Checkered History Checkered History blog brought to you by History News Network. Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Political Uses of the Past

This blog is by Allen Mikaelian. Allen is an editor and writer who specializes in creating meaningful projects for amazing people. He holds a history PhD from American University, is a former editor of the American Historical Association's "Perspectives on History," and lives in Washington, DC.

History matters, and not just because it enriches our lives or provides transferable skills or prevents the past from repeating itself. History also matters because our political class uses it like currency; their perceptions of the past inform their policies, color their rhetoric, and create world views.

A member of Congress recently argued that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a source of much discontent for the Trump administration, was merely established to bring law to the wild west; now it has outlived its usefulness and can safely be abolished.  A White House spokesperson asserted that the Johnson Amendment, which limits political endorsements by nonprofits like churches, was akin to silencing Martin Luther King. Another member of Congress claimed that the present crisis in Africa is much like the Irish Potato Famine—it was created by politics, not by actual shortages. History matters because our elected officials are making it matter, every day. 

The Political Uses of the Past project collects statements by elected and appointed officials who deploy history and historical comparisons in their speeches, remarks, and arguments. The collection is updated nearly every day and focuses on Congress and the administration. Historians are invited to rate and comment on these statements. As the collection grows, the project will include a database and visualizations (much like what you see here). Much else is possible; much else is in the works. And the stream of historical statements by politicians will provide an incredible amount of fodder for whatever comes next.  

This project has been brewing for a while, but received a strong push as I watched how our political conversations increasingly disdain facts and expertise. This is of course not particular to history, but historical truth is a frequent victim. Historians are pushing back with solid research and writing, and are taking their expertise into the public square with newfound urgency. This project aims to feed that urge. 

My hope is that a historian will see one of these statements and use it as a prompt for further public engagement. The project provides an easy way to do that with a comment form (available to historians after light vetting), but many historians will, I hope, engage by creating longer pieces or find inspiration for lesson planning. Either way, there’s a value in watching closely how politicians are using the past, especially now.  

Each week this blog, generously provided by HNN, will highlight a particularly provocative statement, a new trend, or conversations inspired by recent statements. The project is very open to ideas, suggestions, guest posts, and guidance (which you can submit here). Those who are interested in a daily dose of political uses of the past can subscribe to the project's newsletter. (just provide your email in the “Updates” form on the left side of this page. You will receive one (and only one!) email per day with the day’s updates. Daily updates are also available via Twitter, RSS, and Facebook

As I process the daily onslaught of political uses of the past (read the about page for more on how I’m finding these statements with a nifty bit of machine learning code), I’m finding many more statements than I have time or space to publish, and I’m picking up on some fascinating trends and tropes. Each of these offer opportunities to public-minded historians. 

The Teapot Dome scandal, for instance, is suddenly relevant to the issue of Trump’s tax returns. One of the main talking points on the president’s budget is the idea of 3 percent GDP growth being normal throughout US history. And if the administration wants you to take away anything from Trump’s first foreign trip, it is that the trip was “historic” (check the transcripts—they can’t seem to stop saying it).

These threads suggest different political uses of the past and different ways historians can engage. If Teapot Dome is suddenly relevant, explainers by historians would be a great public service. And perhaps that 3 percent growth figure is true. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s a statement that cries out for the kind of historical context that you’re unlikely to get from an economist. Or what exactly was historic about that trip to Saudi Arabia? This is a nation that has been an ally for some time; are we really facing a turning point in that relationship?  

History really matters; it is a constant background hum in the cacophony on the Hill and in the White House. The daily updates to this project will prove that. The question then is: What are historians going to do about it?

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
The Debate over the Lack of Debate on the GOP Healthcare Plan

This blog is by Allen Mikaelian. Allen is an editor and writer who specializes in creating meaningful projects for amazing people. He holds a history PhD from American University, is a former editor of the American Historical Association's "Perspectives on History," and lives in Washington, DC.

