One for the History Books

With only a week or so to go before the polls open in the U.S., I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who’s not tired of hearing about politics.

Indeed, the quadrennial American tradition of election fatigue seems especially pronounced this year, with a large number of voters having little enthusiasm for either party’s candidate.

As a historian, however, I’d like to point out that the election of 2016, regardless of its outcome, is going to be one for the history books. In fact, I’d say that it’s already been one for the history books.

Like many other people, I’ve watched all three presidential debates this year, and I have to say that I’ve been fascinated by the significant policy shifts I’ve seen within the two parties. Perhaps nowhere is this transformation more visible than in the area of foreign policy.

For much of the 20th century, it appeared that test of a good Republican was the level of his hostility toward Russia. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy embarked on a crusade to root out Soviet agents from both the U.S. government and the American entertainment industry. He was so enthusiastic in his pursuit of this end that his detractors coined a new word for referring to political witch hunts: McCarthyism.

Suspicion of Russia remained a feature of the Republican Party into more recent times as well. Even as late as the 2012 presidential elections, top Democrats, including President Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Kerry were deriding Republican candidate Mitt Romney for his concerns about Russia’s geopolitical influence, saying that Romney was obviously stuck back in the era of the Cold War.

This past scoffing is quite a contrast with Hillary Clinton’s recent assertions that her 2016 opponent, Donald Trump, is being illicitly aided in his presidential campaign by the Russian government, which allegedly intends to use him as a puppet ruler if he is elected.

When I teach my history classes, one of the themes I have my students examine is “turning points.” We look for historical shifts in public policy, cultural attitudes, and so on. I explain to them that these turning points are much easier for us to see in retrospect than they are for the people who experience them firsthand.

I also like to ask my students what they think future historians will say about our civilization. Will the topics we view as crucially important today end up being non-issues that don’t even make it into the textbooks of the future? Or will something that we don’t currently view as especially meaningful end up being, in retrospect, extremely significant?

I have a strong feeling that when future history textbooks are written, our politicians’ evolving attitudes toward Russia are going to fall into the latter category.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the attached photo has nothing to do with this topic, but I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to post it, and I think you’ll agree with me that it’s much more visually appealing than either of our presidential candidates.

 

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