• Today's Senate Polls
This Q&A has more history questions and answers than we've ever had in one week. That is a predictable result of some of the items we ran yesterday.
R.M.S. in Lebanon, CT, asks: I know many people will accuse me of asking this question in poor taste, considering the current loss and suffering in Florida, but I don't care. Do you think this hurricane and its aftermath will be the tipping point in the debate over the impacts of global warming in Florida and the rest of the U.S.? Charlie Crist ought to hit Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) on his lack of actions taken to mitigate the effects of global warming.
I think Florida has had an extremely bad track record of governance. With the exception of Crist, Florida has been governed by global warming deniers since the 1990s. This is a shame because the state is by far the most vulnerable to the effects of global warming. Most of Florida, south of Orlando, is less than 20 feet above sea level. I haven't seen DeSantis take any action to try to reduce the impacts of global warming—building seawalls, improving building codes, or moving development away from the shoreline, etc.
V & Z answer: There will be a day when that tipping point arrives for Florida, and for the United States as a whole. But if we were able to say confidently when that day will come, or what can be done to hasten its arrival, we could become the highest-paid political consultants the country has ever seen.
Crist will undoubtedly try to turn this into an anchor around DeSantis' neck. But his ability to do so successfully will depend on two things, both of them currently unknown. The first is how bad the damage is, and how well DeSantis handles the aftermath. And the second is how well Crist threads the needle, and persuades people he is raising legitimate concerns as opposed to trying to score cheap political points.
D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: TFG is being investigated for espionage; mishandling secret documents; tax/bank fraud; rape; insurrection; interfering with an election in multiple states; obstruction of justice; charity fraud; witness intimidation; emoluments; and God knows what all else I've forgotten. My question is: Has there ever be a person who has been investigated for more crimes and for crimes as wide-ranging as Don the Con? I know that mafia leaders, like Al Capone, were investigated for a multitude of crimes but most of them were of a violent nature. TFG on the other hand seems to run the gambit between white collar and violent crimes with a nice helping of somewhat less common crimes in-between. Will Capone have to rely on another more infamous measurement, that we know TFG will never beat, for his claim to fame?
V & Z answer: First of all, it wasn't Capone who was famous for the alternative measurement of which you speak, it was John Dillinger.
When people, especially high-profile people, are charged with crimes, the prosecution often takes an "everything but the kitchen sink" approach, just so they cover all their bases. So, you can certainly find people who have been charged with dozens of crimes, often covering a wide variety of offenses. Al Capone is one, Harvey Weinstein is another and Jeffrey Epstein was a third.
But there is surely no one in American history who has the profile of Donald Trump when it comes to the various things he's under the microscope for. First, few people have been as (apparently) careless as he has been. Generally, crooks know they could get in trouble someday, and they take clear steps to reduce the possibility of that happening, and to reduce the damage if it does happen. This is why mafiosi rarely keep paper records. But Trump is so detached from reality, and is so convinced that he's right (or that he can always beat the rap) that he has been very, very sloppy.
Second, Trump is one of the most hated people in American history. He has thus created much motivation for anyone and everyone who might go after him to actually do so. There are plenty of bad guys who were allowed to slide for a long time, in part, because of their positive and likable public image. Think Bill Cosby, for example. Heck, even Al Capone managed to stay out of trouble for a long time, in part, because he was a sort of folk hero who did things like personally fund soup kitchens during the Great Depression. Trump has built up none of that goodwill. Or, at least, he has built up none of that goodwill in the states where he committed (alleged) bad acts.
Third, and finally, as you point out, Trump has managed to dabble in many different areas of criminal and civil exposure. There are lots of people who committed both governmental and white-collar crimes (e.g., Ozzie Myers, the ABSCAM guy, who managed this week to get himself sent to prison yet again). There are lots of people who committed both violent and obstructive crimes (e.g., Capone). But there's nobody who has managed to run afoul of so many different areas of the law.
C.P.S. in San Jose, CA, asks: If either side in the Trump special master case appeals a ruling by Judge Aileen Cannon, would that appeal be heard by the same three-judge panel which heard the first such appeal or would it be handled by a new arbitrarily selected panel?
V & Z answer: Generally speaking, it is the same panel. First, because they are already familiar with the case. Second, because the circuit court wants to maintain consistency in its rulings, and using the same judges is the best way to do that.
There are circumstances where the panel could change, most obviously if one of them is incapacitated. But they won't be switched out just to keep things random.
R.Y. in Knoxville, TN, asks: After Donald Trump removed lawyer Chris Kise from the Mar-a-Lago case, you wrote: "Or maybe he [Kise] will get involved in the attempted coup case, but that is in D.C. and coups aren't really his area of expertise."
The supposition here is that there are lawyers experienced in coups and sedition. Are there? Or am I missing sarcasm?
V & Z answer: It wasn't sarcasm. The point was merely that a white-collar lawyer like Kise, who's never dealt with a case involving violent acts, is not an ideal fit for that part of Trump's legal defense.
And we don't know if there were insurrection/sedition specialists, say, 5 years ago. But by virtue of what happened on 1/6, there are a few of them now. For example, there is a lawyer in Los Angeles named John Pierce, who currently counts 20 of the 1/6 defendants as clients. Pierce is also a right-winger who regularly rails against vaccines, cancel culture, and the deep state. Presumably, he'd be a better fit for any legal work involving the insurrection than Chris Kise would.
S.S-L. in Norman, OK, asks: Help me see the forest for the trees. Trump will die or go to prison. The right will be furious. What then? While we're at it, what's going to happen with Russia and Putin's slackening grip on both power and reality?
