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.UPCATEGORY: Ed Kilgore’s New Donkey
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By Ed Kilgore
After absorbing a lot of Democratic gloom-and-doom about the midterms, I offered some silver lining at New York:
The 2022 midterms don’t look great for Democrats, who will try to buck history by hanging on to super-slim congressional majorities. Thanks to the particular lay of the land, Democrats have a decent chance of maintaining control of the Senate. But the House? Not so much: The two times since the New Deal when the president’s party won net House seats in a midterm (1998 and 2002), the president in question had sky-high job-approval ratings. Even if you believe Joe Biden’s plunge in popularity has been stemmed or even turned around a bit, he’s not going to have 60 percent-plus approval in November 2022 unless really crazy things happen. There’s just too much partisan polarization for that these days.
Thankfully for Democrats, even if they lose their congressional majorities next year, Biden himself won’t be an underdog for reelection in 2024. After all, the last two Democratic presidents were reelected after historically terrible midterms. Democrats lost 54 U.S. House seats in 1994 and 63 in 2010. Yes, they had bigger majorities going into those elections than Democrats have now. But they lost the national House popular vote by an identical 6.8 percent in both midterms, which is pretty bad, particularly since Democrats suffer from a voter-inefficiency problem in House elections (too many voters concentrated in too few districts).
It’s possible for a president’s party to lose a midterm so badly that bouncing back in the next cycle is all but impossible. Consider the man whose unique comeback accomplishment Donald Trump will be emulating if he runs in 2024, Grover Cleveland. The president Cleveland defeated in an 1892 rematch, Benjamin Harrison, was a Republican whose party lost an incredible 93 House seats in the 1890 midterms. This, mind you, was at a time when the House had only 332 members, which means the GOP lost over half their caucus in one cycle (an even worse percentage than in 1894, when Democrats lost a record 125 House seats during the midterm after Cleveland’s comeback triumph). In this era of polarization, nothing like that is going to happen to Democrats in 2022.
Looking more broadly at the power of incumbency, there have been 13 sitting presidents since World War II who were on the general election ballot. Nine of them won. The four losers all faced special circumstances. Gerald Ford had not previously been elected to anything more than the U.S. House; he ascended to the vice-presidency and then the presidency when disgraced predecessors resigned, and he pardoned the president who appointed him, the especially disgraced Richard Nixon. Jimmy Carter was caught up in a historical realignment that he had held off four years earlier by carrying his native South, which then resumed a massive Republican trend. George H.W. Bush suffered from a terrible economy but then also a party split (third-party candidate Ross Perot won a lot of previously Republican voters). And we all know about Donald J. Trump, who was impeached twice and seemed determined to offend swing voters.
In retrospect, what’s most remarkable is that Ford and Trump very nearly got reelected despite their handicaps, exhibiting not the weakness but the strength of incumbency. And it’s with that perspective that any early handicapping of a potential 2024 rematch should be considered. Trump benefited from incumbency in 2020, as will Biden in 2024. So the idea that the 45th president has some built-in advantage over the 46th — absent the renewed election coup so many of us fear — doesn’t make a lot of sense.