing for a man whose official presidential portrait shows him, all wistful cunning, backdropped by a luminant sky and the US Capitol, not the White House.
It is the book that, according to Caro, explains his interest in LBJ. Not his presidency, not a stolen election or other amoral dealings in politics and business, Johnson’s years in the Senate are what brought the author to his man. It is also the book with the clearest message and the most convincing array of arguments. Caro does not do this by throwing up mountains of evidence that point in one direction, but instead by, incident for incident, crawling through the corridors of power with Johnson. The thesis is clear: The Senate was dysfunctional, and only because Johnson grasped for every bit of power that he could, did it become a mover in American politics, and not remain an immovable object. LBJ – he himself wanted to be known by his initials, making clear a connection and a hoped for equality of stature with FDR – played his connections to Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and to Old South racist and strategist for the Southern Democrats Richard Russell in order not only to gain to power, but also to get things done. Richard Brevard Russell (“of Georgia” one unwittingly adds in one’s head when hearing or seeing that name after reading Master of the Senate) also gets the Caro vignette biography treatment. Impressively racist for any age, Russell is the perfect foil for LBJ in this episode. After Johnson haltingly enters the big fight over the 1957 Civil Rights Act at the end of Master, Russell still holds the power to derail him. That he does not is due to a combination of Johnson’s knack for reading people, of tactics, and of his relationship with Russell. Russell, who likes Johnson, and still thinks of him as the Southern senator with the solid segregationist voting record who began his senate career with a fervently anti-civil rights “We of the South” speech. Johnson didn’t throw himself into that fight immediately, but when he did, he moved the levers that needed to be moved. Implausibly, he also got the first civil rights bill in three generations passed while still standing in relatively good stead with Southern Democrats, lead by Russell.
The Passage of Power is a bit of an odd duck in the lineup. Still, it’s the book you’re most likely to reach for if forced to pick only one: it contains the most important moments of LBJ’s journey to the presidency. It details the transition following Kennedy’s assassination (a part that was also spun off into a much slimmer book), when Johnson took power in a most decisive way. Before that moment, however, we are treated to Johnson’s indecisiveness about entering the 1960 presidential campaign. When he finally decided to jump in, it was much too late; all he could do was grab hold of the number two spot on the Kennedy ticket. Vice President Johnson appears to have been useful to Kennedy only for winning in the South. After that, “Rufus Cornpone,” as Kennedy staffers called Johnson, was put out to pasture, buried under the ceremonial blanket of representative duties at home and abroad. His attempts to hold on to power in the Senate having failed, and utterly despised by Robert Kennedy, Johnson in this part of the story is almost to be pitied. The transformation after Kennedy’s death, however, is complete. Johnson holds on to the reins of government, and, in passing civil rights legislation and the Great Society, accomplishes what he always wanted. “Power reveals” is the mantra. Johnson apparently always wanted to help out the little people. That’s a bit of an odd statement for Caro to make: Johnson as president finally can do and does what Johnson in no other role even attempted. In his telling, it’s as if the dam has finally broken. But, we are left to wonder, what if Johnson never had become president – a long shot goal for a rural Texas boy if ever there was one – but still tried desperately to gain power? Would he have gone on maneuvering in the background, helping himself to money and maybe, just maybe, some of the little people to a bit more dignity along the way? Would any of his maneuvering have mattered?
For Volume 5, as of yet no title is known. If we follow some tease-ahead remarks in The Passage of Power, however, it’s clear it will mostly deal with the rest of the Johnson administration. We should expect a detailed account of Johnson’s election, in his own right, to the presidency, and musings on his eventual downfall, the Vietnam War – also already foreshadowed in Caro’s description of Johnson’s war hawk stance on the Cuban Missile Crisis. (The telling of which Caro, as Fred Kaplan complains on Slate, gets woefully wrong.)3
This will likely be capped by a final chapter on Johnson’s retirement years on his Texas ranch, a period which always evokes a certain sadness: Johnson, with long hair that utterly reshapes his face, burying the once so dominant ears, as if burying his powerful persona as well, pottering about in the garden. A man who failed both at holding on to power, and at finishing the work he started in his Great Society program. Brought down, in both cases, by his need to appear strong, and his contention that America, too, needed to appear strong in Vietnam. What Caro will make of the end of the man he has followed for so long will certainly be worth reading.