V & Z answer: When Trump dies or go to prison, we think the reaction will be... nowhere near as bad as many people fear. In fact, we'd predict something along the lines of Y2K: "What were we so worried about?"
We say this for three reasons:
- While Trumpism remains strong, Trump's personal influence is clearly fading.
- Like The Donald himself, an enormous percentage of the Trumpers talk big, but are ultimately cowards. (Z) knows more than a few people who could take care of themselves if accosted in a dark alley. And none of them feel the need to wear fatigues and carry a big assault rifle around so that people know how dangerous and scary they are.
- Violent uprisings require a critical mass of people, and that critical mass is most easily achieved in urban environments. But most cities are deep blue. The really Trumpy states, like Oklahoma and Wyoming, are predominantly rural.
As to Putin, we don't claim to be particular experts, but we think the most likely endgame is that he flees Russia for some non-extradition country, living like a king on the money he's stashed away.
Yes, he could back down, and agree to some sort of face-saving agreement that ends the war in Ukraine while leaving him in power. However, Putin had reasons for launching that war in the first place, and they were related to the fact that the Russian people, as well as Kremlin insiders, were growing unhappy with his rule. If the Russian president fails to win this war, he's not only back at square one, he has the additional baggage of having fought a useless war to drag him down.
Putin could also go nuclear, and try to save himself that way. But that does not seem plausible to us. Either his own people would depose him for having risked the consequences of that decision, or the Western powers would do so.
The second most likely option in our view, assuming he doesn't flee, is that he dies while the war is still underway. There have been rumors of poor health for years, and maybe they are true. Even if they aren't true, he's 69 and has been in ultra-high-stress jobs for most of the past half-century. Of course, if he dies by defenestration, we'll all know what really happened.
P.B. in Minneapolis, MN, asks: In response to M.R. in Concord, who asked how the U.S. and others would respond if Russia uses a nuclear weapon in Ukraine. You wrote:At very least, NATO would start hitting Russia with bombs and drone attacks. More likely is that a NATO coalition would invade Russia; at that point, Putin would have shown himself to be an unacceptable danger to the world, and the leaders of the NATO nations would have the political cover for doing what's needed to force a Russian surrender, as well as a duty to do so. This would also be the sort of situation that ends with the losing nation (Russia) occupied, perhaps long-term, and also with things like war crimes tribunals.
For as much as I want to believe this, and for as much I'm usually willing to defer to your analysis, I find this answer implausible. Didn't NATO reject, or at least put off, answering Ukraine's entreaties for admission? Why would NATO respond as if Ukraine is a member? More to the point: Even granting that Russia's troops have been depleted, why wouldn't Russian nukes, and the possibility that they might be used against any invading nation, suffice to deter a ground offensive necessary for the occupation you envision?
Jake Sullivan has warned of "catastrophic consequences," but he's never spelled out what he means. Are there any foreign policy experts who agree with your interpretation?
V & Z answer: Nobody can know what would happen if Putin went nuclear, since human history has seen a grand total of two nuclear weapons used in anger, and both were deployed against a country who surrendered soon after.
However, this seems like a pretty basic political question to us. If Putin uncorks a nuke in Ukraine, then he will have violated the unspoken understanding that has prevailed since Nagasaki: You never, ever actually use nukes. And once he's done that, how can there be any certainty that he won't fire one at Tokyo, or Berlin, or Paris, or London? If the leaders of those nations were to do little to nothing to deter him, only to see millions of their citizens perish in such an attack, that would be the end of them and of their political parties. That being the case, a direct confrontation with the Russians, on some level, would seem to be politically necessary, to say nothing of the necessity in maintaining the world order. If NATO is unwilling to do this, then why was it such a big deal that Finland, with its lengthy shared border with Russia, joined the alliance?
Also, note that Ukraine has now applied for NATO membership. So, there would be some basis for defending them as if it were a member.
J.M. in Silver Spring, MD, asks: Why do you refer to Edward Snowden as a "whistleblower"? Statements from the White House (then-Press Secretary Josh Earnest) as well as the House Intelligence Committee have refuted the claim that he is a whistleblower. Earnest points out that there are specific channels for someone to report government abuse (even classified abuse) with impunity. Snowden did not use them.
V & Z answer: That was just a poor choice in wording. It's not so easy to describe him quickly, and the story we linked to used "whistleblower," so we unthinkingly went with that. If we were to write another item about him, we would probably use "leaker" or "dissident" or "exile."
R.C. in Des Moines, IA, asks: You referred to Pennsylvania as being on the east coast. While Philly is only a relatively short car ride from the Atlantic Ocean, is the state really on the east coast? And that brings me to a larger question: In recent years I have seen places like Phoenix, Denver, and Utah referred to as "west coast." I've seen Ohio referred to as "east coast." What exactly constitutes a coast? I have always understood that "on the coast" meant a state that actually borders an ocean. Has the term "coast" come to mean time zone?
V & Z answer: Another suboptimal wording choice. While Pennsylvania clearly is on the east coast, our point would have been clearer and more accurate if we had used "eastern time zone," since we meant to communicate that the state's results would be among the first group to be announced.
As to Phoenix and Denver, they are more similar to California than they are to Texas or to the rural areas of their respective states, so we suppose we could see them being lumped in as part of a "west coast" political bloc, though we would certainly not use that term to describe them. As to Utah, it's neither coastal nor is it politically similar to the coastal states (outside of Salt Lake City). It's also not in the same time zone as California/Oregon/Washington. So, we see no basis for including it in the "west coast." The same goes for Ohio, which is clearly not coastal, which is not especially similar to the eastern coastal states politically. Although, unlike Utah, at least it's in the same time zone as Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, etc.
