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The Follies of Instant History: Another Meaningless Poll of Historians

Re: Robert S. McElvaine's, "HNN Poll: 61% of Historians Rate the Bush Presidency Worst" (4/1/08)

Here we go again. We are engaged in another exercise in instant history, in the form of a poll of opinion in which historians assume the role of soothsayers, predicting the future judgment of the profession on the Bush presidency. This is a follow-up poll to one from 2004 that Robert S. McElvaine reported on here on HNN in an August 2005 essay.

The current poll’s respondents (like those of the earlier poll) are acting as soothsayers because the history profession has not yet had the opportunity to engage the practices of valid historical scholarship. Valid historical scholarship requires us to do lots of things which require time, and especially, the passage of time. To make an historical assessment we need to engage the standard practices of scholarly research. It is these methodological disciplines which render historical judgments valid; it is not the “votes” of contemporary historical opinion. Even if every professional historian in the world placed Bush on exactly the same rung of the historical ladder, it would still be an empty exercise, because the processes of historical scholarship have not yet had an opportunity to be engaged here.

We justify this short-circuiting of the processes of historical research by calling such predictions “tentative” assessments. Which is pretty much like saying we are sending the prisoner in the dock to prison, “tentatively,” before we have the trial to decide whether or not he is actually guilty. A genuine tentative assessment occurs when the first researched monographs and journal papers begin to appear, and historians begin to form their initial assessments of the results of this research. That’s what a real tentative assessment looks like. The one we have here is something else entirely.

The historians responding to the poll (perhaps with a handful of exceptions) have not done any actual research on the Bush presidency. How then can they possibly offer an historical assessment? They can’t. But what they can do is offer their own political opinions, under the guise of historical judgments. And that’s the game here—on both sides of this tug-o-war.

Bush has famously claimed that the verdict of history will be in his favor and that future historians will vindicate him, even if contemporary historians view his presidency as a failure. Indeed, the invitation to this poll (revealingly) is prefaced with one such quotation from the President. One thinks to ask: why the rush to judgment here? Why are historians so keen to go on the record with such an early assessment of the Bush presidency?

The felt-need to do something urgently, is really the desire to strike a political blow (for or against) the Bush Administration on the part of those answering this survey. If we are honest with ourselves here, we would admit that this poll is an expression of the desire on the part of many of those answering it to repudiate President Bush’s own self-serving judgment that future historians will vindicate his presidency. Those down-ranking Bush want to say to him: “No we won’t!” But this striking of blows—for or against—is not historical scholarship. It is politics parading under false colors. When historians undertake to rebut the President’s politically-motivated claims about history with their own politically-motivated counter-claims, they drag the repute of the history profession down to his same level.

Just in case anyone wonders, I am not asserting the need for restraint here because I am a defender of the Bush Administration. In fact, I have one of those “count-down” calendars on my desk, marking with hopeful anticipation the remaining days in the Bush presidency. But I recognize this is an expression of my politics, not my professional judgment as an historian. Those historians responding to this survey (wherever they place the Bush presidency) are all expressing their politics, without having the candor to say so.

It is not that I am myself entirely an innocent when it comes to the dark arts of the soothsayer. Like most of us, I enjoy these wacky polls; they are a lot of fun, provided we see them as the parlor games they are and do not pretend they have much of anything to do with our professional judgments. If you asked me my personal opinion, over a beer in the pub, I would say that I too expect the judgment of history to stuff George W. Bush somewhere near the bottom of the pile. But I like to think that I can distinguish my boozy speculations from my professional judgments. 

But let’s be frank on one other point here: this poll and others like it are not being presented as a sociological survey of the political opinions of professional historians (in which role it might have some actual value). Rather, it is being crafted, presented, and is subsequently marketed, as the early verdict of history on the Bush presidency. This is indicated in all sorts of ways. For example, only professional historians may participate in the poll—which clearly suggests this poll is being represented as the professional judgment of the history profession. And that is how the news media report such polls, and it is how some of our colleagues use them as well.

If anyone wants to give the poll respondents the benefit of the doubt here, that temptation ought to have been erased by some of the responses that professor McElvaine included with his summary data from the 2004 poll, along with his own 13-point indictment of the Bush presidency. Among those rating Bush the worst president ever, we find these comments:

“Bush is horrendous; there is no comparison with previous presidents, most of whom have been bad.”

