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markk

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Three history books shaping my understanding of the presidential election

One of the things that I haven't shared openly on Booklikes until now (though perhaps some have deduced from my posts) is that I am an intensely political person. For me it takes the space in my like that others spend on watching sports or following celebrities or some other diversion over which they have virtually no influence but a passionate interest.If this isn't your thing then you can probably skip the next few paragraphs, but if you share some of my interest then feel free to read on.

 

This year's presidential election has been an especially interesting one, and unique in many respects. But in others I think it embodies a lot of traditional elements and represents in various ways trends that have been taking place for decades. I don't claim to understand them all, or even to have knowledge about them, but as I've watched the election unfold I keep thinking about how it relates to American political history, both in terms of how it embodies it and how it might be viewed in years to come. With that in mind, and with a desire to share something of what I have read with anyone who might be interested in reading something that might help them themselves, here are three books which I have been drawing upon lately to understand better what is going on today.

 

The first is Charles Calhoun's From Bloody Shirt to Full Dinner Pail. This is about what I would argue is both the most understudied period of our nation;s history -- the post-Civil War 19th century -- and also the one that politically offers the closest parallels to us today. At that time there was a practically even division in the size of the parties nationally, with one party usually in control of the White House and the Senate, and the other generally dominant in the House of Representatives. The electoral map in residential elections (with allowances for shifts in population was also similar, with one party dominant in the Northeast and Far West, the other in the South, and with the election decided by the results in a handful of swing states, most of which were located in the Midwest. That the parties that hold these positions today are the exact opposite of the ones back then (in a very different social and media environment, and over some very different issues) is in some respects irrelevant: what is fascinating and instructive to me is the dynamic itself, with hints as to how it might change in the future.

The second is Kari Frederickson's The Dixiecrat Revolt and the End of the Solid South. This book better explains better than any other single work I have yet encountered as to how the South shifted from nearly a century of unswerving Democratic affiliation. Most Americans today probably don't know the name Isaac Woodard, but his beating in 1946 may very well be the most underappreciated act of violence in American history, as it moved Harry Truman to embrace the cause of civil rights -- a decision that led the segregationist deep South to abandon the Democratic Party in the subsequent presidential election for the first time since the 1840s, heralding a new era of greater electoral instability. Frederickson's book is an excellent history of this development, one that took decades to play out in full.

 

Yet to understand how this shift developed it helps to read William Rorabaugh's The Real Making of the President: Kennedy, Nixon, and the 1960 Presidential Election. In it, he demonstrates the difference between journalism and history, as he takes on the task of describing an event that spawned the seminal book about a presidential election, Theodore White's The Making of the President. In writing his account Rorabaugh had the benefit of two things that White did not: nearly a half-century of perspective and the numerous memoirs, studies, and documentary collections that were written and opened during that time. One of the things that Rorabaugh captures is the extent to which national politics was in flux at that moment, with both parties at crossroads in terms of their historical identities and electoral futures. Unsurprisingly, both sought to straddle the divide in their effort to win: what was significant was that among the lessons took from his defeat was that appealing to both civil rights supporters and their white opponents was impossible. Rorabaugh makes it clear that when Nixon ran eight years later (in a political environment very different form that of 1960) he make a decision the consequences of which are still with us today.

Having shared three of the political history books that are shaping my understanding of this year's election, I am curious: are there any that are shaping yours? If so, what are they?