D.P. in Oakland, CA, asks: Either it was E-V.com or another polling site that said "of course the polls will tighten near the end." And so they are. Why is that? It can't just be because undecideds are making their choice; they wouldn't necessarily choose the laggard.
V & Z answer: We have indeed written that, though other sites surely have as well. When there is a hotly contested primary—as was true for the Republicans in Pennsylvania and in Arizona, to take two examples—some supporters of the losing candidates (e.g., David McCormick in Pennsylvania, Mark Brnovich in Arizona) tell themselves they just won't vote for the guy/gal who defeated their champion. However, after they have had time to lick their wounds, they usually come home to their party's candidate, since even a "bad" member of their party is better than any member of the other party.
Y.A. in Newton, MA, asks: What's the deal with TV ads? All I can think of, when I see them, no matter the side, is: "Do they really think I'm that stupid?" When I talk to people about it, they say "You and I don't care, but a lot of people do." It's always someone else they're after... I know campaign spending tends to be correlated with winning, but is there any evidence that it actually makes a difference? There's growing consensus that even live debates don't matter anymore, so how can we expect a sloppy attack ad to sway even a single voter?
V & Z answer: It's not a question of who does and does not care, it's a question of target audience. We're going to have to be as delicate as we can here, but campaign ads are not meant for people like the readers of this site, who are high-information voters. They are meant for low-information voters. And low-information voters are less likely to be critical thinkers or to be well educated or to have long attention spans. That's not to say that all low-information voters are that way, just a disproportional percentage of them. And if that's your target audience, you tend to have to go big and over-the-top.
And these ads do work (though there are rapidly diminishing returns after a certain point). The clearest evidence of this is not with ads for political candidates, where tribalism is such an important factor. No, it's in ads for ballot initiatives, where voters' preferences are far less baked in. With ballot initiatives, the correlation between "the side that spent the most money on commercials promoting their point of view" and "the side that prevailed in the balloting" is very, very high—something like 90%.
K.C. in Roseville, CA, asks: Much has been made about the Freedom Caucus if the Republicans regain control of the House, but it seems to me, just by the numbers, that the Problem Solvers Caucus will actually have more clout when it comes to Speaker of the House and which direction (e.g., investigations or legislation) the chamber leans. Thoughts?
V & Z answer: Well, for anything that requires the votes of most or all House Republicans, then both factions will have a great deal of power, as long as they stick together. You are right, however, that the desires of the more moderate Problem Solvers are more likely to carry the day in terms of choice of Speaker, or in terms of any legislation that is passed (if any is). That said, when it comes to opportunities for political theater, the Freedom Caucus will be very substantially accommodated if there is a Republican majority. Would-be Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has to give those folks something, and besides, it takes considerably fewer votes to launch an investigation than it does to, say, adopt articles of impeachment against Joe Biden.
M.M. in San Diego, CA, asks: Just how many people are we talking about when 42% of Republican voters consider themselves part of the MAGA faction and 58% are not art of MAGA?
V & Z answer: That result tells us one or more of these things: (1) some MAGA folks are lying to pollsters, (2) some MAGA folks are splitting hairs and/or (3) some MAGA folks are in denial. Everyone knows who Donald Trump is, and exactly what he stands for, at this point. And he got the votes of more than 90% of registered Republicans. There is no plausible way that nearly two-thirds of those folks don't support Trump's basic agenda.
K.W. in Tempe, Sydney, NSW, Australia, asks: I have heard you talk a lot about would-be senator John Fetterman (D-PA), to the point of suggesting him as a possible dark horse candidate for President. There's no question that Fetterman comes across as an engaging, authentic candidate, and if the polls are even halfway right, he looks set to be next junior senator for Pennsylvania.
But the big question mark about him is his recovery from a stroke earlier in the year. Obviously, it's in poor taste to make his health a political issue, but his slow recovery has meant he has been greatly restricted from campaigning. Has this given you pause in your high hopes for him? It probably won't matter this year, but he won't always get such a dud opponent as Mehmet Oz.
V & Z answer: People recover fully from the sort of stroke Fetterman had all the time. It usually takes rather longer than the election calendar allows for, but there's every reason to believe he'll be 100%, or nearly so, by this time next year.
Assuming he wins the election, we will still believe he's a Democrat worth keeping an eye upon. He may not always have an opponent as crummy as Mehmet Oz, but after this election, Fetterman will have a track record for people to judge him by, as well as the benefits of incumbency. You can be very confident, for example, that he will be a regular guest on the Sunday morning news shows, just like Sens. Amy Klobuchar (DFL-MN) and Ted Cruz (R-TX).
A.B. in Wendell, NC, asks: I have long wanted to write to you and get your take on this question: Why does the mainstream media harp on the Dow Jones averages, as if it was any indicator of how good the economy is?
By my observation, in good times and bad, the Dow is always good, because the wealthy never get hurt in this country the way workers do. Oh, sure, there are some wild swings, especially when interest rates are hiked, but the wealthy people always seem to make back the lost ground. It is as if America itself is rigged to make sure only the big boys always win, and regular folks are the only ones to ever really take it on the chin.
Your readers may recall I was a candidate for my state Senate. And when I want to get the feel of the pulse on how people feel about the economy, I ask a job seeker. I ask them: Are available jobs plentiful? Are the available jobs offering good wages? Or are the pickings slim and the wages substandard? I ask job seekers what their view is on their future prospects. To me, that is far more telling than the Dow Jones.
