Julian E. Zelizer is Malcolm Stevenson Forbse, Class of 1941, Professor of History and Public Affairs. He has been instrumental in reviving the academic field of American political history. His publications include Jimmy Carter, Conservatives in Power: The Reagan Years, and Governing America: The Revival of Political History. He is currently teaching The United States Since 1974 and Great Leadership in Historical Perspective. He writes a weekly CNN column and frequently comments on political history and current politics in national media. Professor Zelizer holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. This interview was conducted by the Princeton Tory’s Sofia Gallo.
PT: How did you become interested in political history?
JZ: Part of it is my family. I had a grandfather who was a rabbi in Columbus, Ohio, and then in Florida, and I used to spend a lot of time with him. He loved politics. And my mother is a professor. She’s a sociologist here at Princeton. So I was also very familiar with academics. And my father is also a rabbi. We came from a family where ideas mattered and where writing and speaking and thinking was virtuous.
So by the end of college and graduate school I was totally committed to being a historian of politics. As my career progressed, I became more and more interested in the inner workings of Washington and the way that the democratic process worked. And my career went on two tracks. Part of it was the academic side and then part of it was this other side I’ve become part of with the public intellectual writing. It started when Bill Clinton was being impeached. In 1999, the local CBS radio station asked me to come on the morning show, and so I did, and I had never done that before. Basically a bunch of goofy guys took a little serious break, but I really liked it! Because quickly I saw when you do that, you communicate with lots of people. And they kept inviting me as a regular. So I did it, because even though it was early in the morning, I figured it was good practice. And then I started writing op-eds through various editors. And I really love writing in that form. It’s helped me with my teaching I feel, how to communicate effectively and clearly. And it’s helped me in my writing of books for the same reasons. But it’s been really interesting to be part of the political mix sometimes, to write a column like the “Click-bait Primary.”
PT: Why do you think Republican candidates still compare themselves to Ronald Reagan? More generally, do you think there are lessons we could learn from the Reagan era for today’s politics?
JZ: The reason they look to Reagan is because he is a transitional figure for the conservative movement, and he really brought the movement that formed in the seventies from being outside Washington, being a movement primarily of those out of power, right into the walls of the White House and into the Senate. And so, not only did he bring them into power, he articulated a lot of conservative ideas in a way that no other politician had been able to do. He had a lot of strong opponents, but he was more successful than anyone else in telling America, talking to America, explaining to America what it meant to be part of this conservative movement. And so I think people look back to that period, certainly conservatives look back, to understand a successful moment. They want to understand a politician who could bring the different coalitions of conservatism together in a way that often seems difficult.
PT: What do you think of all the outsider campaigns going on right now? What do those mean, and where are they going?
JZ: I think you are seeing candidates taking advantage of social media to be able to communicate very quickly and in some ways cheaply. Part of it is the blending of the world of celebrity, reality, television, and politics, which we’ve seen bits and pieces of in both parties over the years. I think Donald Trump is the culmination of that phenomenon where all these worlds come together. And part of it is a certain frustration with Washington that in the minds of many Americans does not work well. When you have a lot of discontent that the system isn’t working for many reasons, there is space for outsiders to campaign. The thing for the Republicans is the weakness of the front-runner. I do think Jeb Bush has turned out to be much weaker politically than people thought, and that has created room for challenge. And within the Democratic Party, I think it has been a much more ideological debate about what should the core principles of the party be. And there’s disagreement, which I think created space for the outsider Bernie Sanders.
PT: In your CNN column, you discussed how a lot of the Republican candidates are using controversial statements that are not really helping bring substance to the debate to get attention. Why do you think candidates do that?
JZ: One of the things I say is that one-liners are old now. It is not the first time we have had candidates try to figure out something clever to say to get them in the news. But what we have seen, certainly from some Republicans is the idea of saying very controversial, heated statements, I believe with the intention of getting attention. And the way the social media works, is it’s very easy to get that statement out quickly to millions of people through Twitter. And we’ve seen it works very well, it’s very effective, which is why they do it. Ben Carson after making some of his most controversial statements such as if German Jews had guns they could have warded off the Nazi military machine. His polls started to go up, not down. And Donald Trump has made an entire campaign that often revolves around these types of statements. And so they do it cause it works. So there’ll be a need for pushback before this kind of thing stops, the technology won’t go away. So it’s really about incentives.
PT: Do you think it’s possible that one of the candidates will start kind of having a more substantive debate, or this not generate public attention?
JZ: I don’t know at this point. We’ve had other moments when things get a little out of control in terms of what people are saying in both parties in campaigns, and eventually there’s a pushback. This was the case with McCarthyism in the 1950s. Eventually, Republicans had to tell McCarthy, you have to stop, this is too much. You could have a moment like that, you could have a moment of self-introspection, but it’s very hard. I mean ultimately, politicians listen to voters. So that’s where our democracy does work in elections. And if voters are not kind of registering their disapproval for these statements, the politicians will continue to say them.
PT: Race relations have reemerged as a major issue. Is it just Ferguson? It seems like a lot of the issues that are coming up have been going on for a really long time. Why are they resurfacing now?
JZ: They are. I just finished working on publishing the Kerner Commission report, reprinting it, which was a report in 1968 after the riots in the cities, and it’s all about race and the situation in urban America. They did a lot of work on that, and the report, which is a government report, sounds like it could be written today. It’s about police encounters with African-Americans. It’s about incidents of police violence kind of blowing up finally into rioting. This is nothing new. You can go back 20-30 years before that and find other government reports about it. So it’s actually just an ongoing issue, I don’t think it ever went away. I think just more Americans paid attention to it at different points in the 20th and 21st centuries. We have different problems in the cities that range from unemployment to issues in policing that we have not figured out a way to deal with, it’s racism. And I think you know some of the issues with Ferguson etc. obviously got more attention because of the social media, they were exposed in very visceral ways that were harder, even ten or fifteen years ago you know people literally saw this stuff. These are old problems. So, I think the lesson is at some point the nation has to deal with them, otherwise they will continue.
SG: Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers?
JZ: Here’s one I think people talk about, for your magazine in particular. One thing I’ve always tried to be committed to is not telling the history from a conservative or liberal point of view. It’s very difficult, and I try to do it often with my articles too, and the thing I’ve learned in that realm unlike the classroom people are going to assume you’re from one side or the other. But the great thing is I’m called liberal, conservative, socialist, right-wing, I’m called everything so I figure I’m probably doing something right in that I’m not speaking just to one voice. But I do try to do that. I feel like that’s a contribution you can make in this day and age, not to be analyzing politics from one perspective. And in my classroom I have always been very determined, since I started in the 90s, not to have a classroom where any single student feels, “I shouldn’t say anything because this professor doesn’t agree with that perspective”. And it’s harder in this world of polarized debate to do that. But I think it’s really, really important. I often get the comment “can’t really tell what side you’re on” I’ll give a talk, and they’re like “are you a Democrat or a Republican?” For me that is the ultimate compliment.
Sofia Gallo is a junior from New York City and is majoring in the Politics Department. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.