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"America has two great dominant strands of political thought - conservatism, which, at its very best, draws lines that should not be crossed; and progressivism, which, at its very best, breaks down barriers that should never have been erected." -- Bill Clinton, Dedication of the Clinton Presidential Library, November 2004

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Monday, December 29, 2003


The Lessons of History

posted by Brian Ulrich at Monday, December 29, 2003 permalink View blog reactions
This post by Matthew Yglesias reminds me of something I hate about political commentary: Using the past to predict the future. In this case, we read that unemployment trends for the first six months of an election year are a sure-fire indicator of which party will win the White House.

The problem is that every election is different. I understand that political scientists need models to work from in describing voting behavior, but especially as applied through the media, the predictive value of these models seems limited at best. Remember 1998? All the talk was about how the President's party always loses Congressional seats in an off-year election. Except it didn't happen then, and it didn't happen again in 2002. So much for that rule of thumb.

Presidential elections within my memory follow a similar pattern. In 1988, we heard how sitting Vice Presidents can't win. After all, it hadn't happened since Martin van Buren. Enter Bush '41, and in 2000 Al Gore gets a free pass on the issue. In 1992, we heard how no candidate has won the Presidency after losing the New Hampshire primary. Paul Tsongas won New Hampshire, Clinton became President. And in 2000, John McCain won New Hampshire while Bush '43 became President. The status of the economy is always supposed to invariably predict election results. Well, Clinton did win in 1996, but didn't break the 50% mark in the popular vote, while Al Gore couldn't win in 2000.

With Howard Dean, we're hearing a lot of can't-win rhetoric of the type described above. They say, for example, that a candidate can't win if they oppose a war. This appears to be based on exactly one election year - 1972. They say New Englanders can't win nationally. This seems to derive solely from 1988, the only time since Kennedy one has been nominated.

We have a tough campaign ahead. But when you hear the pundits on TV explaining why he can't win, remember: History's main lesson in politics is that history doesn't predict a thing. The only election year we need to worry about is this one.


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Nation-Building was founded by Aziz Poonawalla in August 2002 under the name Dean Nation. Dean Nation was the very first weblog devoted to a presidential candidate, Howard Dean, and became the vanguard of the Dean netroot phenomenon, raising over $40,000 for the Dean campaign, pioneering the use of Meetup, and enjoying the attention of the campaign itself, with Joe Trippi a regular reader (and sometime commentor). Howard Dean himself even left a comment once. Dean Nation was a group weblog effort and counts among its alumni many of the progressive blogsphere's leading talent including Jerome Armstrong, Matthew Yglesias, and Ezra Klein. After the election in 2004, the blog refocused onto the theme of "purple politics", formally changing its name to Nation-Building in June 2006. The primary focus of the blog is on articulating purple-state policy at home and pragmatic liberal interventionism abroad.