As an aside, I recently quit being a job seeker, and became a job finder. And while I would rate the economy at the moment as not good, I think it is neither as bad as some say, nor anywhere near as good as the Dow would seem to indicate.
What's your take on this fixation on the Dow Jones as some sort of economic barometer?
V & Z answer: The Dow Jones industrial average is utilized for the same reason that Body Mass Index, degrees Fahrenheit, and batting average are utilized. They may not be the best option available, but they are very familiar to most people.
We obviously share your view that the Dow Jones is not particularly instructive. That said, we are not experts in finance, and some of the readers are, so we are happy to have agree/disagree comments from those who are more knowledgeable than we are, should anyone care to weigh in.
D.C. in Pampa, TX, asks: Why are cabinet secretaries generally so short-lived in their positions? These seem like highly coveted jobs. However, it seems many if not most resign before even completing a president's term (so less than four years), and very few serve the full duration of a presidency. Being as these are the biggest jobs in the land, shy of being President, why the high turn-over?
V & Z answer: We are not sure your premise is entirely correct. Yes, there was a great deal of turnover during the Trump administration, but that's because that White House was a sh**show. If you look at the Obama cabinet, every member, save one (Gary Locke at Commerce) was on the job for at least 4 years.
That said, there are reasons why few Cabinet secretaries last for two full terms (or more). It's really tough, exhausting work. Lots of meetings, lots of travel, lots of late nights, lots of stress. Further, the person may not be a great fit for their job, either expertise-wise or personality-wise. It's hard to know if a person can really master the nuances of, say, energy policy, or if they can get along with the president and his team until that person is on the job. And finally, the salary for a Cabinet secretary is currently $221,400 per year. That's very good, but it does not compare to what they can get as a private citizen, and in exchange for far less work and far less stress. You can see how someone might hang on for a full term, then leave for a seven-figure salary to serve as "of counsel" at a white-shoe law firm, or maybe a mid-six-figure salary to teach a couple of classes per year at an Ivy League university.
C.V. in Chadron, NE, asks: What if TFG kicks the bucket before any/all of his legal investigations are completed... can he still be charged or indicted posthumously?
V & Z answer: Not criminally. The Supreme Court has made clear, multiple times, that a criminal defendant has the right to be present at the time of their arraignment, the time of their plea, during the trial, and for the imposition of their sentence, if any. A dead person cannot be present for these things, and so cannot legally be prosecuted. There are some exceptions to these general rights, such as if a defendant voluntarily exempts themselves from the proceedings, but none of them would apply to a dead person.
As to civil proceedings, those can still move forward. In those cases, the defendant would be either the Trump Organization or the Estate of Donald John Trump. Both of those are considered "living" entities, for legal purposes.
J.L. in Los Angeles, CA, asks: You wrote: "Fulton County DA Fani Willis is very likely to indict [Trump] for multiple election-related crimes in Georgia by the end of this year."
Once that happens, what is to stop Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) from simply issuing a pardon for the Orange Jesus? Even if Kemp isn't re-elected, he'll still be in office for a couple of months after the election and will have nothing to lose by pardoning Trump and any other folks who might be indicted by Willis. And if he does win, then it'll be years before he'll need to deal with the political fallout from such a move.
V & Z answer: We've answered this question before, but we also get it a couple of times a week, so we are going to answer it again.
To start, while politicians generally say the right things publicly, you should not discount the extent to which they are motivated by personal enmity. In 1964, the American public would have had no idea that Lyndon Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy loathed each other, and yet LBJ would never have stuck his neck out for RFK, had it been necessary. Kemp, for his part, despises Trump, isn't much a fan of Trumpism, and it's nearly inconceivable that he'd take this kind of a risk for the former president. Remember, this is not Alabama, it's Georgia, which gave its EVs and its two U.S. Senate seats to Democrats this past cycle.
Beyond that, even if Kemp was inclined to help Trump out, the governor of Georgia does not have pardon power. That privilege is the exclusive province of the Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles.
R.S. in Arlington, VA, asks: What happens if each party wins 219 seats in the upcoming House of Representatives elections?
V & Z answer: We also get this question a lot, so we're going to answer it. Undoubtedly, you (and the other questioners) have started with 538 electoral votes, subtracted 100 for the Senate, and then divided 438 by two to get 219. However, that overlooks that Washington, D.C. has three EVs that do not correspond to voting members of Congress. The actual number of House members is 435, and so there cannot be a tie.
OK, actually, there could be a tie if there was an independent member elected to the House. Not likely to happen, but if the House did end up 217-217-1, then both sides would offer that one anything and everything they wanted in terms of pork and in terms of things like committee assignments and office space. If that one was intractable, then the two parties would have to find someone to serve as Speaker who was acceptable to at least 218 members.
M.K. in Poughkeepsie, NY, asks: I'm wondering what will be the most effective way(s) to help protect voters' rights/access this general election. I live in New York, so I wonder what I can do from here, but I would also consider traveling if there's a way to make a difference on the ground somewhere. What are your thoughts?
V & Z answer: You should take a look at VoteRiders, which is currently working on making sure people have voter ID. They will train volunteers, and then those volunteers help voters through Zoom, so you don't even have to leave your house.
Once election day draws near, as the organization's name suggests, they will transition to organizing rides to the polls and other sorts of hands-on assistance.
We are also happy to pass along any other suggestions readers might have.
