Blogs > Cliopatria > The Return Of The Students Of History

Aug 13, 2007 6:28 pm

The Return Of The Students Of History

The latest Atlantic has a new article called"The Karl Rove Presidency" that contains this jarring passage:

But he was and remains an autodidact, and a large part of his self-image depends on showing that his command of history and politics is an order of magnitude greater than other people’s. Rove has a need to outdo everybody else that seems to inform his sometimes contrarian views of history. It’s not enough for him to have read everything; he needs to have read everything and arrived at insights that others missed.

There is something very strange about the people who have assembled themselves around the President over the past few years. Many of them seem to have an outsized sense of their own world-historical importance, and many of them are convinced that they have a superior understanding of the lessons of history, but their grasp of history never seems to escape the generic, the vague and the facile. Weak analogies drawn from a limited range of American references are the order of the day--today we are refighting WWII, tomorrow Iraq is like the pre-1787 Confederation and the day after Adhamiya is a new Selma.

Rove's favourite comparisons were between Bush and McKinley and between himself and Mark Hanna, which seemed plausible enough if you simply sought to find the last time a Republican was running in a turn of the century election. For someone who has sought to hold up his "command of history" as superior, Rove must not have looked too closely at the previous decades before McKinley, which were also overwhelmingly dominated by the GOP. Rove's first mistake was to believe that Mark Hanna had accomplished something truly significant. That the party of industry and corporations prevailed in the era of industrialisation is not the product of cunning strategy or conscious realignment--it is the result of the social and political changes that had taken place in the country that undermined the base of support for an agrarian populist candidate such as Bryan. Rove's errors were not merely political, but stemmed from a misreading of the very McKinley years he claims to admire and that he wishes to imitate.

A more compelling comparison between the GOP under Bush and an early twentieth century center-right party's fate might be the Conservative-Unionist government during the same period in Britain, which was thrown out in 1905 (and again in 1906) in a massive repudiation of the government. Like Rove's strategy, the Conservatives and Unionists had ridden the wave of jingo nationalism of the South African War in the Khaki Election, which preceded their political collapse by a mere five years. The parallels between the two parties, and between the elections of 1900 and 2002 and 1905-06 and 2006 are intriguing.

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D T - 8/13/2007

What jingoism was Bush using to ride to power in 2000?

I don't think Rove meant that he and Hanna both organized stunning victories for their side after being out of power for so long. I think Rove means more to the extent that Hanna's campaign focused on a national plan, was known for its national plan/focus, playing certain issues to their advantage, focus on speeche, use of publicity and what passed for a grassroots campaign in 1896. I think the comparison is apt. Of course, considering Hanna essentially started the modern campaign, you can make that comparison to one degree or another with most presidential campaign advisors, but I think Rove stands out as a modern day version of Hanna than most others.

James Stanley Kabala - 8/13/2007

Actually, the era of 1873-1894 was one of fierce competition between the two parties. The GOP did generally come out on top, but often by accident. In the popular vote, Democrats actually finished first four of the five presidential elections (1876, 1884, 1888, and 1892; 1884 and 1892 were the years they actually won), and their defeat in 1880 was narrow. Congress also swung back and forth between the two parties; in 1890, in particular, the Republicans suffered defeats so crushing that their House contingent was down to 88 members, although they recovered fairly well in 1892. Rove is correct that 1894 and 1896 elections were the elections that catapulted the GOP from slight majority status to overwhelming majority status, as exemplified in the 1904 landslide and, after the Wilson years, the 1920, 1924, and 1928 landslides, in which the Republicans crushed the Democrats in a way they had never done in the 1880s or 1890s. You are correct that social factors caused this more than Hanna's maneuvering did, however.

Robert Pierce Forbes - 8/11/2007

Perhaps a better analogy is between Rove and Martin Van Buren, who was similarly brilliant at turning his opponents' strengths into weaknesses and inserting the shiv without leaving fingerprints. Where Rove shows his abysmal naivete, however, is in his goal of a permanent Republican majority, his attempt to "win it all" and belief that this would be a good thing for his side. Van Buren realized from the start that the essence of successful partisan politics is competition--and that to keep your side vibrant and in fighting trim, you want to win by 51% against a hungry, disciplined opposition.

To paraphrase Lord Acton, absolute hubris destroys absolutely.