BackStory’s Year In Review
As 2016 comes to a close, BackStory takes a look at the stories that resonated most with our audience. Here are the 12 most popular episodes from this year:
12. Judaism In America
In this episode, the Guys explore the history of Judaism in America.
11. Watch The Throne: America & Royalty
For this episode, the Guys explore the tensions that have arisen as many Americans defined the nation as the opposite of monarchy, while admiring, and sometimes emulating, royal families throughout the world.
10. Well-Regulated Militias: A History Of Armed Protest
In this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider different groups who have taken up arms and the causes that have led Americans to, on occasion, rebel.
9. Believer-In-Chief: Faith & The Presidency
In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed, and Brian explore the relationship between American presidents and their spiritual beliefs.
8. Wish You Were Here: A History Of American Tourism
In this episode of BackStory, Peter, Ed and Brian explore the history of American tourism.
7. You’ve Come A Long Way? A History Of Women In Politics
On this episode of BackStory, we look at the different ways women have influenced American politics, both before and after they won the right to vote in 1920.
6. Color Lines: Racial Passing In America
On this episode of BackStory, the Guys will consider what the history of “passing” has to say about race, identity, and privilege in America.
5. Above The Fray? Ideology & The Court
In this episode, the Guys will examine why the Supreme Court is regarded as an institution that remains above partisan squabbles.
4. Nose To The Grindstone: A History Of American Work Ethic
In this episode, the Guys look at American attitudes towards the value, meaning, and importance of work.
3. Politically Incorrect: Speech In American Politics
On this episode of BackStory, we trace what it has meant to be “politically incorrect” throughout American history. CONTENT ADVISORY: THIS EPISODE CONTAINS STRONG, UNBLEEPED LANGUAGE
2. The GOP: A History Of The Republican Party
On this episode of BackStory, we unpack the origins, evolution, and reinvention of the Grand Old Party.
1. Hamilton: A History
On this episode of BackStory, we take apart the Hamilton phenomenon by considering who he was, his legacy and why a white migrant from the British West Indies appeals to so many Americans in 2016.
Q&A with Yale scholar
FBI interference in U.S. elections is nothing new.
Last week, FBI Director James Comey reopened an investigation of Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state. On Sunday, Comey announced the investigation was complete, and that there was no evidence that warranted charging Clinton with a crime. His actions set off a firestorm of protest, with public officials from both sides of the aisle claiming the FBI had violated a longstanding policy of avoiding actions that could be construed as interfering with an election. Many Americans believed the move to be unprecedented.
According to Beverly Gage, the author of “G-man: J. Edgar Hoover and the American Century” and professor at Yale University, this is not the first time an FBI director put his finger on the presidential election scale. As a fellow U.S. political history scholar, I wanted to dig deeper into the role of the director of the FBI and how Comey compares to his infamous predecessor, J. Edgar Hoover.
So, I asked Gage to talk more about the history of the FBI’s involvement in politics.
Balogh: James Comey, current FBI director, and J. Edgar Hoover, director of the bureau from 1924 to 1972 – who was probably best-known for amassing a list of “U.S. enemies” that included suspected terrorists and spies, as well as Martin Luther King Jr. – have recently been compared. Do you think the comparisons are fair?
Gage: Hoover occupied a more prominent role in American political life and culture than Comey does. He also exercised more power in Washington. That said, Hoover had a past of being involved in politics even as he claimed to head a nonpartisan, investigative agency. So, to that degree, I think Comey’s working within the Hoover tradition – participating in electoral politics but at the same time, claiming to be a nonpartisan agency.
Balogh: Is there a realistic way to lead the FBI during an election year and stay out of politics?
Gage: The FBI often conducts politically explosive investigations into corruption, or major crimes – that’s one of their jobs within the Washington bureaucracy. So, to some degree, this is unavoidable. I do think that over the last year, Comey has inserted himself more overtly into policy discussions, especially his statements about police and about Black Lives Matter – he suggested that activism around police brutality was making it difficult for police to do their jobs and placed them in greater danger. Whereas [with Clinton’s emails], if he could have avoided involvement in the investigation, I would imagine he would have preferred that.
Balogh: What steps were taken to counteract the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover by the FBI?
Gage: Today, the FBI director holds a very different position: There is a term limit of 10 years, although it can be waived. There’s also congressional oversight committees, freedom of information laws and more overt restrictions on the kinds of surveillance that the FBI can conduct. When Hoover was director, there was little accountability. Hoover really did exercise something close to total control.
In theory, the discretion and power of the FBI director is more limited now than it was during Hoover’s time. Of course, the FBI is still a bureaucracy and an intelligence agency that operates partly in secret. So, it’s always a little hard to tell what’s happening behind the scenes.
