Obama Flunks History

Or at least he did in his speech in Iowa today, when he commented on the Republican convention:

“What they offered over those three days was more often than  not an agenda that was better-suited for the last century,”  Obama said. “We might as well have watched it on a  black-and-white TV.”

Wrong.  The last century was the 20th, when every Western democracy except ours instituted universal health coverage, and recognized that completely unregulated markets produce economic chaos and misery.  The 20th century also saw the flowering of civil rights and womens rights.

No — what the Republicans want on economics is the century before last, the 19th, when Social Darwinism flourished.  And what they want on social issues is the 17th, when theocracy was the order of the day.

As Mark has noted, the current GOP is a coalition between those who want to repeal the New Deal and those who want to repeal the Enlightenment.  Both impulses seek to send this country back a long, long way.


Author: Jonathan Zasloff

Jonathan Zasloff teaches Torts, Land Use, Environmental Law, Comparative Urban Planning Law, Legal History, and Public Policy Clinic - Land Use, the Environment and Local Government. He grew up and still lives in the San Fernando Valley, about which he remains immensely proud (to the mystification of his friends and colleagues). After graduating from Yale Law School, and while clerking for a federal appeals court judge in Boston, he decided to return to Los Angeles shortly after the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, reasoning that he would gladly risk tremors in order to avoid the average New England wind chill temperature of negative 55 degrees. Professor Zasloff has a keen interest in world politics; he holds a PhD in the history of American foreign policy from Harvard and an M.Phil. in International Relations from Cambridge University. Much of his recent work concerns the influence of lawyers and legalism in US external relations, and has published articles on these subjects in the New York University Law Review and the Yale Law Journal. More generally, his recent interests focus on the response of public institutions to social problems, and the role of ideology in framing policy responses. Professor Zasloff has long been active in state and local politics and policy. He recently co-authored an article discussing the relationship of Proposition 13 (California's landmark tax limitation initiative) and school finance reform, and served for several years as a senior policy advisor to the Speaker of California Assembly. His practice background reflects these interests: for two years, he represented welfare recipients attempting to obtain child care benefits and microbusinesses in low income areas. He then practiced for two more years at one of Los Angeles' leading public interest environmental and land use firms, challenging poorly planned development and working to expand the network of the city's urban park system. He currently serves as a member of the boards of the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy (a state agency charged with purchasing and protecting open space), the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice (the leading legal service firm for low-income clients in east Los Angeles), and Friends of Israel's Environment. Professor Zasloff's other major activity consists in explaining the Triangle Offense to his very patient wife, Kathy.

6 thoughts on “Obama Flunks History”

  1. “Obama Flunks History”

    Yeah, that was stupid of the President. If he keeps this up he will lose the entire history professor vote and get stuck only with the white working class people who don’t know their epochs.

  2. Jonathan Zasloff is a bit unfair to the 19th and 17th centuries.

    The modern Republican Party is far more Social Darwinist than the elite consensus of the late 19th century. Remember, somebody had to be enacting all the social welfare laws that the Lochner-era Supreme Court struck down. (And the Lochner-era court upheld a fair number of them, too.) There was lots of governmental economic experimentation: infrastructure, tariffs, universities, and the like. (Although come to think of it, the South didn’t like the tariff. much.) There were even some redistributive policies, although the Feds didn’t do much along that line (except vet pensions) until the New Deal.

    And 17th century theocracy was leavened by humanism. Indeed, I’d say that Jonathan’s basic premise is wrong here. The Republicans are very up-to-date on social issues. They are emulating the cutting-edge of contemporary social change: the Taliban.

  3. As to rolling back the Enlightenment: a sharp friend of mine, who was raised in a very conservative, wealthy household (in which Bush the Elder was derogated as a liberal wimp), clued me into this as being a central, unspoken tenet of modern American conservatism. I think the largely thoughtless, authoritarian conservatism of our country, rooted in the early 20th century, is less an understandable response to ever-quickening change than textbook example of how social and cultural evolution increasingly outpace certain behavior patterns and belief systems, particularly those existentially tied to pre-industrial tribalism. Obviously this would have a lot to do with elevated fear of the unknown, a key component of group survival until relatively recently. Whitman and Nietzsche both offered a peek into how this new paradigm would work, where stepping off the edge becomes the norm, feared and embraced at the same time. I honestly do not think we’re witnessing a clash between two different but equitably compelling belief systems; as the latest and greatest iteration of world empire (with all this implies) the U.S. has by default assumed placement as proving ground for the grinding inevitability of evolution, in this case the social and cultural evolution necessitated by our complete domination and control of the basic processes of the planet. Homo sapiens v. homo sapiens sapiens, if you will, or, perhaps better, homo sapiens sapiens v. homo sapiens humilitas. So it makes sense that a people tied to and ontologically dependent on archaic guiding principles and belief systems would be driven to completely erase this threat to their survival – the openness to and embracement of the infinite, and infinite possibility.

  4. I’m not so sure. Is not enlightenment widely seen as the ultimate manifestation of the concept of free will and the self-made man, through reason arriving as the sole controller of his own fate? Within an environment of limited government that confines itself to the rule of law and leaves markets alone, the classical liberal interpretation sees the enlightened man as achieving his greatest potential.

    I’ve heard more than one conservative praise the notion of Social Darwinism. I highly doubt these folks had spent much time considering the term. But the instinct to embrace a concept is telling. Some may quietly embrace a cryptic racialism, or a sense that successful people have better genes. But embrace of meritocracy is also widely valued. And it trades in similar assumptions. The more generous conservative avoids biological explanations. He instead embraces an immaterial, unexplainable – almost magical – notion of “initiative”, that arises not from prior structural development (either genetic or social), but rather believing such a thing to be entirely the product of the universal capacity for enlightened man to create his own destiny, available to him at any second were he only to “choose” it.

    The fact is that there is zero evidence for any such capacity in man; all evidence points to initiative being the sole product of structural development, and thus forces apart from one’s control. However, due to this fact being both uncomfortable and seemingly counter-intuitive, we tend to cling to the notion of ourselves as free agents. Nowhere more so than in the current republican slogan, “We Built It”. While purposely taken out of context, as a response to a Democratic president’s emphasis on structural development as opposed to personal initiative, the slogan powerfully illustrates underlying intuitions about popular conception of agency, and the ramifications for social and economic justice.

    While most Democrats likely also embrace the myth of personal initiative, they intuitively understand how important a role larger determinative factors are in its development. In many ways, the Republican and Democratic parties represent the interests of the haves vs. the interests of the have-nots, respectively. Whether by race, gender, ethnicity, family education, wealth, or sexual identity, one party emphasizes the import of structural egalitarianism. The other denies that structure (genes or socialization) have much to do with one’s agency; failure and success are the result of a personal initiative located apart from any constraints. To the extent that the Republican party views initiative as constrained by social institutions, the constraint is merely due to there being a sub-optimal choice on offer that crowds out that which is correct. At no point, however, is the correct choice not on offer. In the end, the individual could *always* have avoided the sub-optimal choice. Again, this assumption rests on the notion of an immaterial, unexplainable source of agency for which there is zero evidence, as opposed to the endless supply of evidence for agency as solely determined by structural sources.

  5. Parts of the 20th century saw progress, but other parts really kinda didn’t. It probably depends on when you consider that the black-and-white television was invented.

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