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Congress Has a History of Legislating in Secrecy:  Interview with Julian Zelizer 

● Republican secrecy faces mounting criticism as GOP senators work behind closed doors to replace Obamacare

"I love history." —Sen. Cory Booker Senate Floor, June 19, 2017

On Monday, Democrats organized a Senate floor protest, delivering lengthy speeches against what they saw as “shameful” maneuvers by the Republicans to craft the Obamacare replacement bill behind “closed doors.”

The Political Uses of the Past Project discovered in these speeches an unusual number of references and appeals to history. The story of how Obamacare came to be was certainly front and center, but senators reached back further, searching for context and comparisons.

Senators referenced the 1993 HillaryCare effort, Strom Thurmond’s 1957 filibuster of civil rights legislation, the debate over whether to arm merchant ships prior to the US entry into World War I, the Constitutional Convention, and the Connecticut Compromise. They gave shout-outs to John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and former Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

The comparisons between what the GOP is doing now and what the Democrats did in 2009 was unavoidable. But the floor speeches went further and evoked the entire history of the Senate. Speeches claimed that the time spent on deliberations back in 2009 broke or challenged all previous records. The Affordable Care Act spent near-record time in markup. Two committees spent more time on the ACA than they ever had spent on any other issue before. And so on.

There’s a palpable anxiety in these statements, and in other statements which try to remind Americans why, historically speaking, we have a Senate. The past is bubbling up in these speeches because there’s a sense that the Senate is at yet another turning point, one potentially larger than the nuclear option dropped on judicial nominations by both sides.

If the Republican senators succeed in passing their American Health Care Act, their secrecy and speed could quickly become the norm. And not just for the Republican majority, but for the next Democratic majority as well. The advantages of holding hearings, listening to experts, and fashioning compromises are harder to see in this hyperpartisan fog. The emphasis for this majority, and possibly for the next, seems to be simply forcing legislation through (and then claiming yet another historical laurel--productivity!).

So a big part of these uses of the past that we saw on Monday, collected below (most of them, anyway), is pure nostalgia. It’s a yearning for a Senate that is either already gone or soon will be.

The Political Uses of the Past Project provides daily updates of historical references by elected and appointed officials. Subscribe to the email newsletter, follow on Twitter, or visit the Facebook page to keep up.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Length of Obamacare deliberations were record-setting

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: Not since before WWI has there been “such a secret, partisan process for passing a major bill”

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Markup of Obamacare in HELP committee was its longest ever

Sen. Kamala Harris: GOP health care bill “is the least popular piece of legislation in modern history”

Sen. Thomas Carper: Obamacare “looked a lot like” what Republicans offered in 1993

Sen. Ron Wyden: Obamacare Senate session the second-longest in US history

Sen. Charles Schumer: Markup for Obamacare “one of the longest in history”

Sen. Christopher Murphy: Senate not fulfilling role envisioned by Connecticut Compromise

Sen. Cory Booker: Tradition of the Senate is to “slow things down”

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Affordable healthcare within scope of FDR’s and founders’ vision

Sen. Cory Booker: Unlike AHCA deliberations, Constitutional Convention was “public, open, transparent”

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
Congress and the Trump Administration Are Using and Abusing History At Least Six Times a Day Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer with who works with clients and partners in government agencies and think tanks. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. His Political Uses of the Past Project ( collects and catalogs historical statements by elected and appointed officials. 

I wasn’t prepared for the volume. When I started the Political Uses of the Past Project, based on my home-brewed code that scanned public records looking for historical references, I thought I’d find an occasional interesting appeal to the past among the political speeches and public statements of members of Congress and the current administration. I should have been better prepared. Almost all of our politicians, it turns out, are self-styled amateur historians. They operate from their vision of a future America, but they do so with an equally important vision of what the United States was in the past. This is evident in everything from Make America Great Again to the Green New Deal.

So when this project started, it tried to publish, via a blog, every single statement. This effort was quickly overwhelmed. Even after omitting references attached to anniversaries, tributes, eulogies, and casual references to particular dates, there was still too much. But this was interesting in itself, and opened up new possibilities for this still-evolving effort.

The timeline below is the Political Uses of the Past Project’s first attempt to visually display what it has collected. And it takes only a glance to see that the project has been busy. On average, the algorithms that make the project possible are capturing six references a day. When Congress is in full swing, it sniffs out as many as 21. In one month, the project has captured and cataloged 180 political uses of the past. In reality there are doubtless many, many more.

