Blogging from the Center as an Historian During a Contested Campaign: Politically Anomalous and Academically Tenuous?
By Gil Troy
Mr. Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author, most recently, of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. His other books include: Hillary Rodham Clinton: Polarizing First Lady and Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s. He is a member of the advisory board of HNN.
Mr. Troy delivered the following remarks at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians on March 26, 2009 at a panel considering “The 2008 Election as History.” A video of this talk will be posted in the coming weeks on HNN.
I am faced with an odd dual mandate today. I have been asked to reflect on my experiences as a blogger during the 2008 campaign, and to analyze that elusive concept of centrism during a hotly contested presidential campaign. I am comfortable talking about centrism to this audience, having recently written a book about it. But speaking autobiographically, using the first person rather than the third person on an OAH panel, feels illicit, like reading literature at a chemists’ convention or, even worse, preaching the Bible to a convention of atheists.
I am also uncomfortable talking about blogging because in truth, I am not a very good blogger. I blog regularly for HNN the History News Network – and I would like to acknowledge the extraordinary contribution of the superhuman force behind HNN, Rick Shenkman, who has done so much to forge a sense of community among historians – in a profession, I regret to say, where that sense is often lacking. After years of posting my occasional op-eds and reviews, Rick asked me to blog regularly for the campaign, starting in January 2008. I did it at least weekly, usually twice a week, and daily for two weeks in an exhausting marathon building up to Election Day.
But, as I said, I am not a very good blogger. I am not a good blogger because I write more in the style of an oped than a blog – my posts averaged 600 to 800 words rather than the ideal 300 to 500 words; and my style is more formal and less personal more historical and less hysterical, more complex and less black-and-white, than most bloggers.
I am also not a good blogger because I don’t try to be a “good citizen of the blogosphere,” as one of my blogging friends calls it. I do little cross-posting, blog-rolling, or any other insider blogging rituals. Rather than aggressively marketing my blog, I invest in the writing – coming more from the “If you build it they will come” school – although, in truth, I wrote it, and I’m not sure how many readers actually came.
Finally, and perhaps most relevant for today’s discussion, I am not a good blogger because I chose not to be a verbal flame-thrower, I preferred to write historically and from the center. I did not consider it my mission in my writing as an historian for the History News Network to elect either Barack Obama or John McCain president. To the extent I wanted to push an angle, I wanted to encourage both candidates to move to the center, with the hope that whoever won would govern from the center. But my priority was to bring some historical perspective to the discussion, to try placing these fast-moving events in historical context. Moreover, I wanted to inject some complexity into the discussion, to take issues which reporters and politicians usually reduce to simplistic either-ors and make them multi-dimensional ands-and-buts. I think that is part of our mission as academics – to acknowledge the messiness of this world, to resist the urge toward polarization, partisanship, and simplification, without, of course, being obtuse. And if that makes me – and us – counter-cultural, it’s a status – and a mission – I proudly embrace.
As a blogger, I applied the rules I had imposed on myself over years of writing op-eds and giving radio and television interviews. I should note that my impressions of insta-history, and of academic pundits, were formed in the late 1980s, when I was just finishing my Ph.D. – and Communism was collapsing. Suddenly, the same “Sovietologists” and “Kremlinologists” (which I believe was a worse media moniker than “Presidential Historian”) who had spent years explaining to us on TV and in the press that the Soviet Union would never fall, were now, without acknowledging their errors, just as authoritatively explaining why it was so obvious that the Soviet Union fell. (our modern equivalent of course, is all the Jim Cramers and Larry Summers of the world who went just as quickly from singing the song of never-ending prosperity to describing this downturn prematurely as “the worst crisis since the Great Depression”). With these cautionary tales in mind, I have followed (or tried to follow) these basic rules:
For starters, no predicting. I cannot tell you how many times producers have called me saying they want “historical perspective” on something, then, with the cameras rolling, the anchors asked “so what’s going to happen next?” I have my set response: “It’s hard enough to predict the past I cannot begin to predict the future.” But it is quite dismaying how much of the modern news business has become about anticipating what’s next rather than providing the proverbial “first draft of history,” rendering our historical judgment irrelevant.
Second, no roving – and that has nothing to do with George W. Bush’s “brain|” Karl Rove. I am an American historian. My job when commenting in the public sphere as an historian is to stick to my area of expertise and not to fall into another common media trap of appearing to be an expert on whatever is hot at the moment.
Third, no rushing to judgment. We are historians. Our job is to be the brakes on the conventional wisdom even when it speeds ahead to make premature pronouncements. Our professional commitment to patience puts us in conflict with the dizzying immediacy of the blogging world – and the media.