“He is blatantly a puppet for corporate interests, who care only about their own greed and have no sense of civic responsibility or community service. He lies, constantly and often, seemingly without control . . . He grandstands and mugs in a shameful manner, befitting a snake oil salesman, not a statesman. He does not think, process, or speak well, and is emotionally immature due to, among other things, his lack of recovery from substance abuse. . . .”

“George W. Bush's presidency is the pernicious enemy of American freedom, compassion, and community; of world peace; and of life itself as it has evolved for millennia on large sections of the planet. . . .”

Then there are the (many fewer, but just as revealing) comments that McElvaine reports from those who rated Bush positively. As McElvaine summarized their viewpoint:

Almost all of the historians who rate the Bush presidency a success are Reagan admirers. . . . “If one believes Bush is a ‘good’ president (or great),” one poll respondent noted, he or she “would necessarily also believe Reagan to be a pretty good president.” They also tend to despise Roosevelt. “There is no indication,” one historian said of Bush, “that he has advisors who are closet communist traitors as FDR had. Based on his record to date, history is likely to judge him as one of America’s greatest presidents, in the tradition of Washington and Lincoln.”

Then there are McElvaine’s own comments in summary:

That abuse of the patriotism and trust of the American people is even worse than everything else this president has done and that fact alone might be sufficient to explain the depth of the hostility with which so many historians view George W. Bush. Contrary to the conservative stereotype of academics as anti-American, the reasons that many historians cited for seeing the Bush presidency as a disaster revolve around their perception that he is undermining traditional American practices and values. As one patriotic historian put it, “I think his presidency has been the worst disaster to hit the United States and is bringing our beloved country to financial, economic, and social disaster.”

Some voters may judge such assessments to be wrong, but they are assessments informed by historical knowledge and the electorate ought to have them available to take into consideration during this election year.

All of these comments are perfectly legitimate political commentary, but they are not historical assessments. They are politics, pure and simple. (A poll which McElvaine hoped would be taken into account in the 2006 elections, and a new poll in the election year of 2008—can anyone seriously doubt this is, in large part, about politics?) Also, notice what sort of list McElvaine provided with his commentary on the 2004 poll. He listed 13 reasons why the Bush presidency should be rated as a failed presidency, and which he used to help him place this failure at the proper place in the list of failed presidencies. Where is the list of “pros” to go with this list of “cons?” Isn’t the presentation of both sides of the case the minimum that a real historical assessment requires? McElvaine was not providing an historical assessment (even a tentative one), he was making a case—which is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, but it is not historical scholarship, it is politics.

In his essay on the 2004 poll, McElvaine noted some of the objections I am making here—including the general notion that this kind of polling is premature, a notion which he simply dismisses. He also rebuffed the argument that the poll tells us more about the politics of the respondents than the subject of the poll, with this bit of reasoning: “. . . it seems clear that a similar survey taken during the presidency of Bush’s father would not have yielded results nearly as condemnatory. And, for all the distaste liberal historians had for Ronald Reagan, relatively few would have rated his administration as worse than that of Richard Nixon. Yet today 57 percent of all the historians who participated in the survey (and 70 percent of those who see the Bush presidency as a failure) . . . rate it as worse than the two presidencies in the past half century that liberals have most loved to hate, those of Nixon and Reagan.”

I am bound to say that this argument strikes me as little more than saying that it is okay to be biased against a current politician just so long as we have a relative measuring stick which we can use to show that we are relatively less biased against others. Might I also point out, that both Nixon and Reagan were no longer in office in 2004, and so our political passions have had time to cool regarding our disapproval of their politics, while our disapproval of Bush’s politics are still fresh and pressing concerns—which tends to impair our efforts at objective judgment.

Some may remember that I have beaten this particular tin drum before. Sean Wilentz and I exchanged words in these pages after the publication of his 2006 Rolling Stone essay in which he encouraged us to believe that the judgment of history is already in and that Bush is the worst president in American history. Indeed, Wilentz used the 2004 HNN poll as evidence of this thesis. As I wrote then:

One core methodological restraint on the folly of historians is the idea that there needs to be a significant passage of time before historians weigh in on a topic. There are lots of reasons for this. Lord Acton reminded us of one when he observed “The living do not give up their secrets with the candour of the dead.” Ranke was certainly expressing a fundamental principle of historical scholarship when he wrote, “I would surprise you if I asserted that archival study of periods slightly removed from our times has an advantage over a view of the present. But it allows us to recognize more completely and clearly the relationship of events than we can surrounded by contemporary passions and interests.”