For more information on the data, why I’m doing this, and where the effort is going please visit the project’s “About” page and the paragraphs underneath the timeline below. For now, the project hopes historians will consider whether they have anything to say about this abundant use of history by our elected and appointed leaders. Historians have the expertise to fill in the substantial gaps left behind by steamrolling political rhetoric. They have long been encouraging each other to engage more directly with the public. They have protested the decline of truth-telling in general, not just in history. Here, in this searchable timeline, are 180 opportunities for public engagement, sparks for discussions, and prompts for essays, blog posts, op-eds, and classroom assignments. And this represents merely one month in the nation’s politics.

The timeline will be updated frequently. More visual presentations will follow. And the project is eager for feedback and ideas about where to go next.

If the timeline below seems cramped, a larger version is available here.

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
Mike Pence Says the US Has Been "A Force For Good in the Middle East" for "nearly 200 years"; Here's How Historians Responded Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. The Political Uses of the Past Project collects and checks statements by elected and appointed officials. This is the first installment of what will hopefully become a regular feature of the project. Read more about the project here. Contact the editor of the project here.

Vice President Pence: "For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East"

For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East. Previous administrations in my country too often underestimated the danger that radical Islamic terrorism posed to the American people, our homeland, our allies, and our partners. Their inaction saw the terrorist attacks from the U.S.S. Cole; to September 11th; to the expansion of ISIS across Syria and Iraq — reaching all the way to the suburbs of Baghdad. But as the world has witnessed over the past two years, under President Trump, those days are over. —Vice President Michael Pence, Remarks, Warsaw Ministerial Working Luncheon, February 14, 2019

Historians say...

Eight historians responded to our request for comment; their full statements and recommended sources are on the Political Uses of the Past page).

The vice president starts with the 1833 treaty with Oman, and so shall we, even though it’s an odd place to start. As Will Hanley of Florida State University noted in his reaction to Pence’s claim, the treaty itself is a piece of routine boilerplate, not so different “from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states.” But there was at least one innovation, as Hanley explains: “The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement [by Pence] on this evidence would be ‘For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven't paid for.’”

Vice President Pence made this broad statement at a ministerial meeting on terrorism, but his mind was primarily on Iran. His intent was to draw a contrast between the United States and Iran, with the former being a “force for good” in the region and the latter being a perpetrator of continual violence. But by going back to 1833 to reference a routine and fairly boring trade agreement with a minor kingdom, he appears to be grasping at straws.

If Pence was looking for good done by the United States in the Middle East, he could have asked some of the historians who reacted to his statement. He may have learned from Joel Beinin how “American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region.” He may have been interested to hear from Indira Falk Gesink that "after World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any)." He may have learned from Lior Sternfeld how the United States has sponsored “schools, universities, and orphanages” and took a stand against its European allies and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

But if he had asked and had learned about these efforts, he would also have learned from Professor Beinin that many of the missionaries who established these schools went to work for the CIA in the postwar period, “so even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.” And Pence would have also had to hear Professor Sternfeld tell about the 1953 coup in Iran that cemented a brutal regime in place for the next quarter-century and how, as described by Professor Gesink, "from that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment." Finally, he would have had to hear about how much that 1953 coup has to do with our relations with Iran now.

Historians who replied to our request for comment could not find much “force for good” in the historical record. Instead, they find “death, displacement, and destruction” (Ziad Abu-Rish), support for “the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn” and the “most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn” (Mark Le Vine), “intense and destructive interventions … characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives” (Michael Provence), "a moral compromise with authoritarianism"  (Indira Falk Gesink), and actions that have “contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster” (Dale Stahl).

Homage to the Shah after coup d'état, 5 September 1953, The Guardian - Unseen images of the 1953 Iran coup.

