Category Archives: American Studies

Meet us in San Francisco: American Political Science Association

If you are heading to San Francisco for the APSA annual meeting, be sure to stop by booth #500 to meet our staff, browse our latest publications, and and take advantage of special meeting discounts. On Thursday, September 3 at 3:45 p.m., we’ll host an APSA reception at the booth to toast the publication of Democracy in Decline?, edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner. This title will be available at the special APSA meeting price of $15.00 for on-site sales (while copies last). Throughout the meeting and after, JHUP books will be available at a 30% discount when your use the discount code HEAG. Check out what’s new and recent on JHUP’s political science list!


Democracy in Decline?diamond15
edited by Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, with essays by Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Larry Diamond, Thomas Carothers, Marc F. Plattner, Philippe C. Schmitter, Steven Levitsky, and Lucan Way, and a foreword by Condoleezza Rice

For almost a decade, Freedom House’s annual survey has highlighted a decline in democracy in most regions of the globe. While some analysts draw upon this evidence to argue that the world has entered a “democratic recession,” others dispute that interpretation, emphasizing instead democracy’s success in maintaining the huge gains it made during the last quarter of the twentieth century.

Discussion of this question has moved beyond disputes about how many countries should be classified as democratic to embrace a host of wider concerns about the health of democracy: the poor economic and political performance of advanced democracies, the new self-confidence and assertiveness of a number of leading authoritarian countries, and a geopolitical weakening of democracies relative to these resurgent authoritarians.

In Democracy in Decline?, eight of the world’s leading public intellectuals and scholars of democracy—Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Philippe C. Schmitter, Steven Levitsky, Lucan Way, Thomas Carothers, and editors Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner—explore these concerns and offer competing viewpoints about the state of democracy today. This short collection of essays is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the latest thinking on one of the most critical questions of our era.

Join us at booth #500 on September 3 at 3:45 p.m. to toast the publication of Democracy in Decline? at a special APSA reception.


bitarDemocratic Transitions: Conversations with World Leaders, edited by Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal

National leaders who played key roles in transitions to democratic governance reveal how these were accomplished in Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, Poland, South Africa, and Spain. Commissioned by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), these interviews shed fascinating light on how repressive regimes were ended and democracy took hold.

In probing conversations with Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos, John Kufuor, Jerry Rawlings, B. J. Habibie, Ernesto Zedillo, Fidel V. Ramos, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, F. W. de Klerk, Thabo Mbeki, and Felipe González, editors Sergio Bitar and Abraham F. Lowenthal focused on each leader’s principal challenges and goals as well as their strategies to end authoritarian rule and construct democratic governance. Context-setting introductions by country experts highlight each nation’s unique experience as well as recurrent challenges all transitions faced.


The growing gap between the most affluent Americans and the rest of society is changing the country into one defined—more than almost any other developed nation—by exceptional inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity. This book reveals that an infrastructure of inequality, both open and hidden, obstructs the great majority in pursuing happiness, living healthy lives, and exercising basic rights. A government dominated by finance, corporate interests, and the wealthy has undermined democracy, stunted social mobility, and changed the character of the nation. In this tough-minded dissection of the gulf between the super-rich and the working and middle classes, Ronald P. Formisano explores how the dramatic rise of income inequality over the past four decades has transformed America from a land of democratic promise into one of diminished opportunity.


Other new and recent books from JHU Press:

Disease Diplomacy: International Norms and Global Health Security, by Sara E. Davies, Adam Kamradt-Scott, and Simon Rushton

Pain: A Political History, by Keith Wailoo

Education and Empowered Citizenship in Mali, by Jaimie Bleck
Weapons of Democracy: Propaganda, Progressivism, and American Public Opinion, by Jonathan Auerbach
Light It Up: The Marine Eye for Battle in the War for Iraq, by John Pettegrew


JHU Press Journals:

Journal of Democracy
Humans Rights Quarterly

The SAIS Review of International Affairs

 

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Filed under American Studies, Conferences, Current Affairs, Foreign Policy, Journals, Politics, Washington

Book trailer: Ronald P. Formisano on Plutocracy in America

Author Ronald P. Formisano argues that the growing gap between the most affluent Americans and the rest of society is changing the country into one defined—more than almost any other developed nation—by exceptional inequality of income, wealth, and opportunity. In our latest book trailer, Ron discusses his timely book on the topic, Plutocracy in America: How Increasing Inequality Destroys the Middle Class and Exploits the PoorUse promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy on the JHUP website or by calling 800-537-5487.