D.D. in Portland, OR, asks: Like many other loyal readers, I'm a huge fan of the historical perspectives you bring to the site. That brings a question and an ask: Do you do much research when you add these historical footnotes, or are they so fundamental to your background that it's all top of mind?
Also, I really like your Top 25 list! Could you add some context as to why various items ranked where they did?
V & Z answer: As you can probably guess, (Z) writes nearly all of the history-based answers. And he doesn't often need to look things up, except the occasional date or statistic. Most of the stuff that comes up on the site is indeed pretty fundamental, like asking a doctor how penicillin works or a chemist what a proton is. Keep in mind that (Z) has prepared roughly 100 different lectures for the various history courses he teaches, and that he's delivered most of those lectures from memory dozens or hundreds of times. That being the case, it's no great trick to rattle off a fairly detailed explanation of the causes of the Civil War, or of the impact of the New Deal, or of the cultural currents of the 1960s.
As to the Top 25 list, there are some things that are specific to that particular exercise, and some things that are generally true of any historical list like this. Starting with the former, you should recall that the list was compiled as an accent, of sorts, to a U.S. history survey course. So, the process did not start with "What are the 25 most important events in modern U.S. history?" Instead, it started with: "What lectures should a modern U.S. history course include?" Then, for each of those lectures, the question was "What material should this particular lecture include?" Then, the Top 25 was layered on top of all of that.
This process produced a list that has much in common with the list that would have resulted from starting with "What are the 25 most important events in modern U.S. history?", but not the exact same list. In particular, there are some things—say, Roe v. Wade—that just don't fit into any of the lectures. Time is limited when you only have a couple of lectures a week for 10-15 weeks. Also, there are some things that made the list just so every lecture would have at least one entry.
And now we move on to considerations that are a part of every list like this, not just this particular list. Whatever number you choose—10, 25, 50, 100—choices have to be made, as there are only so many slots, and you don't want to devote too many of them to events that are part of the same larger story. So, (Z) likes to think of a chain of events as if they were a physical chain—what link or links were the key portion of the chain? You might not have, for example, the Social Security Act if Franklin D. Roosevelt was never born. However, that does not mean that "the birth of FDR" is the most important event in the chain.
A related consideration, which you see with any list of important events/people, is this: How different would things have been if this event had never taken place, or if this person had never been born? The classic example here is Charles Darwin. Obviously, The Origin of Species had a profound impact on the world. However, Alfred Russel Wallace solved the puzzle at exactly the same time Darwin did. So, even if Darwin had never been born, evolutionary theory would have become known to the world at about the same time. This takes Darwin down a few slots. By contrast, evidence suggests that if Albert Einstein hadn't had his annus mirabilis in 1905, those discoveries were not otherwise imminent. So, he gets ranked up a few slots.
Many answers about the list follow, and they will hopefully give additional insight.
M.S. in Vista, CA, asks: As I read your list, I was curious why Lincoln's election and assassination were missing but Donald Trump's election was there. Lincoln's election would have been Number 1 on my list.
V & Z answer: The course that list was drawn from starts in 1877, or 17 years after Lincoln's election. (Z) also has a list for the other half of U.S. history (origins to 1877); here are the first 20 items on that list:
- The Confederate Army fires on Fort Sumter (April 12, 1861)
- The Republican Party agrees to end Reconstruction (March 2, 1876)
- The Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794)
- The Union is victorious at Gettysburg and Vicksburg (July 4, 1863)
- George Washington is inaugurated (April 30, 1789)
- Ulysses S. Grant takes command of all Union armies (March 9, 1864)
- The Raid on Harpers Ferry (October 16-18, 1859)
- The Dred Scott decision (March 6, 1857)
- The Nullification Crisis (November 1832)
- The Battle of New Orleans (January 8, 1815)
- The Mexican-American War begins (April 25, 1846)
- The Louisiana Purchase (April 30, 1803)
- Andrew Jackson is elected (November 1828)
- The Red River Camp Meeting in Kentucky (July 1800)
- Thomas Jefferson is elected (November 1800)
- Jamestown founded (May 4, 1607)
- The assassination of Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)
- Samuel Slater arrives in America (November 1789)
- Eli Whitney perfects the "cotton gin" (March 14, 1794)
- Bacon's rebellion begins (July 1676)
It is necessary to be a little looser with timeframes than with the modern list, because events moved more slowly before the modern era, and because precise dates were sometimes disputed, for various reasons. Nonetheless, all of these events had a clear focal point.
As we did yesterday, we've put the top five at the bottom of the page, should readers care to guess. That said, you will not find the election of Lincoln on either portion of the list. That election is part of two "chains": the road to the Civil War, and the waging of the Civil War. As to the former, civil war was all but inevitable by the time Lincoln was elected; there were clearly events that played a much bigger role in wrecking the union (like Dred Scott). As to the Civil War itself, it was certainly important to have someone with Lincoln's skill captaining the ship. However, (Z) thinks there are other links in that chain, including decisions that Lincoln made, like promoting U.S. Grant, that were more directly relevant to the outcome of the war.
V.S. in Brownsville, OR, asks: What would be your thoughts about the critical role of FDR's Lend-Lease Act (March 11, 1941) among the pivotal points of our history?
I see similarities to the tight-rope that president Biden is walking regarding Ukraine, with the same position that FDR was forced to take supporting Britain, especially with regard to what we are witnessing with the rising levels of nationalism that imperils democracies. A divided country of the 1930's and a very divided country of the 2020's.
V & Z answer: The parallel you draw is on the mark, we'd say.
