Historian Eric Foner on the Elections, Reconstruction, and the Face of Racism Today

This Week on the Laura Flanders Show: Making sense of the election season with prominent historian, Eric Foner. From Confederate monuments and the Black Lives Matter movement to election politics and utopian communities, Foner discusses today’s politics through the legacy of the past, and Laura takes a new look at a hundred-year-old proclamation.


Laura Flanders: Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University here in New York. He's one of this country's most prominent historians and the foremost expert on the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. He's the author of more than twenty books including classics such as "Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War", "Nothing But Freedom: Emancipation and Its Legacy", and "Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution 1863-77". His most recent book is "Gateway to Freedom" The Hidden History Of The Underground Railroad". I'm very glad to welcome Eric Foner back to the program. Hi Eric.

Eric Foner: Nice to see you, Laura.

Laura Flanders: Good to see you too. So, just in very broad strokes, how do you as a historian approach the election season? I think I've seen all this before.

Eric Foner: It does seem like there's nothing new under the sun. Sometimes people who don't have a long sense of history wonder whether people have denounced each other vitriolically as we have seen a lot this campaign season. Yes, they did in the past. I mean, you should see what they said about George Washington in the 1790's, or Abraham Lincoln. The intensity on some of what seem to be the more retrograde ideas that we've heard like kicking millions of immigrants out of the country, things like that. Or the anti-Muslim sentiments. There are parallels for that. We had a party called the Know-Nothings back in the 1850's which wanted to cut off immigration, keep Irish out, very anti-Catholic.

Laura Flanders: What happened to them? I want some good news.

Eric Foner: They kind of faded away, although that impulse of hostility to those who are different and hostility to newcomers who seem to be different has surfaced many times in American history. It's not just in the last year. Yes, of course today it's a little different than in the past. The media, the social media, the internet, everything anyone says is broadcast around the world immediately. There's no hiatus, there's no ability to take back what you said.

Laura Flanders: The other big thrust of this election and a lot of elections is who's going to get things done, to which I always say, what things?

Eric Foner: Well yes, the ability to get things done is not necessarily that great a virtue if you have no idea what you're trying to do. There's one of my favorite quotes I give to my students about all this is from Max Weber, a famous essay of his, Politics as a Vocation, where he said, "What is possible would never be achieved if some people didn't ask for the impossible." The people who demand the impossible don't get it done, but they make the possible possible. They change the discourse. They put the issues on the national agenda. The abolitionists for example. They didn't abolish slavery, but without them, slavery would never have been abolished...

Become a sustaining member now by donating as little as $5 and receive access to transcripts of our episodes, as well as exclusive clips from our interviews.

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.