I’ve noticed — especially this year — how much history is invoked by newspaper columnists and by commentators on cable news shows. One would think that the study of history had had a resurgence, despite fewer college students majoring in history (or humanities in general) these days.
Of course, it makes sense that the history of presidential campaigns would be a popular topic during an election year. But it’s not just the reference to the history of earlier campaigns and presidencies I hear, it’s the invoking, often in somber tones, of history itself. It’s very common to hear the phrase “history will judge,” as if history were an all-knowing god sitting on some rarefied plane above mortal human beings.
History as judge is also short-hand for how future generations will judge us. It’s as if we are counting on Americans a hundred years from now to be wiser than we were. It’s very common to hear people say, what will my grandchildren make of what our generation did? What kind of legacy did we leave, what kind of history did we make?
I don’t think of history as a judgment from an independent arbiter above or as a judgment from people in the future. We make history in our own time. And it’s not static — as William Faulkner famously wrote, “the past is never dead, it’s not even past.”
How we interpret American history changes with each generation. Not all that long ago, political and business elites, almost exclusively white men, were viewed as the only real history-makers. They were the only significant actors whose life stories and exploits were worth preserving; the rest of us were just the acted upon. Not so anymore. As our society changes, so does the understanding of our past. Women’s history, African American history and the history of grassroots social movements are all now significant fields of study and exploration.
The point is that we are all actors in history, not just the people who hold the most political power or personal wealth. Enslaved black Americans staged slave revolts, black and white abolitionists fought to end slavery, women protested to gain the right to vote and factory workers went on strike for decent wages and working conditions. The civil rights movement of the 1960s led to monumental civil rights and voting rights legislation and decades of organizing by gay rights activists led to the Marriage Equality Act. Now the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred Americans to address the devastating toll of police violence against unarmed Black Americans as well as the overwhelming economic, health and educational disparities they experience.
Presidents of course make history and hundreds of books are written about them — already several have been written about our current one. But in a democratic society, everyday Americans make history too. Though undermined by cynical efforts at voter suppression, the right to vote is a powerful, sometimes history-making tool of the
American people. As Howard Zinn, the author of “A People’s History of the United States,” wrote,
“We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can quietly become a power no government can suppress, a power that can transform the world.”
Especially in this presidential election year, where the contrast between the two candidates’ character, record and approach to governing is so stark, our small but consequential act of voting has the power to shape the future direction of our country. And, barring the collapse of our democracy or the destruction of the planet, future generations of Americans will decide what kind of history we made.