Three historians below recommend The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, and this book is incredibly pertinent today. Previous historical accounts and justifications by 1950s policymakers made the coup all about Mosaddegh’s unwieldiness to compromise or said it was all about winning the Cold War. Abrahamian instead shows that it was about oil, or, more specifically, “the repercussions that oil nationalization could have on such faraway places as Indonesia and South America, not to mention the rest of the Persian Gulf.” And for this, Iran and the Middle East got, courtesy of the United States, the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah. The shah crushed the democratic opposition, filling his jails with thousands of political prisoners, and left “a gaping political vacuum—one filled eventually by the Islamic movement.” And so here we are.

Mike Pence’s incredibly blinkered statement can be viewed as an extreme counterpoint to the right-wing view of Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the president mildly acknowledged that the US had not always been on the side of right in the Middle East, and that its history of actions have come back to haunt us all. Such things, it seems, must not be spoken in the muscular Trump administration, even if it means abandoning an understanding that might actually be useful. “For me as an historian,” Mark Le Vine notes below, “perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail.” Indeed, Mike Pence here appears intent on utterly blocking out history and historical thinking, even as he dreams of a long and glorious past.

Browse and download sources recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.


Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University

I'm only going to tackle the "force for good" claim, without getting into the claims about Trump compared to his predecessors or the notion of "radical Islamic terrorism." Let's give Vice President Pence a chance at being correct... Read more

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University

American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region... Read more

Indira Falk Gesink, Baldwin Wallace University

I think this is a much more complicated question than is generally acknowledged. On the one hand, some American private citizens have had long-lasting positive impact—for example the founding of educational institutions such as Roberts College, the American University in Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College), and the American University in Cairo. At that time, the US generally was viewed positively in the region. ... Read more

Will Hanley, Florida State University

It's not possible to use historical evidence to support a black-and-white statement like "The United States has been a force for good in the Middle East." Even if it were possible, the slim 1833 treaty between the US and the Sultan of Muscat is meager evidence. ... Read more

Mark Andrew Le Vine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, UC Irvine

This statement is ridiculous even by the standards of the Trump administration. The US has been among the most damaging forces in the Middle East for the last three quarters of a century. ... Read more

Michael Provence, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, San Diego

The United States had no role in the Middle East before 1945, apart from private business and educational initiatives. Within a couple years of 1945, the US tilted toward Israel in its first war, began overthrowing democratic Middle Eastern governments, and propping up pliant dictators. ... Read more

Dale Stahl, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado Denver

I see this statement as "more or less false" because there are clear examples where the United States has not had a positive influence in the Middle East. One needn't reflect very far back into that "nearly 200 years" of history to know that this is so. ... Read more

Lior Sternfeld, Penn State University

While the US had some moments where it was a force for good, with projects like schools, universities, and orphanages, it was also a source for instability in cases like the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh that overturned the course not just of Iran but of the region in its entirety. Read more

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
Senator Chuck Schumer says corporations used to care; here's how historians responded Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. The Political Uses of the Past Project collects and checks statements by elected and appointed officials. This is the second installment of what will hopefully become a regular feature of the project. Read more about the project here.

Sen. Chuck Schumer: American corporations used to believe they "had a duty not just to their shareholders but to their workers, to their communities, and to their country"

When more than 80 percent of corporate profits are going to stock buybacks and dividends, something is really wrong in the state of corporate America and the state of our economy. It wasn't always this way. From the mid-20th century up until the seventies and even into the eighties, American corporations shared a belief that they had a duty not just to their shareholders but to their workers, to their communities, and to their country, which helped them grow and prosper, along with our schools, our roads, and everything else. That created an extremely prosperous America for corporate America but also for American workers in the broad middle of this country. But over the past several decades, workers' rights have been diminished, and corporate boardrooms have been obsessed, slavishly, to shareholder earnings. —Sen. Charles Schumer, Stock Buybacks, Senate Floor, February 4, 2019

Historians say...

Bottom Line: Most historians who responded agree that Senator Schumer is on solid ground, but their caveats and the statements of the historians who strongly disagree should not be ignored, especially if we want to use this history to help formulate policy. Scroll down for links to the historians' full responses.