As to the importance of Lend-Lease, clearly it was significant. However, even if that particular initiative never existed, the U.S. was going to find ways to help the U.K. (like Cash and Carry, which predated Lend-Lease). Also, the U.S. was all-but-certain to enter World War II eventually. So, it is hard to make a case that Lend-Lease substantially changed the course of events, by itself.
D.C. in South Elgin, IL, asks: Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) does not appear on the list of top 25 moments of modern U.S. history. It sure appears that is the textbook example of an acute event, one which forced the trying-to-be-isolationist U.S.A. into World War II.
Can you explain its absence?
V & Z answer: In 1941, the Roosevelt administration was paying lip service to being isolationist. But between Cash and Carry, Lend-Lease (see above), increasing diplomatic pressure on the Japanese, and strategy meetings with Winston Churchill, it wasn't anything more than lip service.
Pearl Harbor happened because the Japanese knew by winter of 1941 that American entry into the war was guaranteed, and they wanted to at least get some mileage out of the attack that finished the job. But all that Pearl Harbor did was speed things up a little, maybe by months, but probably by weeks. If the Japanese had done more damage to the American fleet, allowing the Imperial Japanese Navy to maintain the initiative for another 6-9 months, then the attack might make the list. But as it is, while Pearl Harbor was shocking and memorable, it did not likely change the course of events very much.
J.H. in Bloomfield Township, MI, asks: Those of us who grew up reading Walter Lord's Incredible Victory, which describes how an outnumbered, inexperienced, and outgunned group of aviators and sailors managed to defeat an overwhelming force commanded by Isoroku Yamamoto, one of the great military minds of the 20th Century, agree that the Battle of Midway is one of the most important battles in history. But can you explain why you rank Midway above D-Day (June 6, 1944), which involved a dozen nations, millions of men, and the largest amphibious armada ever assembled, and began the liberation of Fortress Europe? (Side note: I recently visited the Normandy cemeteries, where our guide said that the Normans are teaching their fourth generation of children never to forget the sacrifice of the Allies.)
V & Z answer: This gets back to the fact that the list that was shared yesterday was ultimately intended as a pedagogical tool. And that means that you want to find room for some surprises ("Wow! It never occurred to me how significant credit cards are!") and you also don't want to have too many of the same thing. If the list is filled with military engagements of World War II (Pearl Harbor, D-Day, Midway, Hiroshima/Nagaskai), then too many other things have to be excised.
The answer above this one explains why Pearl Harbor was not included. That was actually a pretty easy decision. Deciding between D-Day and Midway was much harder. Ultimately, (Z) decided that D-Day, while famous and heroic, likely sped up the inevitable by several months, or perhaps a year at the outside. The German war machine could not stand forever against the combined might of the U.S.S.R., the U.K., and the U.S., and even if D-Day had failed, a German surrender by 1946 at the latest seems probable. Further, although Dwight D. Eisenhower was nervous enough about D-Day to effectively pre-write his resignation, the invasion succeeded with a fair margin of error left over. Put another way, it did not come especially close to failing.
By contrast, the U.S. got lucky at Midway, in several ways. That battle could well have been lost if, for example, the Japanese code had not been broken, or if Yamamoto had played his hand differently. And if the Japanese navy had not been devastated at Midway, they might have managed to hold out for another 2 or 3 or 4 years. Given the challenges of keeping a civilian populace on a war footing, that might even have been enough to allow the Japanese to negotiate a very different sort of armistice. Recall that the Korean War, to take a similar sort of example, has never officially ended.
Ultimately, we don't know for sure what would have happened had these major events never happened, or if they had happened differently. But (Z) is persuaded that there were a much broader possible range of outcomes for Midway than for D-Day.
D.V. in Parlin, NJ asks: I would say V-J Day (August 14, 1945) should probably have been in the top 10 on your list.
V & Z answer: Well, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were tied for #1. Those are basically the same thing as V-J Day, except that, in addition to ending World War II, the bombings also effectively inaugurated the Cold War. Certainly, the atomic bombs and V-J Day are not distinct enough to award those events two spots on the Top 25 list.
K.F.G. in Washington, D.C., asks: After viewing the first 20 items in Z's list of the most important events of modern U.S. history," I attempted to come up with the final five. One of my guesses, Baker v. Carr, (March 26, 1962) was not on the list and I think it needs to be, especially since Earl Warren referred to it as "the most important case of his career on the Court."
V & Z answer: Two words: inside baseball.
You might make a case that Baker belongs in the Top 25, though it's rather harder to speculate about that case's exact impact, as compared to something like Brown v. Board of Education. However, trying to work Baker into an undergraduate survey course would be... very tough.
S.S. in Koloa, HI, asks: This is totally speculative and perhaps naive, but I believe the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1953) belongs among the top 25 events in modern U.S. history, given the place of the U.S. in the world order during the second half of the 20th century and the 21st century, the Bush follies in the Middle East, Reagan's trickle-down economics and the creeping anti-democratic bent of the GOP. Had he not been assassinated, I believe he would have seen the light (not at the end of the tunnel) and limited our disastrous involvement in Vietnam and put the U.S. on a totally different course towards a better present-day reality. His presence on the scene would have resulted in no Nixon Presidency and an entirely different, and less destructive, role for the Republican Party. The county has made so many wrong turns since Dallas, which I think we would likely have avoided had he lived. Any thoughts?
V & Z answer: If (Z) had started with "What are the 25 most important events of modern U.S. history?" then the JFK assassination would have made the list. But, as noted above, he imposed the list on top of an existing set of lectures. And while it's a little tough to explain, JFK's death shows up as a part of several lectures (Vietnam, Television, Politics), but it's never quite a focal point.
