One of the most important uses of history is to use it to work ourselves out of predicaments we are facing RIGHT NOW.
It’s easy to assume that because history is about what happened in the past, we can set it aside. That it has nothing to say to us now because conditions were different in the past.
Except that humanity seems to cycle through the same sorts of challenges even when presented with what appear to be new conditions. And this is why studying the past, which is literally the definition of “history,” is so important.
As pro-democracy people in America work to overcome the pro-authoritarian movement that has invaded our government, we need historians to show us where this has happened before. And it HAS happened before. On that point, we should not delude ourselves.
Enter Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman. They are professors of history, Heather from Boston College in Massachusetts and Joanne from Yale, who have teamed up to create a podcast called Now & Then.
I have been following Heather since at least 2018, when I noted on this blog her Twitter threads explaining various aspects of history. She also writes the enormously popular Substack newsletter, “Letters from an American,” in which she ties today’s political events to political events from America’s past.
Heather has been writing this newsletter daily since November 3, 2019, with her original intent to write it until we had reached the 100-day mark in Joe Biden’s presidency. Because the threat to American democracy ramped up with the January 6, 2021, insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, Heather’s work was not done and she kept writing. She also partnered with Joanne to offer the Now & Then podcast to expand on this important work of using the past to inform the present.
As of this writing, there are 22 Now & Then episodes available. I have listened to over half of these almost-hour-long programs and learned many interesting bits of history, like how the role of the Speaker of the House has changed over the years and the politics of the Supreme Court.
The most recent episode, which I listened to this morning, featured Heather and Joanne’s first guest, Professor Carol Anderson, historian and chair of African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. This was a live event that was recorded and is now available on YouTube.
In it, the three historians discuss the history of voting rights and how the interests of land-owning, wealthy white men of the past drove them to try to deny voting rights to anyone not in their class. When the U.S. Constitution was amended to open the vote to more people, this class moved to instituting measures to keep people from the polls, like poll taxes, literacy and character tests, and violence. The measures put in place by state legislatures in the past were given the sheen that they were fair and applied equally to everyone, but they were designed to keep specific people from voting, particularly Black people.
We see the same thing happening today, with pro-authoritarian forces pushing new voter restrictions at a rapid pace at the state level, things like voter I.D. laws, removal of places to vote, purging voters from the registration rolls, and trying to limit mail-in voting. All of this is ostensibly done under the guise of avoiding voter fraud, which is an incredibly small, darn-near insignificant problem. The pro-authoritarians want us to believe it is a problem so they can remain in power.
This is a quick summary of the discussion between Heather, Joanne, and Carol and I’m not doing justice to the intricacies of the program, so I recommend watching it when you’ve got time. They end the program with Heather asking Carol and Joanne how we can stop America from tipping over the edge into authoritarianism. Carol suggested looking to the past at how people overcame voter suppression and other oppressive activities of the Jim Crow era.
Historians have a road map. We just have to be willing to study and follow it.