Historian James T. Kloppenberg Writes Article About Teaching Pete ButtigiegHistorians in the News
tags: historians, Pete Buttigieg
James T. Kloppenberg, Charles Warren Professor of American History at Harvard, is author of Reading Obama: Dreams, Hope, and the American Political Tradition (Princeton) and Toward Democracy: The Struggle for Self-Rule in European and American Thought (Oxford).
In 1972, I cast my first ballot in a presidential election, with pride and conviction, for George McGovern. To me and to many of his enthusiastic young supporters, McGovern embodied the once-vibrant progressive farm-labor tradition of the upper Midwest. His embrace of ideas championed by Eugene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy four years earlier, his opposition to the war in Vietnam, and his support of proposals such as a guaranteed annual income and a dramatic increase in the estate tax endeared him to many student radicals—at least those who had not abandoned mainstream politics for other alternatives. McGovern of course was buried by Richard Nixon in one of the biggest landslides in U.S. history, winning less than 38 percent of the popular vote and losing the Electoral College 520 to 17. The bumper stickers that appeared when the Watergate scandal broke—“Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts”—provided comic relief at a moment when American democracy seemed to many on the left mired in muck.
Like many members of my generation, I have been unable to forget the lesson I learned in 1972. In the eleven subsequent presidential elections, I have worried that no candidate I could support with pride and conviction could be elected to national office. I was anxious that even Barack Obama, whom many of us left-leaning Democrats admired for his character and his intelligence as much as for his political skills, might have trouble balancing his commitments to deliberation and compromise with the steps required to advance the core ideals of American democracy, autonomy, and equality. The same fears plague me now.
The contest for this year’s Democratic Party presidential nomination began promisingly enough. A raft of able and experienced candidates, including Obama’s vice president Joe Biden and U.S. senators Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders, offered the prospect of a lively and unpredictable race for the nomination. Like many overeducated people toward the left end of the political spectrum, I consider Elizabeth Warren, from my own state of Massachusetts, one of the strongest candidates in my lifetime. My enthusiasm for her, predictably, makes me uneasy. Following the disaster of 2016, the Democratic Party came into this electoral cycle with a battle-tested first team and a deep bench of veterans. Surely one of them would emerge to unite the party and counter the forces that propelled the least qualified and most dishonest candidate in American history into the White House.
But it hasn’t happened. Instead the race has remained inchoate. Even the New York Times editorial board couldn’t decide: it endorsed both the more progressive Warren and the more moderate Klobuchar, an option that will not be available to any voters. Granted, American democracy is a mess. Sophisticated gerrymandering, a 24/7 news cycle in which echo chambers and confirmation bias undercut the very idea of nonpartisan fact-finding, the declining engagement of an increasingly cynical and poorly informed electorate, and the infusion of enormous amounts of invisible money into public life all endanger the lifeblood of popular government, the integrity of our electoral politics. The president’s likely acquittal in his impeachment trial, despite overwhelming evidence demonstrating his corruption and obstruction of justice, shows how low the Republican Party has sunk into the swamp of hyper-partisanship.
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