Modern History

I keep saying I’m a Historian but nobody seems to believe me. I suppose that’s fair enough, it’s a profession in which like writing and journalism your credibility depends on your work product and entertainment value, and while I may assure you my discussions of court intrigue during the Second Intermediate Period at Abydos are fascinating and controversial I have no realistic expectation you would greet it with anything except a huge yawn.

But I do read Histories and articles about Historians and Eric Foner is a pretty big deal.

Eric Foner is an American historian. He writes extensively on American political history, the history of freedom, the early history of the Republican Party, African American biography, Reconstruction, and historiography, and has been a member of the faculty at the Columbia University Department of History since 1982. Foner is a leading contemporary historian of the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, having published Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 in 1989 and more than 10 other books on the topic. His free online courses on “The Civil War and Reconstruction,” published in 2014, are available from Columbia University on ColumbiaX.

‘Trump Is Just Tearing Off the Mask’: An Interview with Eric Foner
By Richard Kreitner, The Nation
April 18, 2017

when the 1960s came along, it was impossible to figure out how the past that we had learned about had produced this. Since all our problems had been solved, what were people complaining about? It was a past without black people, without Native Americans. A much better past was created—a truer, more accurate, more honest past—by several generations of historians. For those who want social change, knowing how social change took place in the past is a very valuable thing. That doesn’t mean you just create a Hall of Fame of great leaders of the past—that guy was great, this woman was great. That’s not what I’m talking about. History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a “usable past”: 
a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.

It’s very easy to say, “Oh, Trump’s gone off the reservation.” But actually, this is part of the American political culture, past and present. Our politics has not always been like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, some high-minded discussion of important issues. Even those debates weren’t like that! We have seen the low road many a time. Go back to the Know-Nothings, George Wallace, Richard Nixon, the Southern strategy. This is an important strand of our political culture.

That’s a more frightening thought than calling Trump a lunatic and an aberration. He is the logical extension of the way the Republican Party has been operating since Barry Goldwater. This is how the Republican Party has gotten votes for 50 years—Trump is just tearing off the mask. Now he just says right out the racism that was only barely hidden for so long. An accurate history would show that it’s always been there. We shouldn’t just talk about how weird Trump is.

Obama came into office at a very important historical moment. There was tremendous public support for him when he came in. The country was in a serious crisis—maybe not as serious as when Franklin Delano Roosevelt came in, but it was really serious. What did Obama do? He put the same guys back in that caused the problem in the first place. He passed a piddling little stimulus plan. He spent his whole first year fighting about health care and ended up with a plan that’s better than nothing, but considering what was possible with 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House…

My disappointment is that Obama didn’t seize the opportunity that was there. Now, maybe that’s just Obama. He’s a mainstream Democrat. We got the change that he wanted, which was minimal. But he campaigned on the promise of change with a capital C, with the backing of large numbers of people—whom he then demobilized. In November of 2008, he gave a press conference, and somebody asked where was the change? And he said something like, “I am the change.” Compare that with Eugene V. Debs, who said he wouldn’t lead his followers into the promised land even if he could, because if he could lead them in, someone else could lead them out.

So, yes, I am disappointed with Obama. It’s not the specific policies so much as his general approach to office, which I find too limited, given the circumstances in which he came in. After 2010, when the Republicans came into Congress, then his options became limited. But in the first two years he had a real opportunity, which he did not seize.

Obama reflects the fact that the civil-rights era has created a giant gap within the black community. There is a significant stratum, of which Obama is a part, that was able to take full advantage of the opening up of opportunities, and the people in this stratum have moved very far up in the universities, the corporations, and so on. On the other hand, there’s a vast and growing class of poor blacks that has suffered enormously since the financial crisis, even under Obama. Race is now even more complicated than ever by class, and the people who are being shot by police—some of them are middle-class, but a lot of them are poor black people, and they are suffering from all sorts of things in urban areas that Obama’s policies have not addressed at all. Indeed, here’s the irony: The economic policies that Obama pursued—free trade, bank bailouts, printing money to try to restart the economy—are devastating for black people. Deindustrialization—that’s where the solid black working class was, in factories that are disappearing. These have had serious impacts on black communities. That’s not why he’s pursuing them, but they’re corollaries of neoliberalism, which he supports—and it’s exacerbated the problem of race in America.

I don’t know what will happen with the impulse that Bernie reflected. But I think it’s a major step toward what radicals try to do, what The Nation tries to do, which is to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of neoliberalism. The financial crisis created a political and intellectual vacuum. Neoliberalism was destroyed. Though it lingers on like a zombie walking the earth, it has no intellectual legitimacy anymore. But what is to take its place? “Democratic socialism” is a fine phrase, but it doesn’t have a very worked-out substance at the moment. Nevertheless, getting people talking and thinking about alternatives is a tremendous thing, and Bernie accomplished that.

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