Hurricanes and Historical Thinking

A couple of years ago, I read an article that has greatly impacted my teaching. Written by two history professors from Cal State-Northridge, the article–“What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”–explains what the authors refer to as the “five C’s of historical thinking.” They are:

  • Causality
  • Change over time
  • Context
  • Complexity, and
  • Contingency

As the authors state:

[The five C’s] stand at the heart of the questions historians seek to answer, the arguments we make, and the debates in which we engage. These ideas are hardly new to professional historians. But that is precisely their value: They make our implicit ways of thought explicit to the students and teachers whom we train. The five C’s do not encompass the universe of historical thinking, yet they do provide a remarkably useful tool for helping students at practically any level learn how to formulate and support arguments based on primary sources, as well as to understand and challenge historical interpretations related in secondary sources.

Since reading the article, these terms have become part of my classroom vernacular, and I ask my students to incorporate one or more of the five C’s into their questions and arguments, particularly in their major research paper.

Even if they don’t have the vocabulary yet, my students tend to come into my class relatively familiar with the first two concepts, and after some discussion, they tend to grasp context and complexity as well. For many, though, contingency remains elusive.

According to the authors:

Contingency may, in fact, be the most difficult of the C’s. To argue that history is contingent is to claim that every historical outcome depends upon a number of prior conditions; that each of these prior conditions depends, in turn, upon still other conditions; and so on. The core insight of contingency is that the world is a magnificently interconnected place. Change a single prior condition, and any historical outcome could have turned out differently.

Over the last week or so, though, the presidential campaign has offered an opportunity to explore the idea of historical contingency. Let’s examine.

A look at Gallup’s daily tracking poll gives a sense of the trajectory of the campaign.

To make sense of the graph, recall that Obama’s big lead came in late summer, when Romney’s campaign seemed to be making gaffes on an almost-daily basis, and many Republicans were lamenting what was sure to be an embarrassing loss. To Romney’s credit, though, he got things back on track, and after the first debate in Denver on October 3, the momentum swung decisively to the Romney campaign. (That’s where the graph starts to get messy.) Although Obama fought back in subsequent debates, it continued to look as if Romney would carry strong momentum into Election Day. As late as October 28–just over a week ago, remember–Gallup had Romney with a slight edge among likely voters, 51% to Obama’s 46%. So what happened? How might historians explain this in the future?

Well, in a nutshell, along came Sandy. Hurricane Sandy did not cause Americans to vote for President Obama. The storm did, however, alter the “frame of reference” for voters, forcing them to rethink the issues and their evaluations of the president. In the end, I would argue, it was a chain of events stemming from Hurricane Sandy that allowed Obama to recapture momentum and project leadership–and obvious advantage for any incumbent.

Hurricane Sandy came ashore in New Jersey on October 29, leaving a trail of destruction throughout the Northeast and even into the Midwest. Both campaigns shut down their partisan events and adopted a “Americans-first, partisans second” tone. While Romney struggled to stay in the spotlight (even a more muted spotlight), Obama raked in tons of free media. He visited the devastated areas, assured those affected of the government’s full support, and even received high praise from ultraconservative New Jersey governor Chris Christie. In essence, he continued campaigning as an effective leader simply by doing his job–and he didn’t have to spend a cent on ads.

On top of this, the aftermath of the storm also raised thorny questions for Romney on one of the central issues of the campaign: the role of government. It didn’t take long for media outlets to begin reporting Romney’s statements from one of last year’s Republican primary debates (in which he worked desperately to market himself to the party faithful as a true conservative). Romney’s comments, which suggested that he might consider cutting federal disaster relief funding, played quite poorly as Americans struggled to stay warm without power in the wake of a late season storm.

If Sandy had dissipated at sea, never making landfall, how different might this election have been? If it had struck a month earlier, how might the Romney campaign have worked to recover?

These are questions for which we’ll never have answers, and there are plenty of others. But Sandy struck when it did and where it did, and although the storm didn’t cause people to change their votes, it did shift the narrative of the election in Obama’s favor at the eleventh hour.

That’s contingency.

 

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