Julian Zelizer Answers Your Political-History Questions
Last week we solicited your questions for political historian Julian Zelizer.
In the aftermath of an historic election and in the midst of strange and shocking political events, many of your questions had the zing of the moment about them — including whether any other president has had a shoe thrown at him. (Unfortunately, the answer isn’t yet known.)
Thanks for the good questions and thanks especially to Zelizer for his thoughtful answers.
Do you think Obama would support any Keynesianish proposal, given a contemporary Bretton Woods-like initiative?
Domestically, it seems like Obama is interested in tapping into the Keynesian ideas of 1930’s America. He has discussed his public works program as a means to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure as well as to put money in the hands of working and middle-class Americans who will help spend our economy back into health.
This was pivotal to the rhetoric of F.D.R., J.F.K., and L.B.J., who used Keynesian policies — focusing on increasing middle-class consumption — as the centerpiece of their agendas. While a good deal of Keynesian economics was discredited in the 1970’s, Obama has an interest in tapping into some of these older ideas.
It’s less clear what he hopes to do internationally. My guess is there will be a push for some kind of Bretton Woods initiative, [because] there is growing pressure to create some kind of order, rules to the game, and governmental intervention into international economic transactions. Bretton Woods came after the U.S. economy had recovered during WWII and when policymakers thus had more room to focus abroad. Moreover, those initiatives were sold as part of America’s strategic efforts to increase power overseas and contain communism. Obama would have to do something similar, not just in terms of waiting until the economy here is in better shape, but linking any overseas initiatives to the ongoing war on terrorism.
Can you explain to a nonacademic why political science and economics are considered different areas of study?
There are many points of convergence between economics and politics, primarily since the discipline of political science has really embraced economic analytic techniques. There are top political scientists who have their doctorates in economics. A look at the American Political Science Review shows this convergence.
At the same time, there are many political scientists who use economic techniques as part of a broader mix of methodological tools. Many in the field remain more concerned with the power of institutions and policies to shape individual choice, the importance of political culture in defining how voters and politicians understand what is and is not rational, and a greater appreciation for how historical forces limit the possibilities for action in any given moment. Moreover, political scientists ultimately want to use economics to understand questions about political power, whereas economists who deal with politics primarily use the subject to test and strengthen their methodological techniques. For something really different, check out the great work of political historians.
Has any other U.S. president ever had a shoe hurled at his head?
Time for some historical research!
Do you think a public financing model would work for congressional elections? If so, what should it look like? What effect do you think such a program would have on Congress?
The biggest recent push for public finance in a congressional election took place as part of the debates in the 1970’s in the aftermath of Watergate. In the end, proposals for public finance were killed. Many legislators just rejected the idea while others, including proponents of campaign reform, thought that strategically it was more important to focus on presidential campaigns given that Americans were concerned about Richard Nixon‘s record. They put off congressional campaigns until later, and that day never came. As a result, the decade ended with contribution limits and disclosure rules for Congress but no public finance.
Public finance is not a perfect system, but it would make things better. It has been remarkable to see how little discussion has existed about this issue even with all the scandals that surrounded the 2006 election and the noxious relations that sometimes emerge between lobbyists and legislators.
We can investigate, reveal, prosecute, and throw the bums out, but the problems will always remain until we deal with underlying pressures to raise money from private interest groups. Corruption will still take place, but public finance can help diminish the power of private groups. This was true of the public-finance system for presidential elections, which most experts agree worked pretty well until recent years when it has fallen into disrepair; this year it has been abandoned altogether.
There would have to be some kind of public fund to provide money to individual candidates or party committees that could then distribute the funds. It would be important that strict limits are created and enforced as to how much in private funds a candidate could then raise. The problem of soft money would have to be dealt with. It would be vital that we have a strong independent commission — either an improved F.E.C. or a separate body — to monitor and make sure the system works. At the same time, there should be some type of negotiation with television stations to provide free advertising time to local candidates to reduce the overall cost of the campaigns.
I remember hearing a history professor argue that historically, the party out of power clung to “state’s rights” in an attempt to limit the opposite party’s power. Are there any modern patterns that are emerging regarding the party in and out of power?
I am not sure that this always works. In the 1930’s and 1940’s there were state’s rights proponents in both parties. Republicans used state’s rights arguments to fight against pro-labor regulations. Southern Democrats used state’s rights arguments, more famously, to combat civil rights initiatives. This formed a key argument that allowed the conservative coalition in Congress to form. While state’s rights has remained an important part of Republican discourse since the 1970’s, its power has vastly diminished, given that there are fewer issues where Republicans really do take this stand. Republicans have focused on different kinds of arguments — anti-tax and social-values arguments, for instance — that have proved more effective in an age of big government. When Clinton spoke about balanced budgets, this was different than the state’s rights claims we saw in past eras.
