Monday, February 27, 2006

Young-uns and Political History

Via Amy Sullivan in a Political Animal post, Washington Monthly founder Charlie Peters drifts into the treacherous waters of wondering why people under 35 don't see to know or care much about political history, viz. the (anecdotal) lack of young-folk interest in his book on Wendell Willkie, Five Days In Philadelphia.

Not surprisingly, the comment thread to that post is full of angry responses from people under 35 accusing Peters of old-guy-nostalgia, old-guy-arrogance and old-guy-overgeneralization, along with a few bitter comments about how young-uns are too busy fighting Bush and Rove to care anything about Wendell Willkie.

Not having read Peters' book myself, I won't comment on his hypothesis that Willkie's upset nomination in 1940 made internationalism safe for FDR, and hence for America. (My own impression from other sources is that Willkie, or "our fat friend," as Thomas Dewey liked to call him, may have been a proud internationalist before and especially after 1940, but ran a fairly isolationist general election campaign against Roosevelt.)

And I also won't associate with Peters' generationalizations (to coin a term) about the historical knowledge of people under 35 today as opposed to their predecessors. Hell, there are a million historical topics I know embarassingly little about, including the history of art and the history of science--two subjects on which my 19-year-old stepson could kick my ass on Jeopardy any old day.

But I will say this: I am continuously struck, from personal experience, at how many very highly educated and politically obsessive young Americans don't know seem to know that much about U.S. or international political history.

This is not an observation based on self-inflated Boomer Nostalgia for the Huge Events of my own lifetime, BTW.

In the throes of the 2000 presidential psychodrama, I wrote a piece for the DLC that in passing compared Ralph Nader to Henry Wallace. A very smart 30ish colleague, who used to teach American history, admitted to me that he had no clue about the identity of Henry Wallace. After I enlightened him about the vice president and Progressive Party leader, he got a little defensive and said: "You have to remember that was before my time." "Believe it or not, it was before my time, too!" I replied rather heatedly. "And you know what? Andrew Jackson was before my time. Don't you read?"

Knowing I was only half-serious, my colleague didn't deck me, but it did make me wonder, not for the first time, if there was something about my generation or his that made interest in political history so variable. The only common theory I've heard that makes sense is that today's politically active young adults have been told, or have experienced, that their world is radically discontinuous from much of the past--post-Cold-War, post-industrial, post-modern, and in a word, post-historical.

The topic in political history that seems to have suffered the largest drop-off in interest is Marxism, despite the crypto-Marxist views lingering in academia so often alleged by whiners on the Right. That obviously makes sense after 1989, and I should probably grow up about it and stop making obscure references to Communist figures in blog posts, like the one I did last night calling Katherine Harris the "Pasionaria of the Palms" (an obscure reference to La Pasionaria, a cult figure of the Spanish Civil War).

Not surprisingly, interest and perceived relevance go hand in hand in determining which of the vast avenues of political history one decides to explore, beyond the basics. For example, Rick Perlstein's fine book on the Goldwater Movement, Before the Storm, seems to have stimulated an enormous amount of interest among left-leaning young journalists and bloggers hungry to learn about the roots of their contemporary enemies on the Right. I expect a similar buzz to develop about Michael Kazin's new biography of William Jennings Bryan, A Godly Hero, among both neo-populists and those interested in a revivial of the Christian Left tradition.

And for all I know, interest in the Trotskyist backgrounds of so many contempory neo-conservatives may have led to a subterranean trend towards renewed study of Marxism among young lefties, who as we speak may be reading up on the murderous relationship between the Trots and Stalinists like La Pasionaria in the Spanish Republican coalition.

Assuming relevance really is the key, I have an answer to Charlie Peters' cri du coeur about declining knowledge of political history. Those of us who'd like to see the trend reversed need to make the case that our particular historical hobby-horses are immediately relevant. Peters obviously thinks that's true about Wendell Willkie, and he should keep making that case instead of fretting about why his audience doesn't automatically embrace it.

UPDATE: I got an email from a very smart and very young blogger friend who suggested that his sub-generation had been trained in school to pay more attention to world history and social history than to memorizing the names and views of dead U.S. politicians. That might well explain a lack of interest in Wendell Willkie, if not in, say, Frantz Fanon or the manifold social issues surrounding the Cold War, but it's a point well-taken. For the record, I was writing less about what people read in college than in what they've read since. I sure as hell didn't learn about Henry Wallace or La Pasionaria in any college class.
-- Posted at 12:20 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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