Balogh: Do you think the steps taken, the limits on discretion and the amount of power, are helpful?
Gage: Yes, it’s certainly helpful. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was more attention on constraining the power of the FBI and the other intelligence agencies, particularly coming out of the Church Committee, which was formed in 1975 to study government operations, especially intelligence activity. But then the Patriot Act and 9/11 broadened intelligence agencies’ powers. We also see many instances of surveillance that people have challenged as either politically inappropriate or unconstitutional. For instance, in the 1980s, after Hoover’s death and shakeups at the FBI, the bureau was still conducting surveillance of left-wing organizations.
It hasn’t been a steady trend, but the constraints matter. They don’t solve every problem – the FBI remains in a funny position where it’s a law enforcement agency, but it’s also an intelligence agency.
Consumer In Chief
Americans have such a unique lifestyle, we’ve given it a name: The American Way. The concept is deeply embedded in our collective identity. We bristle when others attack it and we lament its potential disappearance. Even our military swears to protect the American way of life.
The American lifestyle is frequently criticized by our allies and enemies as one that promotes capitalism over all else. One of the biggest critics in the global community is Pope Francis. He used his recent U.S. tour to speak against consumerism, but that wasn’t the first time he held that position. In his 1998 book “Dialogues between John Paul II and Fidel Castro,” Francis wrote, “What the Church criticizes is the spirit that capitalism has encouraged, utilizing capital to subject and oppress the man.” He further believes that the inequality created by capitalism is a source of evil.
Inequality is the root of social evil.
— Pope Francis (@Pontifex) April 28, 2014
Even presidential candidate Bernie Sanders believes that inequality is a social problem that Americans need to address. While Sanders might not go so far as directly labeling capitalism a contributing factor to inequality, his own beliefs on inequality and wealth is a top issue of his campaign.
If there is an individual who symbolizes our way to the rest of the world, it is probably the president. When President Obama said in this year’s State of the Union that he needs “every American to stay active in our public life,” he’s invoking the American way. And when presidential candidate Donald Trump promotes his slogan “Make America Great Again,” he’s looking for an emotional response by pushing the “protect the American way of life” button.
Ahead of his symposium on “The Presidency and American Capitalism Since 1945,” we asked BackStory co-host and University of Virginia professor of history Brian Balogh some questions to help us understand the American way and the president’s role in maintaining the ideal.
Q: How does the president sell the American way of life?
A: Presidents have, sometimes with subtlety and sometimes not, promoted American abundance. For instance, in July of 1959, when Richard Nixon was still vice president, he debated soviet leader Nikita Krushchev in a model kitchen that was setup for the American National Exhibition in Moscow. They debated the benefits of communism vs. capitalism, with the all-electric kitchen as a backdrop, in front of a color TV.
For Nixon, this was more about using the friendly competition over consumer goods to open up a free exchange. Nixon understood that consumption was key to winning the hearts and minds of the Third World and he was banking on the American way of life.
Q: It seems like what makes a good citizen is often linked to the kind of economy we have. How has the relationship of citizenship to the economy changed over the course of American history?
A: During the 19th century, Americans had a producer ethic, characterized by Max Weber as the Protestant ethic. It was a set of values, closely tied to religion, that consisted of work, sacrifice and saving. So, if you were a good citizen, you worked hard and denied yourself in the interest of god and the republic.
By the early 20th century, a consumer ethic emerged. Historian Lizbeth Cohen labeled the second half of this century the Consumer Republic. It’s characterized by an emphasis on the individual pursuit of fulfillment through the purchase of commodities and the quest for the “good life.”
Q: We’ve seen the term “outsider” used a lot in the current election cycle. What are some other examples of “outsiders” who ran for President, and what did they have to say about the American way of life?
A: Jimmy Carter rose to power in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, an era of running against Washington. So, he marketed himself as the ultimate outsider. Even though he was the Governor of Georgia at the time, he pitched himself as an unknown, a common man. He even appeared on the game show “What’s My Line,” three years before he was elected president. It took the panelists eight questions to figure out that he was a sitting governor.
Carter drew a direct line from consumption to a social problem – in this case, a lack of purpose. In a speech that became known as the “malaise” speech, Carter grappled with the question of what was wrong with America. He said, “We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Perhaps in his own way, Carter was calling for a return to producer ethos. Whatever Carter’s vision, the American voting public had a different one: they returned Carter to Georgia, voting in President Ronald Reagan in 1980 who celebrated morning in America as Americans doubled down on consumption.
If you’re near the campus of Florida Atlantic University-Boca Raton this Wednesday, drop by and catch the rest of Balogh’s talk.
BackStory Digital Editor & Strategist