Why National History Matters

[Ed. This essay is cross-posted with our partners at Borealia.]

by Jerry Bannister

Nations matter. National cultures matter. And national histories matter. As we try to understand what has happened in the United States, we should keep those three things in mind. There will be endless discussion of all the proximate causes of Donald Trump’s victory – such as the conduct of the Director of the FBI, mistakes by the Democrats, dislike of Hillary Clinton, economic problems in the rust belt – but little of it will confront a critical underlying issue: the national culture of the United States. Trump’s margin of victory is too big and too broad to be written off as simply a failure of the Clinton campaign, or a conspiracy engineered by rogue elements of the FBI to embarrass her in the final days of the election. There is something much larger and deeper going on, something rooted firmly in American history.

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For historians, Trump’s election comes as the trend toward transnational history continues to spread across North American universities. For anyone following trends on social media, especially twitter, Canadian history seems now to be so yesterday. The talk now focuses on decolonization, settler colonialism, and other post-national perspectives that reject seeing history through a national lens. These perspectives emphasize how national boundaries are arbitrary, how national institutions are oppressive, and how national cultures are barriers to social justice. For those on the radical end of this scholarly spectrum, Canadian studies belong in the dustbin of history. Like the trend in favour of economic globalization, the transnational movement in historical scholarship has something inexorable about it, as if anyone who questions it is questioning the very direction of history.

Well, if we ever needed a reminder of the importance of national history, we got it last night. Despite all the ink spilled on connections across borders and links across the Atlantic world, American history diverges in critical ways from Canadian history. For all of our similarities as continental neighbours, our political cultures appear to be going in opposite directions. Those differences may seem minor to some, but this morning they feel more important than ever. One of the drawbacks of transnational history is that it emphasizes connections across geography over differences across nations. It can tell us a great deal about issues such as environmental change or migration patterns, but it tells us little about why we are where we are this morning. As bad as things are in Canada, it is impossible to imagine Donald Trump assuming power here. Does this matter?

I think it does. It matters because, however bad things are here, there are some traditions in our national political culture that are worth recognizing and protecting. As we study the racism, exploitation, and oppression in Canadian history, we should also study how patterns in Canada compare to those in the United States. I am not – not for a second, despite the angry tweets that I’m going to get! – denying in any way the tragedies in our past and the problems in our present; however, as we contemplate what the world will be like with a President Trump, we should pause for a moment and reflect on what makes us different from the United States. Such a reflection might suggest that, in our effort to transcend the limitations of national history, we risk losing sight of what makes us distinctive. Depending on your perspective, that difference may be small, but it doesn’t feel that way today.

No one I read or saw predicted Trump’s victory. No one knows what the next four years will hold. Perhaps, after a short-term crisis, things will seem normal again. We will attend conferences in trendy cities where transnational frameworks will be praised as innovative and national histories panned as anachronistic. The historians attending those conferences will all come from places that have deeply rooted national cultures, but they will act, at least for a few days, as if those cultures matter little to how we study and teach the past. Whereas most of these scholars oppose globalization as an economic phenomenon, they embrace it as an intellectual phenomenon. Early modern historians will have the benefit of walling themselves off from the present, because efforts to study the roots of national cultures risk breaking the cardinal rules of presentism and anachronism.

Today, though, those rules don’t seem to matter much. Just as there is a pressing need to understand the present and future of a Trump presidency, there is a need to understand how we got here in the first place. There is a need, in other words, to explore the remote as well as the proximate causes. There is a need to recognize that, despite all the connections and similarities across empires and borders, the histories of Canada and the United States diverge fundamentally in important ways. We, as well as the rest of the world, will have to cope with whatever happens over the coming years. We never voted for Trump, but we will feel the effects of his government and his policies. As we search for answers and understanding, we need to reconsider the importance of national history, national institutions, and the road not travelled.

For more, see Bannister’s previous essay on Settler Colonialism and the Future of Canadian History.


Jerry Bannister is an Associate Professor of History at Dalhousie University

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About The Acadiensis Blog

The Acadiensis Blog is a place for Atlantic Canadian historians to share their research with both a scholarly and general audience. We welcome submissions on all topics Atlantic Canadian. If you are interested in contributing to the blog, please contact Acadiensis Digital Communications Editor Corey Slumkoski at corey.slumkoski@msvu.ca.
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