Seeking Solace from History? The 1876 & 2020 Elections and Threats to Democracy

Reflections on the lessons studying the 1876 presidential election has for our contemporary situation. Analytically, what do we gain by considering these periods togetherSurely, we’re not interested in a Ripley’s Believe It or Not approach. (“Next up: The parallels between the assassination of Presidents Lincoln and Kennedy!”) And we know that history does not “repeat itself.” (And if it did, what would that tell us about politics?) But how do case studies of past political events inform political analysis? One way is exactly as case studies of current political events do – to develop and test hypotheses about various aspects of politics. If 2000, 2016, or 2020, why not 1876? Another is slightly different: to offer a comparative case to explore or re-test (those are different) knowledge drawn from contemporary research. Another is to investigate roots and precedents (again, those are different). Finally, for those who agree that history is worth understanding, we can use contemporary insights drawn from social science research to interrogate and extend extant historical research. That is what this exploration sets out to do. By considering these two eras in tandem, what, if anything, can we learn about persistent fundamentals of American politics?

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