Senator Chuck Schumer delivered the above statement while discussing the Republican tax cuts; he charged that corporations are not using their tax savings to create jobs or pay higher wages, but are instead buying up their own shares. This can drive up stock prices by creating scarcity, and shareholders naturally love it. But the GOP's tax cuts were granted, we were told, to create jobs, not merely to further enrich investors.

Schumer proposes legislation to force corporations to do good—investing “in workers and communities first”—before they can buy their own stock. And to set the stage for his proposal, he points to a past in which American corporations had a heart. Maybe that history makes his idea seem not so radical. Or it raises hopes that maybe we don’t have to be in constant battle with corporate America. That maybe our expectations for more socially responsible corporations aren’t so unreasonable. Or perhaps even that the CEOs want to do the right thing but have to be legislated into it.

Regardless of why Schumer decided this piece of business history was a “useful past,” most of the historians who answered our request for input thought Schumer was on solid ground. However, we should not overlook their caveats or the dissents of historians who disagreed with Schumer’s view of history; these are perhaps more deserving of policymakers’ attention, if they really want to learn from the past.


Several historians responded by mentioning the stakeholder model that captured at least the imaginations, if not the actions, of many mid-twentieth century executives: “Two competing models of corporate ownership through stocks were evident in the twentieth century: shareholder and stakeholder. The former model asserts that the leaders of corporations must make decisions based solely on the best interests of people who actually own stocks, while the latter maintains that other interested parties like workers and their communities have an interest in corporate actions equal to those of shareholders” (Jason Russell). “Earlier in the twentieth century, some management scholars such as Peter Drucker argued that corporations had different stakeholders, including the community, employees, and consumers” (Gavin Benke). “They've always cared about the bottom line, but back then felt compelled to consider the needs of multiple ‘stakeholders’” (David B. Sicilia).

This was, of course easier to do when the economy was booming. The strength of unions was also a factor—they were relatively harder to ignore (Jonathan Bean)—and higher taxes made large investments in infrastructure possible (Rosemary Feurer). All this started to change at least by the 1970s (Benjamin Waterhouse, and Jason Russell pegs it to the 1960s). And with this change came a large-scale shift in thinking.

Milton Friedman argued in the New York Times in 1970 that a corporation’s sole responsibility is to “increase its profits,” giving permission and intellectual heft to executives who, in the midst of globalization and declining profits, wished to focus on shareholders rather than stakeholders. Friedman was objecting “to a very real sense, both within and beyond business leadership circles, that corporations had a clear social responsibility” (Benjamin Waterhouse), but Friedman did not limit his thinking to profits and business culture: “He argued that ‘the cloak of social responsibility ... does clearly harm the foundations of a free society’” (David Hochfelder). And even further, he accused executives who took up social responsibility of “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism” and being “unwitting puppets” of the collectivist left.

Schumer may be on solid ground, but if we pay close attention to these historians’ caveats and to the historians who think he is dreaming of a “golden age” (Jonathan Bean), we might ask whether the CEOs who preached social responsibility were leading the charge or merely reflecting what the public expected and what legislation demanded. “Corporations thought in wider terms about stakeholders because regulations compelled them to do so” (Jason Russell). And insofar as some corporations “may have felt a sense of civic duty” and others contributed to the public good, “they did so to comply with the much more progressive tax code at the time” (David B. Sicilia). Schumer is right to offer legislation at the same time he speaks of a now-distant past when corporations did the right thing, but his case would be stronger if he made note of how corporate virtue had to be cajoled by legislation.

Schumer also leaves out a key aspect of the history of corporate responsibility, one that most of the historians here take up. Corporations had to contend with strong unions. This helped reinforce stakeholder responsibility when the morality of CEOs failed. The demise of unions was no accident, and it was not coincidental to the demise of corporate responsibility. While even the historians who agree with Schumer mention unions, the historians who disagree move unions to the center of the discussion.

Specifically, the rise of so-called right-to-work states lured corporations to the south and the sunbelt, where their stakeholder responsibilities were far less (Jonathan Bean). Rosemary Feurer has questions about this: “Ask textile communities in the North how much corporations cared about the devastating effect of relocating. Ask African-Americans in Detroit how many of their jobs, newly won, were lost to corporate decisions of automakers to relocate jobs to the South.” She also has questions for Schumer, questions that could be turned into policy, if we are serious about returning to a time when corporation responsibility received at least lip service: “And ask Schumer what the Democratic Party did to stop this in this time. Instead, the party at the time sought to grow the economy without any intervention in this dynamic, despite the attempt of unions to gain some control over these relocations.”

