Emotional Politics and the Democratic Party: A Way Forward

A report prepared for Sally Boynton Brown, Executive Director, Idaho Democratic Party

Earlier today, I had the pleasure of speaking with Sally Boynton Brown, executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party and a candidate for DNC Chair. We had a productive conversation about potential applications of my research for the current political situation — using the charismatic strategies of the past to elect Democrats today. At the end of our chat, Boynton Brown encouraged me to publicize the report I wrote for her. Click here to read the report, and please share if you feel so moved.

My Reddit AMA for /r/AskHistorians

In which many people ask me questions about my book, and I answer them

Thanks to the moderators at /r/AskHistorians for letting me do an AMA for members of that vibrant community of history enthusiasts. I highly recommend other historians take advantage of this opportunity; the questions AskHistorians members asked about my book were among the most thoughtful and perceptive I’ve received. Click here to read their questions, and my responses.

At HippoReads: Emotional Politics Won the 2016 Election

In an op-ed, I argue that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders represent a throwback to the Age of Charisma.

At HippoReads, I’ve written an op-ed suggesting that the rallies held by Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders during the 2016 election cycle represent the resurgence of the sort of emotional politics that predominated during the Age of Charisma. Democrats, I argue, need to reclaim the politics of emotion the Left once embraced if they hope to win elections in the future. Click here to read the op-ed.

Update, February 6: This op-ed is now republished at History News Network! Click here to read it there.

Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Defense of Extremism

King believed extremism was a misnomer. He wasn’t the only one.

When I teach Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail in my U.S. survey course, we have a lot to talk about. There is the passage on the concept of the unjust law; the passage rejecting gradualism (“‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never'”); and the famous passage lacerating the white moderate that is making the rounds on Facebook today. However, I want to highlight another passage from the Letter, one of the most beautiful and true things King ever wrote.

Though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love? … Was not Amos an extremist for justice? … Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel? … Was not Martin Luther an extremist? … And John Bunyan? … And Abraham Lincoln? … And Thomas Jefferson? … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?

When I show students this passage, I follow it immediately with another quote:

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!

Those sentences, I tell my students, were uttered just a year after King wrote the Letter. Who said them? Students will often guess that it was King again, or Malcolm X, or Lyndon Johnson. They’re surprised when I tell them the answer: it was, of course, Barry Goldwater.

King and Goldwater, each in his own way, understood that America is a force for good only when it is a force for change.

Why did King and Goldwater, two very different political thinkers, voice the same discomfort with being labeled extremists, using nearly identical language? In the classroom, I let my students come up with their own answers. But here’s my explanation: King and Goldwater, each in his own way, understood that the charge of extremism is a tool of the status quo, designed to silence dissent. Each realized that to be American is to recognize that there is something deeply wrong with America, and to do one’s utmost to fix it. Each recognized that America is only a force for good only when it is a force for change. They can’t both have been right about what change was needed, but they were definitely both right that something needed to be done.

At The Junto: James Rush and the Invention of Personal Magnetism

In which I venture into the wilds of early America

At The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, I have a guest post on the part of my book that deals with early America: the medical doctor James Rush (son of Declaration of Independence signer Benjamin Rush) and his invention of the speaking style of personal magnetism. In the post, I address the professional divide between scholars of early America and modern America, and how it almost prevented me from discovering Rush’s influence on charisma. Click here to read the post. Thanks to Ben Park at The Junto for giving me this opportunity!

Defending the Humanities: A Response to Matthew Hughes

He says the public has good reason to criticize humanities scholars. I disagree.

At History News Network, Matthew Hughes, a graduate student in communications at Bob Jones University, has written a response to my essay on defending the humanities. I encourage you to read his argument. Here’s how I responded to him in the comments:

I’ve just now seen this, and want to welcome you to the discussion. I’m glad my post inspired such a thoughtful response. However, as you might guess, I disagree with some of what you’ve written here. Let me address a few points.

I’m not surprised you mention David McCullough at the beginning of your argument. McCullough is indeed a fine writer and a better storyteller than are most academic historians. However, the books of McCullough and his fellow popular historians virtually never contain original ideas or original knowledge; they borrow their arguments from the works of academicians and dress them up in enjoyable verbiage. An excellent example is The Bully Pulpit, the recent book on Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft by Doris Kearns Goodwin (2013). Goodwin, who actually holds a Ph.D. in international relations, tells a great story in that book, but if you find an argument in there that wasn’t borrowed directly from The Warrior and the Priest (1983) by University of Wisconsin professor John Milton Cooper, please let me know. I have no problem with popular historians who tell great stories and don’t make original arguments, but we need to recognize that their great stories would be impossible without academic historians making the original arguments for them to borrow. Get rid of historical research in the academy and there will be nothing for Goodwin and McCullough to write about, full stop.

Yes, it was possible in the revolutionary days for people to become important intellectuals in their leisure time — but there’s a very good reason for that. Washington and Jefferson were not, as you state, “doctors, lawyers, farmers, preachers, and businessmen.” They were plantation owners who had abundant leisure time because of the unfree and uncompensated labor of their slaves. They lived in a preindustrial economy that has disappeared in today’s society, not only because of the abolition of slavery, but because of the very system of industrial capitalism that has made the United States so successful. It is no longer possible to become an intellectual on your own time because there are no longer people around to do your work for free; to survive; you must labor yourself. Today, if we want to keep intellectuals in the business, we must remunerate them for being intellectuals; otherwise, they will be forced to do other things for money that will take up all their time and prevent them from functioning as intellectuals.

Finally, you mention anecdotal evidence that teachers who are too focused on research are likely to be poor teachers. While I agree that there are some teachers for whom that’s true, there are perhaps just as many who are poor teachers because they do too little research or none at all. For a good teacher, teaching and research operate symbiotically. I am a better teacher because I am research active; I can teach students how to write and how to think historically because I do those things on a daily basis. A bad teacher who is overly focused on research is not evidence that research is bad, any more than a bad teacher who does no research is evidence that teaching is bad. They are simply bad teachers.

Again, I’m grateful for this response and for your thoughts.

My Interview with John Fea at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

In which I admit to having had an ulterior motive when writing The Age of Charisma, but don’t say what it was

In late December, Messiah College history professor John Fea interviewed me about The Age of Charisma for his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Home. I’m grateful to John for the opportunity to speak about my book and my scholarship overall. Click here to read the interview.

At HNN: What’s Wrong with the Way We Defend the Humanities

We have misunderstood our critics. They in turn misunderstand us.

I’ve written an essay, published today at History News Network, about the problems with most defenses of the humanities. It’s not that our critics believe the humanities don’t matter, I argue; it’s that they think there’s no new knowledge to be created by modern humanities scholars. Convincing non-academics of the value of humanities professors requires convincing them of the value of research and writing. Thanks to Rick Shenkman for publishing this piece. Click here to read the essay.