In a room full of aspiring economists, Jill Lepore steps eagerly on the stage. A copy of her latest book, These Truths, rests upon the table between the two couches in E-hall. She sits shyly, sinking in the cushions. After a few moments of grinding from the audience, she corrects her posture and the interview begins. Jill, wearing a light blue turtleneck and trainers, is far from what you expect from the usual American Historian. She seems approachable and warm. My colleague and I become excited. We are ready for an hour that would make us less apprehensible about American History and open our eyes to how superficially we think of polarization in American Politics.

The Book 

The interview starts with questions about her latest book. These Truths is a comprehensive amount of American History, for the average citizen. It begins in the 15th century and ends with Trump’s election in 2016. In the true pragmatic manner of economists, the interview asks: “Why should we care about American History?”. Taken aback, Jill glides over the audience and explains that, in a globalized world, American domestic policy has propagation effects in all of Europe. However, this standard response did not bring much satisfaction. The historian goes on to say that in a world where we have so much information and news available to us, it is hard to get any depth on problems. We tend to look at things very superficially. Such a book has not been written in a while. She explains that there has been harsh criticism of former historians and their presentation of events. After all, history is most of the time written from the side of the winners. There were many young people who just decided it is better not to write about it at all. She feels that as an American Historian, it is her civic duty to change this perspective and bring people back to understanding the underlying causes of why events happen the way they do today.

However, she also had her fair share of criticism. Many said that her book did not include a detailed account of indigenous history and struggle. She seemed prepared for such a question. She says that the new version of the book goes more into detail about it and that it is impossible to include everything in a single book, especially when the timeline is so vast. That’s understandable and it brings the question of how she filtered the information and decided what to include and what to not include. She said that the book follows the history of political ideas over time. After all the main purpose of the book, even though not explicit, is up explaining America’s politics today. And, as far as I am concerned, indigenous people did not have much say on that, unfortunately.

Nationalism and American Politics 

Europeans are always sceptical about the identity of the United States. It does not follow the traditional view of ethnicity, language and common culture.  However, less than 10% of states in the world have any homogeneity based on those factors. America, a nation that welcomed all, was built on a strong sense of political freedom and equality. Were you a white liberal who wanted to vote in the 18th century? America was for you. When asked about the difference between liberal nationalism and traditional nationalism, Ms Lepore said that it a matter of perspective. Whilst the liberals tend to look at universalism and the path towards world integration, traditionalists look at boundaries and military power. Now, the flame of liberalism is slowly dying in today’s world. How does Jill Lepore explain its failure and shortcomings? She roots the liberals’ problem in believing in the end of nationalism and putting too much faith in globalization.

Those Founding Fathers… 

Keeping the conversation in line with the history of political thought, Jill was asked about the idea of civil liberalism on the basis of the “Founding Fathers”. She gets worked up: “well, they are NOT my Founding Fathers”. She goes on explaining that there should be a dismantlement of this cult of personality around the founding fathers. Like all people, they had quite a few shortcomings. She goes on to discuss how such ideas can be used to strengthen soft power. She gives an example of a nurse at a rally against Federal National Health services. The nurse said to Ms Lepore: “The Founding Fathers would roll in their grave if they heard that the government is forcing us to have healthcare”.  She states that using such historical arguments to promote current political agendas is a common and dangerous thing. This gets back to the idea of superficial understanding.

On Polarization 

 It’s time for some audience questions. Naturally, that means time to discuss the history of gun laws. Jill explained that gun legislation was never in the spotlight before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The majority of the regulation was done at state level. On probably one of the smoothest transition into polarization that I have heard in a while, she explained the whole gun situation as a parallel to abortion. Below you can find a graph that she proposed that sheds a bit of light into the symmetry of the political spectrum.

Extreme Right Extreme Left
Freedom Guns Abortion 
Murder Abortion  Guns 

 

Such a simple division tells us a lot about the extent of polarization of US politics. But make no mistake, Jill underlines that we cannot speak of a rise in polarization, because until 1965 there a vast proportion of the American population did not have a say. When African-Americans were finally given the right to vote, only then we can say that there began a process of polarization. Allowing all people to have a say created diversification in American politics and, as it happens when there are millions of different individuals, sparked opposing views. However, she mentions that a vast majority in this thinking comes from structural problems in the education system for history and civics. School curricula are largely dependent on the political color of the state, and Jill mentions that differences in perspective are still very clear in her students. She can tell when a student comes from a Republican or Democratic State. The interviewer asks: “How do you think they should change this?”. Jill laughs: “Historians do not have a good reputation in policymaking”.

She ends the interview by calling for a middle ground and a small metaphor for the importance of history for the state: “ It is like you have a sister and you wake up on a Wednesday and say: I want to erase everything that I know about my sister until now. You cannot do that, your relationship is based on those moments”. 

Want to attend such an interview? Keep an eye out for Room for Discussion events. In case you missed an interview and still want to get an idea about it, be sure to check our articles. For an overview of who Jill Lepore is, you can check our pre-article for this interview.