In the past, corporate responsibility had much to do with Congress building strong guardrails. But it did not involve Congress alone. It was not merely big government legislating big business. It was also citizens and groups like unions that forced the issue. Schumer’s job will likely be easier if his attempt to blunt the harder edges of capitalism and a return to stakeholder values also protects these groups of citizens, the actual stakeholders themselves.

Browse and download citations recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.

Jonathan Bean, Professor of Business History, Southern Illinois University

Rating: 1.5

This is the myth of a golden age of "corporate liberalism." While it is true that during that time period (circa 1945-1970s), CEOs were more likely to espouse a belief in "stakeholders" (beyond shareholders), it was mostly public relations. Read more...

Gavin Benke, Boston University, author of Risk and Ruin: Enron and the Culture of American Capitalism

Rating: 3.5

Earlier in the twentieth century, some management scholars such as Peter Drucker argued that corporations had different stakeholders, including the community, employees, and consumers. However, it would be wrong to look back on the mid-twentieth century as period without discord in American business.  Read more...

Rosemary Feurer, History Department, Northern Illinois University. Coauthor, with Chad Pearson, Against Labor: How US Employers Organized to Defeat Unions

Rating: 1.7

The main explanation Schumer gives for the postwar period is a myth. He seems to suggest that there was less concern for profits in this period, that CEOs cared more about their workers and community. He makes it seem a moral or personal decision, rather than acknowledging the key factor—unionization tamed some of the rapaciousness of capitalism in this period and created a middle class. Read more...

David Hochfelder, Associate Professor, University at Albany, SUNY, author of The Telegraph in America, 1832-1920

Rating: 3.9

Schumer’s statement is more or less true. Corporations often felt some obligation to their workforces and communities from the late 19th to late 20th centuries. Electric utilities had employee and customer stock ownership plans. Industrial firms provided health clinics, built parks and schools, financed mortgages for workers, etc. Read more...

Jason Russell, PhD, Empire State College—SUNY, suthor of Making Managers in Canada, 1945–1995: Companies, Community Colleges, and Universities (Routledge, 2018)

Rating: 4.8

One important point is that corporations thought in wider terms about stakeholders because regulations compelled them to do so. For example, laws like the Glass-Steagall Act, the Wagner Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act established certain parameters for corporations. Read more...

David B. Sicilia, Henry Kaufman Chair of Financial History and Associate Professor, University of Maryland, College Park. Coauthor or coeditor of six books on business and economic history, including Constructing Corporate America: History Politics, Culture

Rating: 3.6

Sen. Schumer’s comment captures the spirit of an important transformation in the second half of the 20th century but should not be taken too literally. His statement centers on a claim about motive (“a shared belief that they had a duty”) that is difficult to prove. But corporate behavior, especially toward workers and communities, certainly changed when and how Sen. Schumer suggests. Read more...

Benjamin C. Waterhouse, Associate Professor of History, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, author of Lobbying America: The Politics of Business from Nixon to NAFTA (2014) and Land of Enterprise: A Business History of the United States (2017)

Rating: 4.6

Broadly speaking, Schumer’s claim reflects the way business historians summarize changes in attitude among corporate managers and leaders. Naturally, it is impossible to say precisely what “corporate leaders” believed at any point, because that group is large and reflects many different opinions. Read more...

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
Showing the Data: The Political Uses of the Past Browser The Political Uses of the Past Project collects statements by federal elected and appointed officials, and has long had a goal of making the collection accessible. The table below is a first step.

Each row represents a statement that makes use of the past. The table can be filtered, searched, and sorted. Clicking on a row will show the entire statement in a box underneath the table. The table was originally going to stand alone, but I wanted to provide some sort of visual overview, and that led me to create the tag plot. This feature provides a window into the collection, and any subset of the collection that users create through searching and sorting. (more below…)

A wider version of the table can be viewed here.

