Don’t Look Back: What History Cannot Teach Us about the Midterm Elections

By Ellen Whelan-Wuest, staff editor Americans are often accused of forgetting our own history.  However, over the last few weeks and in the days following the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, it is clear that Americans are often too eager to interpret current situations as mere repetitions of our past.  George Santayana famously said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” but an over reliance on the past can be just as misleading.

Using history as a predictor for future outcomes is not unique to this most recent election season.  Even in just the last two years there are several examples when Americans predicted that current issues would play out exactly as they had in the past.  In the case of health care, comparisons were often drawn between the “Hillary Care” of the early 1990’s and the new “Obama Care” reform package.  Based on this historical precedent, many in the media harkened back to 1994 and declared health reform dead when Scott Brown was elected as the Republicans’ 41st Senator. Obviously, these predictions proved false.

When Proposition 8 was on the California ballot in 2008, marriage equality advocates implored Californians to remember the bigotry and shame of segregationist America and the laws that prohibited interracial marriage.  However, in the weeks that followed Prop 8’s passage, many analysts found that this historical reference did not resonate outside of the community of people already in support of marriage equality.

Finally, in the weeks leading up to the elections this past Tuesday, the media often referred to the fact that if the Republicans took back the House but not the Senate, it would be the first time an out-of-power party had accomplished this since 1930.  However, the Democratic takeover of the House in 1930 was primarily due to a number of Republican congressmen dying and Democrats being elected to fill their seats.  While 1930 did set the stage for Franklin Roosevelt’s election in 1932 and a new Democratic majority in the Senate, we must resist the temptation to believe that the script has already been written for 2012.  Quite simply, we have no idea what will happen next.

It is tempting and comforting to imagine we might know what is around the corner based on what we have already experienced, but it is a mistake to think that historical examples can predict future outcomes.  Instead, we must face our current situation with what wisdom we can draw from our past while remaining open to the unknown realities that lie ahead.

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