Since you are a Jimmy Carter expert, what was his record with energy and conservation policy?
President Carter left behind a mixed record. In some respects, there is reason for Obama to look back at the energy record of this unsuccessful presidency. More than any other president since the 1960’s, Carter actually tried to deal with the central issues facing the environment: dependency on Middle Eastern oil resources, the need for conservation at home, and the importance of taxation and other kinds of fees to dampen consumption. He pushed for a bold program in the first year of his presidency, but ended up with a watered-down bill as a result of intense Senate opposition, including from many northern Democrats.
Where Carter failed was in regard to his political instincts. Carter did not have a good sense of the legislative process. His legislative liaison Frank Moore was famously clumsy in handling legislative relations (Carter started off his presidency by pushing for cuts in pork-barrel spending that affected some of the most powerful Democrats on Capitol Hill). He also could have a political tin ear, preaching to Americans as to what they should do rather than presenting himself as a leader who would guide the nation out of the crisis. As a result, his legislative record was much thinner than his intellectual arguments.
Obama has started to put together an energy team of the highest intellectual caliber. It is likely we will see the same kind of breadth of ideas as we did with Carter, likely even greater. Just as important, support for energy policies has vastly increased among the public since the 1970’s as a result of popular culture, the dissemination of scientific ideas, and individuals such as former Vice President Al Gore. The power of suburban voters in the Democratic Party, as opposed to urban Democrats, has greatly increased. This means there is political potential to do now what Carter failed to achieve. We will have to see if Obama’s political instincts are as good as his campaign skills.
Did Andrew Jackson really shoot a person on the White House lawn?
As far as I know, that never happened. Someone shot at Andrew Jackson in an assassination attempt though, at the Capitol.
Can you tell me a little about the history of the filibuster (related to the question of how 52 senators can favor a bill that the president also favors, but it does not pass)?
The filibuster has been around since the start of the Senate. Unlike the House, senators never created a rule that prohibited filibusters. The Senate allowed for any individual to talk as much as he wanted. The justification was that the Senate, unlike the House, was not a majoritarian institution, and that this would protect the power of smaller states or individuals who thought, on the basis of their conscience, that the majority was doing the wrong thing. In 1841, senators rejected a proposal to eliminate the filibuster.
The next key moment in the history of the filibuster occurred in 1917. During a debate over legislation related to WWI, senators passed a rule that allowed two-thirds of the majority to impose “cloture,” which would end a filibuster. Senators used the filibuster in the coming decades.
Southern Democrats were the master practitioners, using the filibuster to stifle anti-lynching and civil rights bills that had made it through the House and Senate committees. Liberal organizations hated the filibuster and saw it as a symbol for the power of conservative Southern Democrats to stifle legislative progress. The N.A.A.C.P. used to list filibuster reform as being as important as anti-lynching legislation. The most famous filibuster was the one conducted against the 1964 Civil Rights legislation, which Republican Everett Dirksen of Illinois finally brought to an end.
Liberals of the postwar period also liked to remind colleagues that the filibuster symbolized what many Americans disliked about their legislative branch. A moderate Republican, Robert Packwood of Oregon pointed out that the filibuster was the favorite media example of how Congress did not work. He was right. In 1964, CBS correspondent Roger Mudd reported outside the Senate every night with a clock superimposed next to his face to symbolize how long it was taking the Senate to reach a decision.
There have been reforms that changed the number of senators required to invoke cloture. In 1975, liberals, through a reform, lowered the votes needed to achieve cloture from two-thirds to three-fifths of the Senate.
Since the cloture reform, ironically, the use of filibusters has increased. The first reason is that as it became easier to end filibusters, senators were more willing to use the tactic for mundane legislation, including personal vendettas. The second reason is that that Senate adopted a two-track system whereby senators deal with other legislation while there is a filibuster on another bill. A real filibuster, with long speeches on the floor, didn’t even have to take place. Third, increased partisanship in the Senate since the 1970’s pushed the parties to use the filibuster as a tool in partisan warfare. As bipartisan coalitions became more difficult to obtain, the minority used the filibuster more effectively.
As a result, senators have normalized the filibuster and it has become a routine tactic in Senate struggles. Legislators regularly assume the need to gain 60 votes to win support for a bill.
Why, in the modern presidency, is the sitting president expected to help the president-elect “transition” into the White House? Where in American history was this precedent set?
