Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Skocpol on the Usefulness of History

In all of the law school courses I teach, I take at least a few minutes to sell the law students on the usefulness of history. One of my points is about the explanatory power of history: it helps us understand our current mix of statutes, common law doctrines, constitutional provisions, and so on. Here I make a comparison to economics, which pretty much all of them have had a taste of in their other classes. To put it very modestly, history belongs in their tool-kit, too; it may help solve puzzles that other tools can't. The other point, which I stole from a wonderful set of legal history lecture notes that Christopher Beauchamp (Brooklyn Law School) shared with me, is about history as a "road map for change." This is a pitch to any law student with hopes of making the law better, however he or she defines that term. By looking carefully at the successes and failures of would-be law reformers from the past, we may extract lessons about how to proceed in the future.

I thought about this today when I came upon this Washington Post interview with Theda Skocpol (Harvard University). The occasion for the interview was the release of "Naming the Problem: What It Will Take to Counter Extremism and Engage Americans in the Fight against Global Warming," a major report that Skocpol prepared for a symposium on "The Politics of America's Fight Against Global Warming." Here's the piece of the interview (by Brad Plumer) that caught my eye:
One of Skocpol’s key insights is that health care reformers spent much of their time in the run-up to Obama’s election studying past legislative failures and seeing what they could learn from them. Environmentalists, meanwhile, assumed they could build on previous successes and continue attracting Republican support. As a result, the climate movement was utterly unprepared for the GOP’s sharp turn against cap-and-trade in 2008.
The rest of the interview is here. (Hat tip: bookforum)

Parenthetically, the report is part of a larger initiative called the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), which, according to the SSN mission statement, "brings together many of America's leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at the national, state, and local levels." (Skocpol is at the helm, along with Suzanne Mettler, Jacob Hacker, and others.) I have heard Skocpol speak about SSN, and although the current roster of scholars draws heavily from political science, sociology, and public policy, she encouraged historians to get involved, too.