I was on CTV – Canadian Television – when the Supreme Court released its decision in Bush v. Gore 2000. The CNN feed showed a reporter leafing through the pages of the decision, seeking the relevant passages. After this incomprehensible spectacle, the anchor in Toronto asked me in Montreal, “Well, Professor Troy, what’s your analysis of this decision?” What could I say? I said – with a straight face I’m proud to add – “sometimes, in the life of a democracy you have to keep silent and listen to the sounds of democracy in action – let’s take a minute and appreciate the silence – we don’t hear rumblings of tanks in the streets, staccato shots being fired in the air, rather we hear reporters reading the words of the Supreme Court trying to decipher and analyze them.”
More recently, I was in the distinct minority of historians who refused – one-third, half-way, two-thirds, even three-quarters of the way through George W. Bush’s term, to answer the question whether W was the worst American president ever. That’s a parlor game for journalists – we’re supposed to be the ones who slow things down, wait for administrations to end, assess the data — and then start quibbling, labeling and oversimplifying….
Fourth, keep it historical. In almost every blog posting I write, as in every media appearance I do, I try to inject some historical perspective, some context, some dimensionality to the discussion. I try to avoid the Beschlossization of historical commentary – reeling off a series of historical parallels using history as window dressing.
Instead I try (I confess I don’t always succeed) to link events, ideas, personalities to more enduring historical phenomena, conversations, figures. It’s the difference between analyzing the McCain-Obama debates by saying the age difference reminds you of the Mondale-Reagan debates in 1984, versus comparing what McCain, Reagan, Obama and Mondale were saying about government’s role in American life, about the causes of their respective economic challenges, about their governing philosophies, then placing these resonances in a broader historical conversation.
Now, here’s where the instant feedback of the blogosphere – and the smart, demanding-in-the-best-sort-of-way readers of HNN keep you honest. Toward the end of my two-week pre-election day blogathon, I succumbed to a case of blogger’s envy. I saw how short, snappy, contentious entries – and titles – generated all the traffic. I was also exhausted, from juggling teaching, grading, family, and other writing commitments. So after Barack Obama’s closing infomercial, I wrote more of a quick reaction piece than an historical analysis, titled: “Barack’s Infomerical: Too Cheesy for a Potential President?” One reader objected to my punting, and immediately threw down a penalty flag: “The piece is OK, unlike its title, but where is the history? the sociological analysis? This is Troy’s reaction. I have mine. I didn’t write mine up, because it wasn’t a whole lot better than yours! Neither is Troy’s. To make the grade and get on HNN, shouldn’t a piece have some WORK in it? So we can LEARN from it?”
Fifth, and finally, keep ‘em guessing – as to where I stand politically. I have always said that the best compliment I can get, at the end of a contemporary US history class – or when invited back by a TV producer — after having tackled major, controversial issues, is when I am asked: “Professor Troy, I’m confused, are you a liberal or a conservative?” I believe my job in the classroom – and as a blogging historian – a historiblogger? — is to avoid plunging into partisanship, and to stimulate debate rather than dictate thought or preach to the converted. I also think that partisan positions have become too rigid and frequently simplistic in this country, whereas our job as academics is to embrace the complexity of reality even at the cost of ideological consistency. I take as my standard, the words of New York’s former Mayor Ed Koch, who said, “if you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
In this spirit, I try to avoid what we could call the Zinn not Zen of History (Howard Zinn), marshalling the forces of history to prop up my own contemporary partisan position. Historians should use the public platforms we are privileged to be offered to give historical perspective rather than partisan screeds with some historical camouflage.
Our profession would benefit from a fuller discussion about the perils of insta-history, our dos and don’ts to follow when we are invited to appear in the media or blog as historians. As a lowly historian in the trenches, I am not aware of any OAH or AHA guidelines. (In preparation for this talk, I did search around. I found some relevant statements one could apply from the AHA Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct, and a fascinating set of guidelines on “The Rights and Responsibilities of Historians in Regard to Historical Films and Video” from 1992, but nothing else – and no one who knew of anything else).
More broadly, I think we would benefit from a more developed conversation about what we would call our fiduciary role if we were in the financial sector. (Ok, maybe this is not the time to hold up bankers as ethical role models…)
So many historians have spent so much time over the less few decades blurring the line between the personal, the political, and the professional. Nevertheless, it is worth asking what professional and yes specifically political constraints, if any, we impose on ourselves when we operate in our professional capacity as historians? (And let me emphasize that whatever restraints we consider should be self-imposed not dictated by Big Brother or Big Sister). I am well aware that I am in the minority here. Many of my colleagues disagree with my attempts to hover above the fray and champion the center.