There is an expectation that the sitting president and his advisers will help the incoming president. This expectation increased in the 20th century as the responsibilities of the government increased, the number of policies expanded, and the role of the U.S. overseas expanded. The incoming president simply faced much greater responsibilities once he started, so the incoming president needed to be constructive in helping the new person learn the ways and means of Washington.
Nonetheless, the interaction between the presidents has usually been quite limited. Most famously, F.D.R. refused to interact with Herbert Hoover, even when the incumbent president pleaded for his assistance in supporting his policies. Carter and Reagan met once, and the meeting was icy. Reagan didn’t even take notes as Carter briefed him about the major challenges facing the White House.
This year has been unusual, with a high level of interaction in the transition — and not just with the presidents, but their entire teams. The most important reason for this is that there is a major economic crisis taking place, and the nation faces continued international challenges from terrorism. The current president is very unpopular and lacks enough clout to get things done in his final month. The combination of these factors has facilitated a very advanced and integrated transition process.
What do you think of the Obama transition team’s use of the change.gov website to elicit feedback from citizens and post videos of meetings and press conferences? Is this an unprecedented urge toward democratic inclusion or have there been shades of foreshadowing prominent enough before to stand as a harbinger for this development?
In certain respects, we can situate this website in two different political developments of contemporary politics. The first is that Obama’s use of the change.gov site is one chapter in a longer story of presidents trying to connect directly to voters rather than working through the party establishment and, more recently, through the media. Since the time of Theodore Roosevelt, and greatly accelerating with F.D.R., presidents struggled to find new methods of communication so that they could sell their ideas directly to the people and not have to rely on party leaders. Political scientists and historians have traced the gradual separation of the president from the party. Since the advent of cable television and the internet, we have seen new efforts for presidents to circumvent the mainstream news media by using specialized channels and internet sites to get their messages across. The change.gov effort is part of this history.
The second way to think about the website is as part of another tradition — one which has tried to get citizens more directly involved in shaping presidential politics. For example, in the early 1970’s, reforms were made to the presidential nomination process so that primaries became the way candidates were selected rather than party conventions. Moreover, Democrats changed the delegate rules so that more women, African Americans, and minorities were ensured influence. During the 1980’s, conservative Republicans used talked radio to create a public arena for right-wing Americans to voice their ideas and express their criticisms of government. The feature of the web that is distinct is that any person can easily send in posts or emails to express their feelings about what the incoming administration is doing.
Can you share your thoughts on the perpetual campaign? Do you think it is here to stay?
The perpetual campaign is very hard to date. Some would say that presidents and legislators have always been campaigning and it is impossible to separate governance from elections. After all, Tammany Hall was famous in the 19th century for basing its entire public works program on winning support from immigrant voters so that in the next election its seats were secure.
Nonetheless, it does seem that the perpetual campaign has intensified. The costs of campaigning continue to escalate because of factors such as the cost of television air time (which will increase as pressure for instantaneous spots continues), the pressures created by the Super Tuesday primary system, and the movement (which Obama’s victory will certainly contribute to) away from the Watergate era of public finance. If politicians need to raise money all the time, it will be difficult to move to anything different.
Besides real campaign-finance reform, the only solution rests with voters. If voters feel that their elected officials are spending too much time raising money from lobbyists and trying to win votes — and doing too little governing — then they need to reverse the trend of incumbency. That is the best way to tell a politician to stop campaigning and get back to the business of governance. Or maybe in a democracy, the two will always be one in the same.
Do you think the the New Deal did anything to help with the Depression?
Yes it did. I don’t agree with the argument that the New Deal did not help with the Depression. The New Deal did not end the Depression, that’s true. World War II finally revived the economy.
But the New Deal had a huge impact. It created a number of programs such as public works and the Wagner Act that helped Americans improve their incomes and gain job security between 1933 and 1940. The Banking Act helped end the panic that had brought financial institutions to the brink of collapse. Through programs like the T.V.A., the New Deal strengthened the nation’s infrastructure — bringing electricity, for instance, to parts of the country that were severely underdeveloped — so that those communities could be a full part of the economic growth of the 1950’s and 1960’s. The expansion of unions, regulation of financial markets, and more were all extremely important to the economic growth of the future. The New Deal also created a commitment by the federal government to protect the security of citizens. That commitment, which was psychological, played an important role in keeping Americans faithful to the capitalist economic system and creating the kind of confidence that is essential to an economic rebound.
Which lobbying groups have had the greatest influence in Washington? What are the primary sources of the influence (money, votes, dates on a lonely Saturday night)?
