Saturday, February 21, 2015

Why History Should Be Studied More

Clark had an interesting blog post at Popehat that make some good points about tribalism in politics, but it argues from a pretty defective understanding of history.
For at least a thousand years there have been two factions in The West. The magnetic poles drift slowly, and no one compass points with perfect precision, but there is no denying the reality of the poles. 
One pole tends (and note that word "tends") to be Protestant, centralized, "scientific", pushing for "the greater good", and "Blue" (as we say in the American language). 
The other pole other tends (second disclaimer, same as the first) to be Catholic, decentralized, "traditional", tolerant of inequality, and "Red" (again, in Americanese).
Now, it is true that political conflicts in the Anglosphere in the past thousand years have been between rival coalitions, and there is good reason for the coalition leaders to make whatever compromises are needed in their alliances to reach rough parity with the other side or better, but the idea that the bipolar coalitions can be meaningfully described as "Red" or "Blue" before the recent past is absurd.

A thousand years ago, one of the culture war coalitions was about immigration, speaking Norse, and practicing paganism. In 1640, one was composed of opponents to absolute monarchy, (not to centralization as such, the issue was who ran the central government) and those opposed to more tolerance for Catholics, maypoles, or theater. In the antebellum United States, one coalition was in favor of slavery, lower tariffs, slavery, state's rights, slavery, slavery and slavery. The New Deal coalition for "the greater good" had strong support from Catholics and Southern Democrats. In the civil rights era, white Southern Democrats allied with conservative Republicans.

I can and do deny that there has been some meaningful polar division in Western politics for the past thousand years that can usefully defined for the entire period, and probably not the last 50 years either.

It's not just that the political poles drift. It's that the entire political compass wanders over the map, as some political bones of contention slip out of the Overton Window entirely, and others are warmly embraced by both sides.

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