Doris Kearns Goodwin explains what we can learn from the 2016 electionHistorians in the News
tags: election 2016, doris kearns goodwin
DS: You’ve written extensively about populist presidents like the Roosevelts and Lyndon Johnson. Could you talk about the role of populist rhetoric in the current presidential race?
DKG: The fact that Bernie Sanders reached such a large following – and obviously Trump has, too – shows that there are concerns. A segment of the country, especially in the working class where jobs have been taken away by technology or globalization, feel that they haven’t been looked after.
It reminds me of what happened at the turn of the 20th century when the industrial revolution had shaken up the economy. Then, it was people on the farms feeling that, as people were migrating to the cities, they were being left out of the process, that immigration was taking their jobs, that a gap was growing between the rich and the poor ... and they were nervous about where the country was going. I think a lot of those feelings are replicated today because of the changing economy.
But then the question is: What do you do about it? And that requires real solutions, not just rhetoric. That’s what Teddy Roosevelt was able to do. There was a lot of populist rhetoric in the 1890s, and then when he got into office as a progressive, he was able to mobilize the Congress to change the working hours for women and children, to deal with the exploitation in the factories, and to deal with big companies swallowing up small companies. It requires political skill as well as rhetorical skill if you want something to happen.
DS: How do you think Hillary Clinton can respond to today’s populism?
DKG: One of the things Teddy Roosevelt did was to get out of Washington. He actually took train tours for six weeks in the spring and six in the fall. He knew that he had to hear, on a local level, what people were feeling. Somehow a train seemed a wonderful way to do that. Because they go through small villages as well as cities, he could meet with people along the way.
I’ve often thought that the trouble with today’s transportation is that you can fly in and fly out. You’re not getting a sense of how the local people are truly feeling. One wild thought might be to take regular train rides to feel what the country is feeling. I think she’ll need to really keep in touch with that popular sentiment outside of Washington.
The other thing, obviously, would be to reach across the aisle and have more congresspeople and senators to the White House, like LBJ used to, to ensure that you’ve made the best effort to spend time with them.