Certainly, it would be possible to make it a focal point, but that means that it needs a minimum of 15 minutes of lecture (if not more). And if you expand one part of the lecture like that, you have to cut something else. Ultimately, (Z) has decided that, for example, 10 minutes on the long-term impact of the Vietnam War and 5 minutes on how Kennedy's assassination made the war possible are more useful than 15 minutes on Kennedy's assassination. Or, 5 minutes on the Kennedy assassination, 5 minutes on the murder of John Lennon, and 5 minutes on the TV coverage of 9/11 are more instructive for illustrating that TV allows Americans to share in national tragedies than just 15 minutes on JFK.
J.M. in Sewickley, PA, asks: The fall of the Soviet Union (December 25, 1991) did not make the Top 25 list because... it did not take place over a week or less? Or some other reason?
V & Z answer: It was, to use the metaphor that runs through this group of questions, the final link in the chain. The U.S.S.R. was falling apart by the early 1990s and, more importantly, it had ceased to have a dramatic impact on the daily lives of Americans long before that. In fact, you can argue that the Cold War was largely political theater for its last 10 years or so, primarily about winning Olympic medals and making spy movies. Certainly, something like the first Soviet nuclear test changed people's daily lives a lot more than the final crumbling of the nation.
G.H. in Branchport, NY, asks: Just wondering why the election of Barack Obama (November 4, 2008) didn't make the top 25 list and Trump did? As I see it the Obama election is a big reason why Trump was elected as it was in part a coming out of the underlying racism still present in many people.
V & Z answer: He's a link in the "much greater federal government power" chain, thanks to Obamacare, but the New Deal is a much more important link in that chain. He's a link in the "greater racial equality" chain, but the key events of the Civil Rights movement are much more important links in that chain. He's a link in the "white backlash of the 2010s" chain, but Donald Trump is a much more important link in that chain.
In other words, he's basically redundant to other items on the list. That said, he was in the Top 25 before Trump was elected.
J.E. in Whidbey Island, WA, asks: How is it possible that the 1/6 Insurrection (January 6, 2021) is excluded from your Top 25 list? Perhaps it is "too soon" for a historian to make such a call? (The next most recent event on your list is from 2016.)
Even with the limited perspective of less than two years, and regardless of the eventual fallout, surely we know already that it will rank in the Top 25... perhaps the Top 10. Don't we?
V & Z answer: Do we know that? You've hit on the exact problem, namely that it's too soon to really tell. Maybe that incident will inaugurate an era of reform that strengthens the American democracy. Maybe it was the first major salvo in the rise of American fascism. Or maybe it was an anomaly whose impact will be limited. We just don't know yet. Chairman Mao was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution. He said: "It's too soon to tell."
S.O.F. in New York City, New York, asks: In regards to your analysis of the moral implications of dressing like a Confederate soldier, you bring an interesting point about how moral sensibilities evolve. Lately there seems to be an assumption that these new moral sensibilities are permanent (once something is deemed to be offensive, it is offensive forever) and inevitable (if a small subgroup feels very strongly that something is offensive, eventually, it will be confirmed by the rest of society).
I'm wondering if you can think of historical examples that went the other way (i.e. something that was considered offensive, by a small activist group or society by and large, and later became acceptable)? I am not referring to something that was merely taboo like tattoos, but something that bucks the current trend of reevaluating culture, etc. to route out the "offensive." I can think of one prominent example: reevaluating traditional women's clothing during the 1960s. Most radical feminists of the time (my aging mother can confirm) adhered to the idea that high heels, bras, etc. were inherently offensive and oppressive, and they largely believed that, inevitably, women of the future would accept their belief. If you look at the modern fashion landscape, that obviously did not happen; basically women in the decades since the 1960s have rejected the radical feminist position on attire to a large degree. Can you think of other relevant examples from history that suggest some of the moral sensibilities we are discussing in real time may not be as inevitable and permanent as we may think?
V & Z answer: To start, there are literally hundreds of things that were offensive in past generations that (largely) aren't today. Divorce. Homosexuality. Evolutionary theory. Fluoride in drinking water. Nudity in movies. Heavy metal music. There are also hundreds of things that were OK in past generations that aren't anymore. Sexual harassment. Disregarding age of consent. Stereotyping. The word "fag."
In terms of sensibilities that are predominant today, but that may not be in the future, it is probable that people will eventually embrace the very argument we made in that item from yesterday: Let's not reach firm, broad conclusions based on one example, or one slip-up. There's a big difference between, say, Stephen Miller and a 20-year-old who sent one offensive tweet when they were still a teenager. But, at the moment, many people do not draw a distinction between one instance of bad behavior and a long track record of bad behavior—it is often one strike and you're out.
D.M.C. in Seoul, South Korea, asks: Thank you very much for the even-handed item on the Pennsylvania races for governor and senate on Friday. In it (Z) mentioned previously dominant interpretations of the Civil War. I've heard of the "Lost Cause" interpretation before but not the "Reconciliatonist" interpretation. So, I'm rather curious about the latter. Would (Z) mind giving an overview of Civil War interpretations and the historical dominance of those views?
V & Z answer: Depending on whom you ask, there are four or five of them. Here they are, in brief, from most conservative to most liberal:
- White Supremacist (Representative film: Birth of a Nation): This interpretation of the war, which is sometimes lumped in as a sub-theme of the Lost Cause school, argues that the war was the story of heroic white men fighting to protect the South from the ravages of Black and Black Republican rule. The white supremacist interpretation played a big role in thinking about the war, and in particular about Reconstruction, from the 1870s through the 1930s or so.
