Historical Analogies: Useful or Harmful to Political Discourse?

By Jackie Howell

This week’s readings provided a thought-provoking question: Are historical analogies useful or harmful to political discourse? Gordon and Moyn present two opposing arguments on the tool of analogy; Gordon argues that historical analogies matter to advance our understanding of the present, while Moyn discusses the pitfalls of comparative historical analysis. While both are compelling arguments, one must use historical analogies when appropriate. Historical analogies can be overplayed to appeal to a particular audience, and one can misuse historical analogies to misconstrue current events. As described by Victoria de Grazia, “calling people fascists has been as American as apple pie,” but it is crucial to understand the difference between fascism as a political label and fascism as a historical phenomenon. Otherwise, the public becomes desensitized to fascism and the dangers it represents, leading to an apathetic society.

“History repeats itself” is a common catch-phrase that bears the cyclical image of events repeating every so often. It is human nature to compare and contrast, but does drawing a comparison between the past and present detract from the consequences of such events? While drawing comparisons can be a useful tool of analogy, comparative analysis can often be misleading and can downplay what requires attention, as argued by Charles Maier (Moyn 2020). However, labelling a historical event (such as the Holocaust) as “unique” can often lead to a hierarchy of traumas, risking the implication that some lives are more valuable than others – which ironically plays into the narrative of Trump-ism.

Understanding fascism, populism, and authoritarianism requires historical analogy to determine the similarities and differences between the various definitions over time. Particularly, fascism in the 20th century can be compared and contrasted with fascism in the 21st century. While events are not identical, the rise to power and the appeal to the masses bear a similarity, even if they occurred nearly a century apart. The most telling sign of fascism is the desire to create a dichotomy of us-versus-them. Populist parties have gained significant political breakthrough across Europe, indicating a phenomenon that is becoming common across continents. To understand the current dangers of the populist or fascist phenomenon, it is useful to study Mussolini’s appeal to the masses or the Nazi-Fascist New Order to learn why and how these leaders gained power.

Ignoring history will not transform the present, and comparing the present with the past can often excuse or distract. As proposed by Moyn, clarifying the similarities and differences to bring about a better future must be the goal when using historical analogies. Analogies can guide scholars and resonate with the public, but the focus of the analogy must be on how to avoid repeating harmful or dangerous behaviours. It is easy to compare President Trump with other fascist leaders; however, it is important to understand the social, economic, and political events that created these leaders to prevent a Trump 2.0.

Works Cited

de Grazia, Victoria. “What We Don’t Understand about Fascism.” Zocalo Public Square, 13 Aug. 2020, zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/08/13/understand-fascism-american-history-mussolini-hitler-20th-century/ideas/essay/

“DEMOS Identifies Four Types of Populism in European Political Parties.” Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe, demos-h2020.eu/en/demos-identifies-four-types-of-populism-in-european-political-parties

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s