One of the reasons I love reading about history is that it puts modern events - especially modern politics - in a new light. When you have a shallow historical understanding which sees the past as some sort of golden age and past leaders as demi-gods, it's easy to despair the modern era of danger, divisiveness, mudslinging, and mediocrity. (That alliteration came to me without me even trying. Can anybody tell I grew up listening to Southern Baptist sermons?)
But when you study history, you learn that folks like the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln were just as human and flawed as current politicians. You learn that events seemed just as complex, muddy, and morally compromised to them in their era as our problems seem to us. The name-calling of the modern era has nothing on the Election of 1800. (My favorite is the pamphlets referring to Thomas Jefferson as a "howling atheist.")
That's comforting to me. It means we haven't fallen downhill. Things were always this difficult. People were always this messed up. And yet we as a nation have pulled through. (Of course, if you want to keep extrapolating, other superpowers of history - the Roman Empire, the British Empire - eventually fell.) The problems we face today are different....they are challenging and they are legion. But the people trying to solve those problems aren't somehow inferior to the politicians of old. I believe - for better or worse - that they have just as much chance of solving the problems they face as Lincoln and Washington had in facing the problems of their respective eras.
I've been thinking these things for a while. But an interesting thought is raised by David Greenberg in this book review
. The book he's reviewing strips away a lot of the mythology of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. The book shows how those debates had just as much political posturing, personal attacks, distortion of the other person's position, and base pandering as modern politics. But - and here's the key - they also still involved thorough and sophisticated debate about all aspects of the major issue of the day (the expansion of slavery). Greenberg's thesis is that "down-and-dirty politics and serious argument about burning issues need not exist in separate realms." That is, Greenberg argues that it's in the context of ugly campaigning and bitter attempts to put down the other guy that actual arguments about the issues happens.
I'm not entirely sure if I buy that. I've observed too much avoidance of real discussion of the issues in favor of name-calling, sound bites, and Swift-Boating. But even in the midst of that, I must admit that some real discussion of issues take place. And certainly it's more realistic to look at the issue-discussion that happens in the context of actual politics than to hope for some Olympian, non-existent, rationalistic discussion of the issues. Human nature is what it is. We aren't going to see an ideal, purely issues-driven campaign in my lifetime. (Although John McCain and Barack Obama are far more likely to approximate it than Bush-Rove or any of the Clintons.) It's good to think that, despite the limitations of how actual democracy works, there's still a possibility of discussion of the issues.
All this doesn't mean I won't stop decrying shallow media coverage and the paucity of actual policy discussion....doesn't mean I won't relish the thoughtful discussion that often takes place among the community of bloggers and friends I know. But I can look with a little more hope at the 2008 campaign.
(Incidentally, I've been doing a little reading into church history as of late. Turns out it's just as useful to grow from the insights of long-dead people - and learn from their failings - in the realm of my personal faith as it is in the realm of politics.)