The plot shows tags for all the statements in the filtered set. Larger type and a higher position reflects frequency (please note that the y axis is set to a log-10 scale to make the lower half of the plot easier to read). Color and left-right position show whether the tag appears more often with one party or another.

The x axis is based on a simple index. A value of -1 means the tag only appears in statements by Democrats (in the filtered set), and a value of 1 means the tag only appears with Republican statements. A value of zero means it’s an even split. Please note that I included both independents in Congress with the Democrats because they caucus with them (and this shortcut saved me many headaches).

To take an example, the following plot showed up on April 28, 2019 after filtering the statement tags on "voting" (on April 28, 2019). Most of the statements come from the debate on HR 1, the Democrats' We the People Act.

When Democrats make historical references while discussing voting, they referenced Lincoln, racism, slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr. Several Republican statements in this dataset reference an alleged historic primacy of states in the election process. Others referenced the Soviet Union. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), for example, insisted that the We the People Act would "Stalinize" American elections. Both parties made reference to the founders in about equal measure.

The Political Uses of the Past Project is collecting these statements to discover patterns and develop insights into how views of the past shape policy. With this searchable table, anyone can do the same. But I had some other uses in mind as well.

  • Historians interested in correcting the record can search the data for statements in their area of expertise. This project is undertaking some fact-checking of these statements (examples here and here), but will never keep up with the volume.
  • Anyone writing on current policy or politics can use the statements to find quotes and ideas on how the past is shaping contemporary debates.
  • Teachers of history, civics, or political science can mine this list for inspiration or source material, or they can point their students to this browser for ideas or assignments.
  • Anyone who is tired of hearing how the study of history doesn’t matter can send those detractors here!

Of course we'd love to hear about any applications of this table or its data; plase contact the project here if you've found it useful (or if you notice any bugs). There is more information about the data and search tools on the browser's dedicated page, here. All suggestions and feedback welcome!

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0
Senator Grassley says the New Deal "didn't work"; historians have other ideas The Political Uses of the Past Project collects statements by elected and appointed officials and sends a select few of those out to historians for comment. Additional checks and more about the effort can be found on the project's home page

Sen. Charles Grassley: "The New Deal in the 1930s didn't work. It didn't get us out of the Great Depression"

I would like to make a point about the so-called Green New Deal. It is very obvious it is a reference to Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s. The implication is that what the New Deal did for the Depression should be a model for the environment. There is just one great big problem: The New Deal in the 1930s didn't work. It didn't get us out of the Great Depression. The Depression didn't end until we entered World War II. Just like the original, the Green New Deal sounds like really bold action, but it is really a jumble of half-cocked policies that will dampen economic growth and will hurt jobs.

—Sen. Charles Grassley, The Green New Deal, Senate Floor, March 5, 2019

Historians say...

Once the Democrats decided to reference FDR’s New Deal in their latest attempt to combat global warming, it was only a matter of time before their opponents resurfaced the charge that the wide-ranging response to the Great Depression didn’t work. As Robert S. McElvaine points out in The Great Depression: America, 1929-1941, the Great Depression has become akin to the Holy Grail among economists. The need to claim or disclaim the unprecedented set of policies that comprise the New Deal is similarly urgent among politicians for obvious reasons: If it worked, maybe we should think big about public programs. If it didn’t, maybe the government should stay far away from the economy.

Senator Grassley’s statement about the New Deal is stark and definitive. Quite simply, in his mind, it did not work. The historians who responded to our request for input disagreed strongly, as a glance at their ratings will show, but they were not hesitant to discuss how the New Deal occasionally fell short.

We received responses from six historians and ratings from four of them. Their full responses appear below the summary. We’ve also included below two additional comments from Senator Grassley regarding the New Deal in order to reveal more of his argument and his thinking.

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Steel Industry by Howard Cook, fresco, 1936, Pittsburgh US Post Office and Courthouse


There’s a history to this history. The New Deal has long been a battleground and the source of broad, ahistorical thinking. Robert McElvaine quotes Senator Mitch McConnell in 2009, who held forth on how he was “reading history” and learning that “for sure” the “big spending programs” of the 1930s “did not work.” Eric Rauchway details the history of the debate in “New Deal Denialism,” published in 2010. The idea that the New Deal was a failure is one of the most pervasive and persistent historical beliefs on the political right.

