Presidential Debate of October 16, 2012

Allen Mikaelian, October 2012

Photo courtesy the Commission on Presidential DebatesAnthony Grafton, president of the AHA in 2011, wrote in his inaugural column in Perspectives on History that “Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed.”

In that spirit, with the firm belief that we best understand the present when we more fully comprehend the past, the AHA is continuing its series of Roundtables on the presidential debates of 2012. In these essays, historians discuss not only what they saw, but how we got to this point. With this broad understanding, we can begin to talk about what these debates say not only about the candidates, but about our political process and our goals as a society. We can begin a discussion based on “painstaking analysis of hard sources” that gives these debates lasting and broad meaning.

We encourage readers to watch this space after the next and last debate, and to visit our previous roundtables, here and here.

Allen Mikaelian is associate editor of Perspectives on History.

The Respondents:

“Mitt Romney’s repeated claims to ‘know’ can be evaluated historically from numerous directions. One can hear within them the struggles between Modernists and Fundamentalists of the early twentieth century who battled over what they knew when it came to God, the Bible, and evolution.”
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—Edward J. Blum, Associate Professor, San Diego State University

“One of the striking features of last night's debate has actually been striking throughout the 2012 campaign and, for that matter, the last few presidential campaigns: the fetishization of the ‘undecided voter.’”
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—Robin Einhorn, Professor of History, University of California, Berkeley

“Nostalgia for an imagined golden age does not enhance a historian’s job performance. And yet election-year debates pull me off track and into a deep swamp of nostalgia.  Within minutes of a debate’s start, I am lost in yearning for a past era when candidates made their cases in substantive, cogent, and thorough ways.”
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—Patty Limerick, Professor of History, University of Colorado, Boulder

“The ‘j’ word, jobs, was the dominant term in the evening’s debate:  how best to encourage their growth and keep them at home.  But the more striking word, from the historian’s perspective, was ‘I.’”
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—Daniel Rodgers, Henry Charles Lea Professor of History, Princeton University

“If you’re an American liberal, like I am, you have probably spent the past 30 or so years complaining that cultural issues—like abortion and same-sex marriage—have drowned out economic ones in our national political discourse. Republicans can’t win on the economy, the story goes, so they try to pull the wool over voters’ eyes by waging a culture war.  It’s time to lay that tale to rest.”
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—Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of History and Education, New York University