I don’t think any lobbying group has a lock on influence in Washington. We have seen gradual expansion in the number and types of interest groups in the past 50 years. Business interests were the best organized in the early 20th century. Their influence was the subject of the famous progressive-era journalism exposing corruption in that era. Organized labor and the farm lobby gained clout in the 1930’s and 1940’s, both becoming pivotal parts of the New Deal coalition, but also gaining enough influence to shape the positions of the G.O.P. (as Eisenhower learned when he tried to cut back farm programs). During the 1970’s and 1980’s, the number of interest groups vastly proliferated. Specialized business interests set up shop in Washington. No longer did businesses depend on umbrella organizations like the Chamber of Commerce, but now each particular industry and even company had its own lobby. Public interest groups that focused on environmental, consumer, and social issues all developed their muscle in Washington as well.
While business clearly has the upper hand in terms of economic resources, it is impossible to pinpoint one sector that is dominant. The problem is the power of interest groups and lobbyists, not the power of one particular sector.
The primary source of influence is campaign contributions. But interest groups have other ways to gain access. Certain interest groups are very good at delivering expertise and information to legislators, whose staff is not equipped to tackle complicated policy issues. Other interest groups gain influence because they are effective at shaping how specific issues are perceived by politicians and voters — using everything from advertisements to research. Some interest groups, including sectors of organized labor and evangelical organizations, have proven enormously effective at get-out-the-vote operations to influence politicians.
In grade school in the 1940’s, I learned that Benjamin Franklin had said that “with luck, this Constitution may endure for 200 years.” I cannot trace the quotation, but do you see a case for reviewing the Constitution as a whole as a result of domestic or planet-wide developments ?
No I don’t. The Constitution has proven to be a remarkably effective document; overall, the health of our political system is strong. There are many, many areas where we can have reform but there is no reason to overhaul the basic framework of our system.
Would term limits (similar to those on presidents )for senators and representatives work to break up vested interests, empires, etc?
I don’t think so. A healthy exercise would be to spend some time listening to the White House tapes of Presidents Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon. That should be a reminder that vested interests can do just fine with presidents who can only serve two terms.
Furthermore, some social scientists argue that legislators who don’t enjoy the stability of incumbency are equally susceptible, if not more susceptible, to interest-group pressure since they lack the expertise, knowledge, and political clout that are essential to political autonomy. In contrast, some scholars argue that politicians who enjoy incumbency are more willing to take on any particular interest group because they are harder to defeat and more familiar with any given area of policy.
Could you envision a forthcoming book titled Leftward Bound: Making America Progressive in the 2010’s?
We don’t know yet. It is safe to say that conservatism is in a moment of true political crisis. In an article that was published in Newsweek shortly before the election, which compared 2008 to 1980, I outlined the reasons why I feel that conservatives are in their current situation, ranging from discredited policies to failed leadership to the absence of broader ideas that can define the conservative movement. The McCain–Palin campaign was both a reflection of the current state of the party and the superior political condition of Democrats.
That does not mean, however, that we are leftward bound. Looking back at the 1970’s, one of the major lessons from our book is that we cannot assume that any change in political eras is inevitable. The conservative mobilization of the 1970’s was just that — a mobilization where the right succeeded as a result of hard-fought battles and pivotal victories over time. Liberalism did not go down easily, and in many ways the ideology has remained much more vibrant than we remember.
The 2008 election was clearly a major step for progressive voices within the Democratic Party. But as conservative presidents learned after the 1970’s, the challenges of governance can be extraordinarily difficult and vanquished opponents can make a comeback.
Why do politicians who engage in corruption get reelected (e.g. Marion Barry and Ted Stevens) even though people publicly condemn corruption? How long will it be before we see another Blagojevich Senate term?
This is a very common phenomenon. Voters have often been very forgiving of scandal and corruption. There are many examples to point to. During the 1960’s, voters in Harlem were loyal to Representative Adam Clayton Powell as reporters and congressional leaders accused him of various types of wrongdoing. Voters felt he was being charged for activities that white congressmen engaged in all the time. In October 1974, after Wilbur Mills and a stripper were caught by U.S. Park Police near and then in the Tidal Basin, voters in Arkansas elected him the following months. These are just two examples of many where voters did not think that sex or ethics scandals were reason enough to kick someone out of office.
Voters tend to be very loyal to elected officials who deliver goods and represent them in Washington. As with friends and family, they understand that politicians are real people and that they make mistakes.
Moreover, distrust of government is so high that Americans often have trouble thinking that any act of corruption or other wrongdoing is totally unique, leaving them to wonder why their person should suffer but not the others.