It’s About Power
Power. The word comes up frequently throughout the series, so let’s talk about it. Power, for Caro is essential. In a 1990 Vanity Fair interview, he pointed out “History… isn’t history unless you show the effects of power.” Power is not, however, a top-down thing, not a club you wield, not a shower of influence you can just point and things will happen. His conception of power is almost Foucauldian, though there’s no reference to Foucault, and likely the French über-theorist had no influence on Caro. After all, Caro began his inquiry into how power actually works in a democracy, as opposed to the school chalkboard fairytale that it all ends with you, the voter and citizen as sovereign, when he began researching his first Pulitzer prize win, The Power Broker, in the 1960s. That book dissected the influence of Robert Moses on city planning in New York.
Karl Wolff, in a 2012 review of The Passage of Power calls Caro “a kind of Pop Foucault.”4 This would be essentially correct if Foucault himself wasn’t already the Pop Foucault (a Google search for each has Foucault’s name beat out Caro’s by a factor of more than 30), and if their conceptions of power matched more closely. Although their ideas are often parallel, the differences are important. Caro’s concept sees power as something a person can get and use, can amass and then apply and direct. It is what you eventually have when you, like Robert Moses or Lyndon Johnson, have a knack for finding it in hidden knowledge, in an innate understanding of specific people or general human nature, or tucked away in arcane rules. For Foucault, in the oft-repeated phrase “power is everywhere: not that it engulfs everything, but that it comes from everywhere.”5 That’s not to say there are not similarities. For Caro, as well as for Foucault, power does not originate as a top-down force, but instead is dispersed. In Caro, single actors come about and find such dispersed power, then they orchestrate and use it. In Foucault, power is constantly in a process of being negotiated, through pulls and pushes and parries and patinandos. Despite the differences, from a Foucauldian point of view, you could do a lot worse than read Robert Caro’s books: his understanding of power may not be the same as Foucault’s, but they are, up to a point, compatible.
And Language No description of Caro’s Johnson would be complete without reference to the language in which the author puts his books. Caro cites Francis Parkman, the popular nineteenth century historian, bestselling author of The Oregon Trail, when he talks about how he needed to establish a “sense of place” for his book. In a larger sense, though, Caro’s whole oeuvre is a project to Parkmanize political biography.6 Like Parkman, Caro has lived in places he writes about, including the Hill Country. Even more so than Parkman’s, Caro’s cadences are musical. The sentences might often be run-on, but they want to be read. Need to be read. If you’re from the “only simple sentences are good” school, Caro may well make you re-think that assessment. His constructions are masterful, and you soon forget that the page you’ve finished has been scarcely more than one sentence. Caro strings together words in garlands, decorates them, repeats them, dotes on them, and finally lets them conclude at the point where they have been headed all along. Repetition is his favorite tool, and for the most part, he wields it well. So well, in fact, that soon you become engrossed in the story – in the detailed, meticulously researched accounts and psychologizing speculations – and would miss the saccadic rhythm that is its constant soundtrack if it wasn’t there.
The image of the conductor that Caro uses several times in reference to Johnson in the Senate is apt, too, to the author arranging his materials. The Senate, to Johnson was “the right size” as he is quoted in a memorable scene, taking in the view of the Senate floor for the first time. At 96 members at the moment of the future president’s 1956 accession to it (thanks to that famously stolen election), the Senate, Caro contends, offered a limited number of “texts” for Johnson, the “reader of men” to study. This Johnson did, and emerged during his first term as the single most able operator of that body for a century, and quite likely ever since.
Reviews of single volumes have remarked on either how negatively or positively Johnson is portrayed in one book or another. In The Path to Power he is a sniveling, repulsive powerseeker, a compulsive liar and a ruthless political manipulator, always intent on improving his position and berating his inferiors. “Almost without exception his [Caro’s] judgments on Johnson are not merely negative but hostile,” writes David Herbert Donald in his 1982 review for the New York Times.7 In The Means of Ascent once again all the worst of Johnson’s qualities, and seemingly only these, are on display. Master of the Senate is more even-handed. If “power is where power goes,” as Johnson himself was fond of saying, then it surely went to the Senate with Johnson.
