Cultural Life, Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

Two Cheers For Steve Levitsky

On Tuesday, February 19, students, professors, and community citizens filled the better part of the Stetson Room to hear Steven Levitsky. He is Professor of Government at Harvard University and coauthor with department colleague Daniel Ziblatt of the best seller, How Democracies Die (2018).  Levitsky’s presentation lived up the dramatic intensity of his book.  He provided a keen analysis of our present political weirdness: in the words of Stephen Stills, “somethin’ happenin’ here; what it is ain’t exactly clear” (Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” 1967, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp5JCrSXkJY).  Levitsky provided a lot of clarity.  

Levitsky is worried about the erosion of democracy. Having studied democracies around the world, in health and in decline, he sees erosion in American “democratic norms” (100). The central agent of democratic decline, he suggests, is the sharpening polarization of political views.

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

The American Dream After COVID-19

This piece is featured in the August 2020 edition of ORIGINS: Current Events in Historical Perspective, and can be read in its original format here.

The COVID crisis is prodding a rethink of the American Dream—but actually, it has always been about more than acquisition of more material goods. The dream for ever-more goods has been a driver of so many ills, including class and racial inequalities, eroding nature’s health, and temptations to use military force. It’s not time to say goodbye to the American Dream: Keep the dream of opportunity, but now with less extra baggage.

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Clues from the Past, Recent American Politics

Two Cheers for Pragmatic Democracy

Originally published by the Society for U.S. Intellectual History on March 16, 2018: https://s-usih.org/2018/03/two-cheers-for-pragmatic-democracy-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

With democracy pragmatic style, complete realization of ideals is always out of reach—and that means both constant self-correction and, in the words of Frederick Douglass, “agitate, agitate, agitate”

Once upon a time, marketplace thought and practice was associated with the work of accountants and the policies of cold-hearted politicians.  In 1978, Irving Kristol wrote Two Cheers for Capitalism to retrieve the reputation of free markets for their intimate role in democratic freedoms.  The rest is history, the history that is of the surge of marketplace conservatism.  From Ronald Reagan’s 1980 call to “get the government off the backs of the people,” to Newt Gingrich’s Contract With America in 1994, to the current president’s eagerness to deregulate business, marketplace thought and practices have moved from margin to mainstream.

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

Waking From the Dream of Total Victory in the Contests for Public Truth

This essay first appeared in Civil American, Volume 3, Article 1 (January 19, 2018), https://www.philosophersinamerica.com/2018/01/19/waking-from-the-dream-of-total-victory/

Can academics support the democratic struggle not just to critique fake news, but also to engage the public in the stories that make those false facts appealing?

The Oxford English Dictionary named “Post-Truth” its Word of the Year for 2016.  The dictionary cites “appeals to emotion or personal belief,” which have gained more influence than “objective facts … in shaping public opinion.”  The sober scholars of the OED spotlighted this word not to glorify this way of thinking, but to call attention to a disturbing trend.  In 2005, Stephen Colbert had already identified “truthiness” as the posture of public figures who “feel the truth” even in the face of contrasting facts and reasons.  The particular items of recent history are new, such as the claim that Democrats have been managing a ring of pedophiles out of the Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC, but fabricated news has always been the exaggerating cousin of political spin.  The multiplication of media outlets appealing to diverse clusters of people has made it particularly difficult to sort out corrupted truths from authentic stories.

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The Uses of History

Historians, the Columbos of Our Cultural Life

Similar versions of this essay have appeared in:

History News Network, August 27, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166629,

The Huffington Post, August 28, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/59a48a7ae4b0d6cf7f404fa5,

and in Society for US Intellectual History Blog, September 16, 2017, https://s-usih.org/2017/09/historians-the-columbos-of-our-cultural-life-guest-post-by-paul-croce/

You don’t have to like the people you study and teach, but as with the TV private investigator Frank Columbo, get to know them.

The death of Thomas Haskell is sad news and a loss to the field of history.  James Kloppenberg, a friend of Haskell’s since their days together as fellow PhD students in History at Stanford University, offers a fine tribute to his great work by highlighting the twin peaks of historical insight that Haskell practiced, “To Understand and to Judge,” https://s-usih.org/2013/05/to-understand-and-to-judge-kloppenberg-on-haskell/.  On first reading Haskell’s Emergence of Professional Social Science and “Capitalism and the Origins of the Humanitarian Sensibility,” I found orienting understanding of modern American cultural and intellectual history, about how we think and how we feel.  These lessons are also good reminders that as historians, we don’t have to like what we learn.  Learning the worlds of our study is the mission of the historian.

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Popular Thinking in Political Life, Recent American Politics

What We Can Learn from Fake News

An earlier version of this article appeared in History News Network, July 23, 2017, http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/166400 , and in The Huffington Post, July 25, 2017, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-we-can-learn-from-fake-news_us_597764e7e4b0940189700cd0

FakeNews

Fake news has both producers and consumers. While it is important to make corrections, the political problem is not the untruths themselves, but the capacity for the fakery to seem likely. For that, it is important to check in on the consumers of fake news to figure out how the untruths appeal. What made them likely stories? Mow down the latest false facts and more will soon sprout until we address those stories and the reasons people believe them.

False facts provide clues about the stories that make the fakery seem true.

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Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

The Government Shutdown: Politics as War by Other Means

Originally published on October 8, 2013 in the History News Network, which can be accessed here: http://hnn.us/article/153522

With the shutdown of the federal government, we are a nation at war. While the vast majority of citizens would be content with almost any peaceable resolution, their elected leaders at the barricades keep the country in wartime footing. War emerges when political or diplomatic means fail; and war brings destruction. Witness the hardships that have already emerged from even a few days of shutdown, and there is no end in sight.

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Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

Democracy’s close watch on our government’s reputation factory

Originally published on July 4, 2013 in the Orlando Sentinel; which can be accessed here: https://www.orlandosentinel.com/opinion/os-xpm-2013-07-04-os-ed-nsa-snowden-070513-20130703-story.html

This piece can additionally be read as a .PDF here.

Most Americans have been aware of government surveillance for security purposes, but few realize the extent of these programs.

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Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

Unsustainable Politics, 2012

This piece was originally published in Volume 5, Issue 6 of the Sustainability journal. 

There were no ads during the presidential debates. This is the exception that proves the rule in modern America. Nascar drivers broadcast their endorsing companies across their outfits, and the rest of us more subtly wear logos of brand-name clothing.

Advertisers study us very closely to know just what we want; beneath our talk and even our thoughts, what will we pay for? In soccer, the eyes don’t announce a player’s next move, but the feet will. So to understand the political choices that were offered to us during the 2012 election season, don’t just look to the party platforms, the political speeches, the debates, or even the political ads presented during the most richly funded campaigns in world history. Look to the ads for other products.

To continue on, click here.

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Popular Culture and Cultural Politics

We are all weathermen now

January 2011

Another act of gruesome violence offers a painful reminder of the seething angers that lurk beneath daily life. The suspected shooter in Arizona (I avoid his name to keep from promoting his dark celebrity) may have no connection to extremist politics himself, but his depraved act is a reminder of the intense political views that have spurred violence of word and deed, as they have for years.

Most people lament the level of polarization that has overtaken our political discourse almost as much as they are horrified by the violence, but the polarization persists and even grows.

Just a few months ago, respected education professor William Ayers approached retirement at the University of Illinois, Chicago, but he was denied his bid for professor emeritus status. His case is a symbol of how we have not escaped our history—or our anger.

Read on here.

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