. . . Wilentz reports on the Bush presidency by reviewing the flow of daily news stories and what we know about the surface view of current political events. What historians contribute to our understanding is a deeper, more thoughtful, more reflective view, from a longer perspective and a remove in time. Absent these attributes, we are not doing history, we are doing journalism or politics, wrapped in learned historical allusions and references to create a spurious scholarship effect.

It is not that I am just a crank about polls (the ones concerning long-past presidents—for whom we have actual historical scholarship—may be frivolous but they are usually not too tendentious). But I think larger themes are in play here. For some time now historians have been gradually moving away from the ideals of truth and objectivity in historical scholarship (convinced that these are mostly empty ideals—see Peter Novick’s classic, That Noble Dream).1 This tendency to conflate present politics with historical judgments is one of the core errors of the postmodern declension in our understanding of history. Although the raging debates over postmodernism have subsided somewhat, the passage of that contagion through our discipline has left what I call a postmodern residue in our philosophy of history.  

One of the philosophical errors of the postmodern residue is confusion about the nature of truth in history. Many historians have now implicitly adopted a Consensus Theory of truth, in which they conflate the opinion of historians with the researched and reasoned results of historical scholarship. Thus taking an instant poll of historians is seen as a legitimate form of historical judgment. But it is not.

Valid historical judgments are ensured by those very processes of historical research and scholarship that are being short-circuited here. These processes must be engaged before we have any valid justification to claim that the results are a professional assessment. We literally do not have any historical knowledge until we have engaged the procedures of archival research, publication, peer review, etc., that are the hallmarks of historical knowledge. We have lots of speculations, and guesses, and opinions, but no actual historical knowledge. At this point, what we have before us is basically the journalists’ view of the Bush presidency. But there is a reason we do not award the Bancroft Prize to Keith Olbermann. The “informed opinion” of the community of historians, in advance of actual historical research, is just a report on the political views of this community, not the findings of history.

As I suggested in my commentary on the Wilentz essay, in addition to the usual methodological earmarks of sound historical scholarship, we ought to also adopt the constraint of what I called The Principle of The Decent Interval. As I put it in that context:

One of the most venerable games in Washington is naming public buildings after one’s political heroes. But the game [used to have] a sensible restraint: public buildings cannot be named for living individuals. This is done in order to reduce the amount of politics in this process—not eliminate it entirely, but to reduce it to more seemly levels. The intuition is that with the passage of time the passions of present partisanship will cool somewhat, and something more like an objective assessment can be made of just who merits such an honor.

The history profession needs something like the rule regarding the naming of public buildings. It should be against the canons of professional practice for an historian to offer historical assessments of political figures who are still in office and who are still making policies in the areas about which the historian presumes to comment. There should be a decent interval between the time about which an historian is commenting, and that historian’s own present moment. Without such a decent interval, it is inevitable that the historian’s historical assessments will themselves become part of the political debate. . . .

Sean Wilentz, like any concerned citizen, has both a right and a duty to try to influence public policy in ways he thinks desirable. . . . But he cannot pretend that, qua historian, he is giving us a professional assessment of the presidency of George W. Bush, while that presidency is still in motion. . . . Wilentz can say—as a political liberal—that he disagrees with Bush policy in a number of areas, and he expects these policies to turn out badly. But he cannot play the coy game of pretending that this is the objective assessment of the history profession—no matter how many historians are polled in similar gestures of the same arrogance.

We need to adopt The Principle of The Decent Interval between the subjects of historical scholarship and the historians who presume to write about these subjects. Without such a principle, historians just become politicians in disguise.

We have gotten ourselves into such a state in this regard that most historians no longer even see any problem here—they no longer see a principled distinction to be made between our present politics and our historical judgments. Indeed, I suspect few of my colleagues see anything wrong with this kind of poll, and think I am out on some fringe somewhere with my concerns. And I fear I am. That is the real tragedy of it: this conflation of politics with historical scholarship is so commonplace that old-fashioned historians like me have become fringe characters by stint of our unwillingness to move along with the postmodern crowd.

Simply put: it is foolish to think that historians can offer an historical judgment on the Bush presidency (even a tentative one) while that presidency is still in motion. We cannot short-circuit the processes of historical research and scholarship and produce anything remotely related to valid historical judgments.


1 I argue this thesis in detail and at length in a manuscript nearing completion, Truth and Objectivity in History: In Defense of Declining Virtues.