In The Passage of Power the bad parts of Johnson’s personality are subdued, though not entirely excised from the narrative. The LBJ of the post-Kennedy transition is a careful, helpful man. A “hagiography of sorts” reviewer Karl Wolff calls Passage. But when you read the books in quick succession, the similarities in tone and judgment are much more striking than the differences. This similarity of treatment is, however, also both the strong suit and the greatest failure of all volumes of the series. In all books, Johnson is a veritable Jekyll and Hyde, and then some. But he isn’t his worst self and his best self and any gradation in between at the same time. Narratively, these Johnsons inhabit different worlds inside the books.
The Man and the Age
Caro sees Johnson as both a fascinating figure in his own right, but even more as a cipher for America in the twentieth century. LBJ is the face of “modern” politics – campaigning in Texas with a helicopter, making sure he gets the best Hollywood headshot photographer to take his portrait – and the “watershed” president, according to Caro, the presidency when the liberal belief that government had a role to play in bettering American and people’s lives, in a hop, skip and jump over the credibility gap found itself demonized, first by Nixon, and then for good by Reagan and by his epigones.
What makes Caro’s LBJ so compelling is his dumbfounding complexity. Caro, this too is reiterated in interview after interview, doesn’t particularly like his subject. But that does not mean he is not fascinated by Johnson. (Although he protests being “obsessed” by him.) As much as The Years of Lyndon Johnson is about the years, the period in which the man grew up and in which he exercised power, it is, of course also about the man. A towering figure, this Lyndon Johnson is. That he stood 6 foot 4 is repeated at strategic moments throughout the series. Johnson had, Caro tells us “the Bunton eye” or “the Bunton strain,” physical characteristics of the Bunton family from which he came, known across the Texas Hill Country towns of LBJ’s youth. Johnson was a person who used his size to intimidate and cajole, his overwhelming personality to charm and abuse.
The other man in the book is, of course, its author. Caro is interested in a very specific interpretation of power, and he enters into the record every last morsel that can help this end. His presence in the books is felt throughout. Reflective of changing academic style, the vague “a researcher” and the somewhat clearer “this researcher” or “this author” of the earlier volumes only give way to a tentative “I” in The Passage of Power, four books and more than thirty years into the project. The fact that this changes is interesting, but perhaps even more fascinating is that so little else does. Yet, the things that make Caro’s work over the decades consistent also make it less than inventive when it comes to any analytical category other than “power.” Despite LBJ’s major role in civil rights, Caro’s description of Johnson’s early years in the National Youth Administration during the New Deal, for example, is treated without any reference to race – though this is somewhat rectified in Master of the Senate, which also contains a stomach-turningly direct and effective description of the Emmett Till murder.
LBJ’s knack for pushing and prodding politicians to move, if just millimeters, their beliefs or their votes, at least, Caro holds as absolutely essential to the success of 1960s civil rights legislation, and to the Great Society program. These domestic successes changed the United States for the better, and Johnson deserves credit. But he also deserves blame for miring the US ever deeper in Vietnam. It is hard to imagine the United States in the late twentieth century, and even today, without either part of Johnson’s legacy. Civil rights on the one hand, the scars of disillusion that the Vietnam War left, on the other. It is impossible to imagine America as it is without acknowledging Lyndon Johnson’s impact. Even if Caro had done nothing more than point this out, it might be enough to justify spending over half a life and almost all of a career researching and writing about Lyndon Baines Johnson. The 36th president has been Caro’s conduit to show us the workings of American politics during an era when these workings mattered immensely. More power to Robert Caro.