- Lost Cause (Representative film: Gone With the Wind): This is the Southern apologist interpretation. It played up the more admirable elements of the Southern war effort—Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson, the heroism of the common Confederate soldier, the beauty of the antebellum Southern landscape—while downplaying the odious elements, such as slavery. To the extent that the Lost Cause writers acknowledged slavery at all, it was to argue that the slaves were treated well, and that the white South most certainly did not go to war to protect the institution. This was the predominant interpretation of the war from the 1870s to the 1970s, and is the one that Doug Mastriano (R) embraces publicly (privately, he's probably more of a White Supremacist fan).
- Reconciliationist (Representative film: Gettysburg): This is the politically neutral interpretation. Those writers and scholars who embraced this point of view suggested that soldiers on both sides of the war served gallantly and proved their masculine mettle, and that the various political issues that led to the war are not important, and do not require attention. This way of looking at the war has been significant since the 1940s, and was predominant in the 1970s and 1980s.
- Unionist (Representative film: Ken Burns' The Civil War): This school of thought says that the primary reason the war was fought was to save democracy for the world. This interpretation was predominant from the late 1860s through the 1870s, remained present thereafter, and is again today one of the main interpretative traditions.
- Emancipationist (Representative film: Glory): This interpretation proposes that the primary story of the Civil War is that it ended slavery and that it put the U.S. on the path toward greater equality. Black Americans, particularly Frederick Douglass, tried to make sure this was a permanent part of the narrative, but had basically failed by 1876 or so. It returned to prominence in the 1960s and 1970s, and is today one of the main interpretative traditions.
Each of these schools of thought also tends to have its own heroic figures (albeit with some overlap). Working from top to bottom, we're talking Nathan Bedford Forrest/Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee/Stonewall Jackson, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain/the men of Pickett's Charge, Abraham Lincoln/U.S. Grant, and William H. Carney/Harriet Tubman.
S.C. in Mountain View, CA, asks: In the picture of you at age 11 in Keystone Kandidates, who is the fellow on the left? Your brother? A cousin? A friend? Where are they now? And did that photo begin your interest in Civil War history, or was it a consequence of your already having that interest?
V & Z answer: It is (Z)'s brother, who is exactly 3frac12; years younger, and who lives a hippie lifestyle in a hippie state (Oregon, specifically the suburbs of Eugene).
There is a relationship between that picture and (Z)'s ultimate career path, but it's not exactly the one you posit. The picture was taken as a gift for (Z)'s maternal grandmother, who was a big Civil War history fan. In the years after the shot was taken, she passed that interest on to him, and the rest is... well, history.
T.B. in Leon County, FL, asks: Since I started canvassing in 1978, I've read the occasional "The Republican base is old and the Democratic base is young. The Republicans will have to do something about that..." When was the last time the reverse was true: the (D )base being old and the (R) base being young? Were all the hip 22-year olds in 1950 and 1960 Republican? (With a minimum 21 voting age in most states, college activism before 1971 would have looked different, yes?) My parents back then comprised a working-class Democrat married to a Rockefeller Republican; it took President #45 to transform the parental Republican into a registered Democrat, so my family history doesn't shed light on this matter.
V & Z answer: We don't have great demographic information on party registrants in past generations, and to the extent we do, "age" was generally not a clear interest group in the way it is today.
That said, an enormous percentage of the Union Army during the Civil War was politically active, voted Republican, and was under the age of 30. So, it was certainly true in the 1860s and 1870s that the Republican base skewed young and the Democratic base skewed older.
B.W. in Suwanee, GA, asks: All of us are very aware of the two most notorious presidential assassinations but I learned on a walking tour that there were others (i.e., Garfield and McKinley). My question is, when did the U.S. start protecting the president with a Secret Service detail?
V & Z answer: Literally days after the McKinley assassination. He was the third president to be cut down in less than 40 years, and Congress concluded that strong steps needed to be taken to stop that from happening so often.
D.E. in Lancaster, PA, asks: Will invitations be extended to more frequent contributors to the site for the annual cocaine and hookers party? Asking for a friend, of course.
V & Z answer: Well, you know what they say: "It's not a real cocaine and hookers party until D.E. in Lancaster shows up."
Incidentally, about 90% of readers who wrote in with comments were amused by that bit, while 10% found it in poor taste. We'll take that ratio.
Here's the rest of the list from above::
- The Thirteenth Amendment is ratified (December 6, 1865)
- Christopher Columbus arrives in the "New World" (October 11, 1492)
- The United States declares its independence (July 4, 1776)
- The Constitution is signed (September 17, 1787)
- The Battle of Antietam (September 17, 1862)
Today's Senate Polls
Too bad for Western New England University. Their neck of the woods does not have many competitive Senate races. What is does have is Quinnipiac, which is just 50 miles away. Not so easy to earn a reputation under those circumstances, which must by why they are polling slam-dunk races like Connecticut. (Z)
|State||Democrat||D %||Republican||R %||Start||End||Pollster|
|Connecticut||Richard Blumenthal*||53%||Leora Levy||40%||Sep 15||Sep 21||Western New England U.|
|Missouri||Trudy Valentine||38%||Eric Schmitt||49%||Sep 23||Sep 27||Emerson Coll.|
|Pennsylvania||John Fetterman||45%||Mehmet Oz||43%||Sep 23||Sep 26||Emerson Coll.|
* Denotes incumbent
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