Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse: What was the election of 2016 all about?

Historians in the News
tags: election 2016, Sean Wilentz, Trump, Kevin Kruse




Among the Alumni Day events this year was an unmoderated and lively discussion about the 2016 election between two Princeton historians: Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse. The two professors educated and entertained the crowd in McCosh 10 for more than an hour. A video is available at alumni.princeton.edu; their conversation, which has been shortened and adapted for print, follows:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. 

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of ... for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. ...





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