Chris McGreal, “Robert Caro: A Life With LBJ and the Pursuit of Power” in: The Guardian, June 10, 2012. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/jun/10/lyndon-b-johnson-robert-caro-biography> ↩
Erik Nelson, “Robert Caro’s Bloated LBJ Biography” in: Salon.com, May 7, 2012. <http://www.salon.com/2012/05/07/robert_caros_bloated_lbj_biography> ↩
Fred Kaplan, “What Robert Caro Got Wrong” in: Slate, May 31, 2012. <http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/war_stories/2012/05/robert_caro_s_new_history_of_lbj_offers_a_mistaken_account_of_the_cuban_missile_crisis.html> ↩
Karl Wolff, “Book Review: ‘Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power,’ by Robert Caro,” CCLaP, Chicago Center for Literature and Photography website, October 5, 2012. <http://www.cclapcenter.com/2012/10/book_review_the_passage_of_pow.html> ↩
Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality. Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon, 1978. 93. ↩
To use Albert Hurtado’s fitting term. Albert L. Hurtado, “Parkmanizing the Spanish Borderlands: Bolton, Turner, and the Historians’ World” in: Western Historical Quarterly 26:2 (Summer 1995), 149-167. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/970186> ↩
David Herbert Donald, “Up from Texas” in: New York Times, November 21, 1982. <http://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/21/books/up-from-texas.html?pagewanted=all> ↩
History is forever written with a pencil. Revision lurks behind its vision by necessity. Like chalk on a blackboard, sponge at the ready for after the bell rings, it is not simply malleable, its malle-must. When historians adduce evidence into their stories, it comes from the places they look, and sometimes from the places they purposely don’t look. There is a strategy to it, a logic that cannot escape its own heritage and context. So what is written down is layering sediment – to be swept away or built upon by those who in the future will add their own interpretations.
This new site is me putting down some silt. I am trying to see whether when I step on it, I will leave a footprint and press it further into the ground to make a good foundation, or if the wind blows it away immediately after. Thus, History! is, as so many things that turn out to be somewhat more serious than originally conceived, named in honor of a joke. It self-consciously parodies many researchers’ propensity to apply a simple view of the world, one theory, one key to everything to, well, everything, and then to run with it. “Thus, history!” is the facetious exclamation of the historian who amasses facts and factoids, pushes them through the meat grinder of well trodden explanatory filters, and calls it a slice of world, a piece of reality.
“Thus, history!” is perhaps the exasperated last attempt you would make to convince the heretofore unconvinced of what you believe strongly in but do not yet have enough evidence for. The thing you would say if you were still a big thought short of an explanation and the coffee stopped working a week and a half ago. It is, in the worst case, a self-aggrandizing way of throwing in the towel. In the best case, however, it is a proving ground, with its interrobang inflected ever so slighty upward, giving way to a question mark: “Thus, history?” read as “Is that what happened?” Or, as historians once were fond of saying, what really happened. A discredited really, but not a forgotten one. After all, when things are obvious, they are obvious, right? When you have the upper hand, the better system of thought, the all-important argument, you must advance it. You must convince. You must. There’s never anything wrong with making good arguments, at least when it is in the service of obtaining more knowledge. But when you have convinced yourself, you can sometimes forget why others have not yet shown up to your party even though you bought cake and all the balloons. And that forgetfulness, in a true O. Henry twist, will make you less convincing.
This blog is where I don’t always try to convince. It’s a place for things half baked or still mostly raw. A quarry and at the same time a place where I can store materials unearthed along the way. It’s a public space in which I can try out thoughts and hypotheses, collect ideas and theory and inspiration. A hill where I can stake a flag. It’s a log of sorts, too, that can continue to hold opinions I held at one point and might no longer. It’s where I can come back to check against what I will believe in the future. It’s a direct link to others who may be working on the same problems and issues, or working with similar methods. It should be, in short, a place to document and help along research. Yours and mine, academic or otherwise. In that, despite the tongue-in-cheek grandiosity of its title, it should be useful in small but important ways. Useful like a chest of drawers or a memory palace.
I call this first post “Pilot” in reference to the Hollywood term because it is the first in a series of which no one yet knows how long it will continue, and where it will go; who will write and who will be recast and what storylines can be expected. Much like the pilot for a television show, this post is a marker, a how-to, and a suggestion: “This is what the whole can be. It’s going to change, but the mission statement, in some form, is here.”
There may be others joining along the way, but for now it’s me, and I will simply start producing. Thus… history.