In fact, my two most controversial posts during the campaign – one at the beginning, one at the end, illustrate this tension. Early on, I objected when the group “Historians for Obama” formed. I was not arguing against Obama or against individual historians supporting Obama as citizens. I did object to hijacking our collective credibility and giving any candidate our imprimatur as historians.
If we remember what we learned in graduate school about the 1896 campaign, and remember Robert Wiebe’s Search for Order,we will note that Mark Hanna’s masterstroke in organizing what we would now call interest groups and reference groups in favor of William McKinley, was a clever attempt to build on the emerging identity and shared expertise of professionals in service of a presidential candidate. I suggested that we be more cautious when we act as historians collectively, not frittering away our scholarly authority on divisive partisan issues and fleeting candidacies. Many respondents strongly disagreed, arguing that they were exercising their democratic rights and following the rules of the game that so many others followed.
Toward the end of the campaign, my most controversial post was: “A Partisan Myopia Test: Who is Willing to Denounce both Sarah Palin and Al Franken as Unqualified?” Few respondents objected to the doubts I cast on Governor Palin’s credentials. But, boy, were respondents steamed by my daring to suggest that Al Franken was unqualified to be a senator, that his brand of simplistic, punch-line driven, vulgar, polarizing political rhetoric harmed the American political system and was precisely the kind of approach we as intellectuals, as educators, as academics, should reject. Franken would be thrilled to know just how many Al aficionados there are among history Ph.Ds. I, for one, was disappointed by how difficult it was for Republicans to question Palin’s suitability and for Democrats to question Franken’s.
I say disappointed, but of course, not surprised. These days, in the historical profession and beyond, it is not easy being a moderate. Despite widespread grumbling that President George W. Bush was too headstrong and polarizing, both John McCain and Barack Obama were scorned this summer whenever they played to the center. Reporters mocked McCain’s “Macarena,” sliding right then left, along with Obama’s “policy pirouettes.”
More disturbing, we saw how the gravitational physics of American politics pulled candidates to the right or to the left – there were few institutional, ideological, or media forces pulling them to the center. In mid-June, when John McCain insisted on reading the Supreme Court’s Guantánamo decision before condemning it, conservative bloggers blasted his “tepid” response. In the all-too-familiar media echo chamber that reinforces the conventional wisdom, the New York Times reported the NRO’s verdict on McCain, to reinforce the pre-Palin narrative of the restive Republican conservatives. Now, maybe I’m a little off, but isn’t it a good thing to have a candidate who reads a Supreme Court decision before bashing it (or praising it)?
Similarly, Obama’s musings that by visiting Iraq, he might refine his position angered so many supporters he backpedaled quickly. You will recall that on the eve of his visit to Iraq, the simple suggestion that he needed to consult with U.S. commanders and do a “thorough assessment of the situation,” triggered such a firestorm that he hastily called a second press conference on July 3 in Fargo, ND, saying, “We’re going to try this again. Apparently I wasn’t clear enough this morning on my position with respect to the war in Iraq. Let me be as clear as I can be. I intend to end this war.” Once again, maybe it’s me, but on the eve of a trip to a war zone, isn’t it admirable to have a potential president willing to adjust his positions based on realities he encounters on the ground?
Watching the vacuum in the center, seeing how the moveon.org crowd pulled Obama left and the National Review-Rush Limbaugh types pulled McCain right, I sought metrics to assess moderation – and forces to encourage centrism. I invited student volunteers to develop a “moderometer” to gauge a candidate’s centrism both tactically and ideologically, charting particular positions and moves on a color coded spectrum between red and blue, with the elusive purple the desired spot in the middle.
More broadly, in my book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, I argued that our constant descent into partisanship is destructive. America needs muscular moderates—nimble and adaptable but anchored in core values. We need presidents who think first and bluster later, who adjust positions based on often messy facts. Running toward the center to lead from the center is the right thing to do and the shrewd political move to make, especially with the contest so close and the issues so serious. Neither McCain nor Obama was a Johnny-come-lately to centrism—moderation was central to their political identities. Both appealed to independents disgusted by the perpetual fights pitting Fox News cheerleaders against MoveOn.org critics. Like most Americans, both candidates understood that crises in finance, healthcare, energy, immigration, and national security require thoughtful analysis, not shrill attacks, complicated compromises, not partisan sloganeering.
Barack Obama first wowed Democrats as a lyrical centrist. The son of a white American and black African, celebrating a purple America, promised to heal the red-blue and black-white divides. In The Audacity of Hope, Obama crossed ideological wires, fusing the normally conservative critique of American cultural excess with liberals’ faith in government.