But instead of arguing directly from the data or focusing on particular failures, many critics of the New Deal very strangely pivot to the assertion that the depression ended because of the war, not because of FDR’s economic, monetary, and social policies. In other words, massive government spending didn’t end the depression; it was really, really, really massive government spending that did it. This is baffling in its self-defeating logic. Several historians who responded took this up. Read more...

Robert F. Himmelberg, Professor of History, Emeritus, Fordham University

Senator Grassley wants to deflate the proponents of the “Green New Deal” who take advantage of the popular idea that the New Deal was a bold and effective counter to a grave national emergency. Both are generalizing too much, for the New deal was neither a complete failure or a roaring success.

The Senator is correct in saying heavy unemployment lingered until the war came, but neglects to note that GNP had returned to the 1929 level by early 1937.  Read more...

Anya Jabour, Regents Professor History, University of Montana, author of Sophonisba Breckinridge: Championing Women's Activism in Modern America (University of Illinois Press, 2019)

The problem with Senator Grassley’s comment is that his view is short-sighted. While it is admittedly difficult to credit the New Deal with “ending” the Great Depression, it is equally undeniable that the policies implemented then, in particular those legislated by the Social Security Act of 1935 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, profoundly reshaped the American economy and U.S. society by creating federally-funded programs to provide essential aid to the young, the elderly, and the disabled as well as by establishing groundbreaking workplace regulations, including a federal prohibition on child labor and a national minimum wage. Read more...

David M. Kennedy, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History Emeritus, Stanford University

Rating: 1.6 Three thoughts:

1. The FDR administration managed to knock the unemployment rate down from 25% in 1932 to about 14% in 1936—a pretty impressive counter-punch to the greatest economic shock in modern history.

2. Counter-cyclical policy was poorly understood in the 1930s; the New Deal faced the task of inventing policy tools to cope with what history still regards as an unprecedentedly huge “Black Swan,” the sources and dynamics of which were and still are something of a mystery. Read more...

Robert S. McElvaine, Professor of History, Millsaps College, author or editor of five books on the era of the Great Depression and New Deal

Rating: 0.9

This ... is a gross misreading of history. What the fact that the Depression did not end until World War II shows is the exact opposite of what McConnell and Grassley argue: It proved that big spending does work, but FDR was unwilling to spend enough, until forced to do so by the war, to stimulate the economy sufficiently to end the Depression. It wasn’t that the policies of the New Deal didn’t work; it was that they were not taken far enough. New Deal policies did not dampen economic growth or hurt jobs. Trickle-down economics does that. Read more...

Kathryn Olmsted, University of California, Davis, author of Right Out of California: The 1930s and the Big Business Roots of Modern Conservatism

Rating: 0.3 The economic growth rates during the New Deal were phenomenal: about 9 percent a year, with the one exception of 1937. The reason 1937 is an exception is that Roosevelt cut back on spending that year. In other words, the recession of 1937 proved that the New Deal policies worked, and the president quickly returned to them. It’s true that unemployment rates did not return to pre-Depression levels until the war. But that’s only because the economy had shrunk so much under President Hoover. Read more...

Eric Rauchway, Professor of History, University of California, Davis; author of Winter War: Hoover, Rosevelt, and the First Clash over the New Deal (Basic Books, 2018)

Rating: 0.1

This statement combines one near-truth (while there’s no official way of marking an end to the Depression, unemployment did not return to pre-1929 lows until the U.S. entered World War II) with a number of major untruths.

The New Deal did work; economic recovery was rapid and effective by the measures we ordinarily use. During Franklin Roosevelt’s first two terms in office (excluding the recession of 1937-1938) GDP growth averaged around 8 or 9 percent per year, rates that are (the economist Christina Romer says) “spectacular, even for an economy pulling out of a severe depression.”  Read more...

Fri, 19 Apr 2024 23:05:58 +0000 0