AHA Roundtable: The Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012

Anthony Grafton, president of the AHA in 2011, wrote in his inaugural column in Perspectives on History that “Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed.”

In that spirit, with the firm belief that we best understand the present when we more fully comprehend the past, the AHA is continuing its series of Roundtables on the presidential debates of 2012. In these essays, historians discuss not only what they saw, but how we got to this point. With this broad understanding, we can begin to talk about what these debates say not only about the candidates, but about our political process and our goals as a society. We can begin a discussion based on “painstaking analysis of hard sources” that gives these debates lasting and broad meaning.

We encourage readers to watch this space after the next and last debate, and to visit our previous roundtables, here and here.

—Allen Mikaelian, Associate Editor

The Respondents:

“Mitt Romney’s repeated claims to ‘know’ can be evaluated historically from numerous directions. One can hear within them the struggles between Modernists and Fundamentalists of the early twentieth century who battled over what they knew when it came to God, the Bible, and evolution.”
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—Edward J. Blum, Associate Professor, San Diego State University

“One of the striking features of last night’s debate has actually been striking throughout the 2012 campaign and, for that matter, the last few presidential campaigns: the fetishization of the ‘undecided voter.’”
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—Robin Einhorn, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

“Nostalgia for an imagined golden age does not enhance a historian’s job performance. And yet election-year debates pull me off track and into a deep swamp of nostalgia.  Within minutes of a debate’s start, I am lost in yearning for a past era when candidates made their cases in substantive, cogent, and thorough ways.”
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—Patty Limerick, Professor of History, University of Colorado, Boulder

“The ‘j’ word, jobs, was the dominant term in the evening’s debate:  how best to encourage their growth and keep them at home.  But the more striking word, from the historian’s perspective, was ‘I.’”
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—Daniel Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Princeton University

“If you’re an American liberal, like I am, you have probably spent the past 30 or so years complaining that cultural issues—like abortion and same-sex marriage—have drowned out economic ones in our national political discourse. Republicans can’t win on the economy, the story goes, so they try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes by waging a culture war.  It’s time to lay that tale to rest.”
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—Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History and Education, New York University

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  1. Gregory Rosenthal

    This is a wonderful project of Perspectives on History. But I’ve got to say I am a bit disappointed that these roundtables have only responded to the debates organized by the private Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). That the CPD was founded in the late 1980s by the two major political parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, and still today is co-chaired by the former chair of the GOP and the former chair of the Democratic Party, is an important context for understanding these highly theatrical events. And as historians, we should always be aware of, and clear about, the historical contexts (and many loci of power, sometimes hidden) underpinning the events we are discussing, in this case the history of the two parties’ monopolization of the debate process, and the unregulated power of the private CPD.

    I advocate a change in the way these AHA roundtables are organized. Every CPD debate, including tonight’s (Oct. 22), has been “expanded” by Democracy Now! on their website. In an effort to include more voices from third party candidates, they have invited the other major candidates for president, such as the Green, Libertarian, Constitution, and Justice Party candidates, to respond in real time to the CPD debate moderator’s questions addressed to Mr. Romney and President Obama. I would be interested to read the next roundtable’s responses to this expanded debate, as well as, of course, to address some of the underlying historical issues and power behind the debate process itself and Democracy Now!’s attempted intervention in it.

    Also, Tuesday evening (Oct. 23) will be the first Free & Equal debate. Unlike the exclusionary CPD, this debate invited all six major presidential candidates (from the Democratic, Republican, Green, Libertarian, Constitution, and Justice parties), although two of the candidates have declined to participate (guess who). I would hope that the AHA would similarly organize a roundtable for this debate. Because to not do so would be to tacitly legitimize the CPD’s monopoly on the debate process.

    Again, thanks to the AHA and Perspectives on History for these roundtables. They are a great public service.