John McCain was even better known for legislative bridge-building. From leading the “Gang of 14,” breaking the logjam over judicial nominations, to spearheading the McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, McCain long was one of Washington’s most passionate moderates. That track record, plus his reputation as the Republican maverick, propelled his candidacy.
Historically, muscular moderates, not spineless centrists, inhabited the great American center. This moderation is rooted in principle, tempered by practicalities, anchored in nationalism, modified by civility. In the White House, it included George Washington’s reason, calling on Americans to rally around their “common cause,” Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, focusing on union, not abolition, to keep the border states in the Union, Theodore Roosevelt’s “bully, bully” romantic nationalism to inspire the people, Franklin Roosevelt’s visionary, experimental incrementalism to solve the Great Depression, and Harry Truman’s workmanlike bipartisanship in the face of the Cold War. On Capitol Hill, Henry Clay’s tradition of great compromising inspired the roll-up-your-sleeves horse-trading of Sens. Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose bipartisan “Gang of Seven” saved Social Security in 1983.
Presidents preside most effectively over this diverse country by singing a song of centrism rather than indulging in partisan sloganeering. Following the George W. Bush-Karl Rove 2004 strategy of using slim majorities to impose radical changes violates the implicit democratic contract between the leader and the people. Great presidents –and shrewd candidates — aim for the center, targeting the popular bull’s-eye, sometimes after repositioning it.
During the general presidential campaign, with the nominees wooing swing voters, not party warriors, this push to the center is frequently tonal and tactical. As nominees realize that selling simplistic solutions to complicated problems may shackle them when governing, many moderate their policy positions and philosophies, too. Alas, partisans yank their nominee left or right while journalists caricature policy refinements as pandering.
American citizens tired of the toxic red-blue bickering must push for the center. Finding energy alternatives, fighting terror, stabilizing Wall Street, and ensuring quality healthcare are national needs. Always seeing issues through Democratic or Republican prisms distorts reality. Some issues beg for bipartisanship.
Not all adjustments are betrayals. In accepting a different FISA domestic surveillance bill from the one he initially opposed, Obama was nuanced. By contrast, his turnaround from supporting public campaign financing to spurning it was dizzying. Similarly, many Republicans’ recognition that the Wall Street crisis required government intervention reflected maturity, not spinelessness.
The push for moderation is ultimately a push to reinvigorate American nationalism. This approach of minimizing clashes, of seeking the public good, depends on a vigorous, romantic faith in American nationalism. Nationalism is a dirty word among too many academics and too many liberals these days, tarred by the cruelty which aberrant forms of nationalism unleashed in the twentieth century. But nationalism has also fueled many modern miracles, with American’s liberal democratic experiment perhaps the greatest success story. Without appeals to the national conscience, without a strong sense of a national purpose, Americans might not have healed the sectional divide, settled the West won world wars, explored outer space, formed successful businesses or created the Internet. We need a creative leader to tap into that spirit of American nationalism at its best, and renew a sense of collective mission even as we retain our individual freedoms and prerogatives.
Moreover, in the last generation, we as historians have become so skilled at explaining America’s shortcomings, we have too often forgotten that our job is also to explain America’s many successes – without idealizing, but also without always criticizing.
By blogging through this election, by watching up close and occasionally plunging into the fray, I like to think that I sharpened my ability to interpret this election in the future, as they say, for the history books – without compromising my integrity (too much). For starters, I have a kind of writer’s diary; I have a log of my impressions as Hillary Clinton – remember her — sputtered then surged, of John McCain’s shifting identities, of Barack Obama’s remarkable discipline and charisma. When I get to researching this election, I will be able to compare more sharply what I thought was happening with what insiders saw and tried to accomplish. I can see how my appreciation for Obama’s skills grew, and also see how the economic tsunami that so few foresaw, roared through this campaign in remarkable ways.
Moreover, in blogging from the center during this campaign, in watching the remarkable rise of this young, talented, hope-generating politician, I as an historian, felt privileged to see America’s strengths not just weaknesses, to see a vision of American nationalism that was not narrow but broad, and to help –in my small, insignificant way – try shifting the conversation – in our profession and beyond – from focusing on the margins to celebrating the center, from an obsession with extremists to an appreciation for moderates, from too many attempts at polarization and partisanship to Barack Obama’s – and John McCain’s joint attempts – at their respective bests – to build a broad, inclusive, inspiring narrative, for a nation that badly needed it, as an initial step in emerging from the economic, diplomatic, social, cultural, and existential muck of the Bush-Clinton years.