 


Ronald P. Formisano is the William T. Bryan Chair of American History and professor emeritus of history at the University of Kentucky. In addition to Plutocracy in America, he is the author of The Tea Party: A Brief History and For the People: American Populist Movements from the Revolution to the 1850s.

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Democracy in Decline?

Guest post by Condoleezza Rice

To celebrate the recent publication of Democracy in Decline?, edited by the Journal of Democracy’s Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner, we are pleased to offer this excerpt from the book’s Foreword by Condoleezza Rice. Don’t miss this collection of essays by eight of the world’s leading public intellectuals and scholars of democracy—Francis Fukuyama, Robert Kagan, Philippe C. Schmitter, Steven Levitsky, Lucan Way, Thomas Carothers, and editors Larry Diamond and Marc F. Plattner.

diamond15For the past quarter-century, the Journal of Democracy has helped the world to understand the controlled chaos that is democracy. Like the many scholars who have written for the Journal, I care deeply about the fate of this system of governance that protects liberty and have studied its ups and downs.

In more recent years, as secretary of state, I found myself defending the proposition that all people should live in freedom and that US policies should reflect that belief. It was not difficult to get agreement to the principle. Yes, it was best if human beings could say what they thought, worship as they pleased, be free from the arbitrary power of the state, and have a say in who would govern them. After all, who would argue that some people should be condemned to live in tyranny?

Yet if one scratched the surface, there was rampant skepticism that democracy is right everywhere, at all times, and for all peoples. One was reminded that cultural explanations once branded Africans as too tribal, Asians too Confucian, and Latin Americans too drawn to caudillos to create stable democracies. Those arguments now belong to the past, but a hint of them hangs over the discussion of the events in the Middle East. The Arab Spring has led to disappointment, and democracy seems overmatched by sectarianism, state collapse, and a palpable nostalgia for a more orderly, if authoritarian, time.

But it is undeniable that democracy retains its power to appeal to those who do not yet enjoy its benefits. People are willing to face persecution and imprisonment, exile, and even death just for a chance to live a life in liberty, even in the chaotic Middle East.

 * * * * *

So what should democracy advocates do? Since its first issue, the Journal has provided insights on this question for students, scholars, and policymakers alike. The essays in this volume will advance and challenge your thoughts about the prospects of democracy today. We are reminded that those who believe in the enterprise must find a better way to assist in building state-capacity. We are challenged to find ways to use foreign aid to support efficiency and transparency of young governments. We are cautioned not to think that the long arc of history will inevitably favor freedom.

We can certainly do better in supporting new democratic states and helping them to govern more effectively. But most likely, we will also need to find an abundance of patience. It is not easy for people who have just seized their rights to write rules of the political game that are fair and transparent. It is not easy for majorities to use their newly won freedoms to advocate for the rights of minorities. It is not easy for traditional patriarchal societies to accept the idea that the protection of individual rights must be gender neutral. And it is not easy for people to put aside painful, and often violent, societal divides and learn to trust impartial institutions and the rule of law to resolve differences.

Still, count me as optimistic about democracy’s future. Alternatives might earn some temporary legitimacy by providing efficient governance in the short run. But eventually there will be challenges and problems and popular pressure for a different course: That is the authoritarian’s nightmare, because—unlike in democracies—there is no peaceful way for the people to change the government.

We must also maintain historical perspective, recognizing the remarkable geographic reach of democracy’s march over the past decades. Chile and Colombia, Senegal and Ghana, Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia have given an answer to those who thought that democracy could take root only where Europe’s Enlightenment had prepared the ground.

And Americans, of all people, should be patient. The odds were surely long that the descendants of slaves would win their rights through appeal to the US Constitution that once counted their ancestors as three-fifths of a man. That is a recent development, of course. We have just celebrated fifty years since Selma and the Voting Rights Act, marking the United States’ second democratic transition.

So, while those of us who are lucky enough to live in freedom have the right to question its promise, we should not forget that people who do not yet enjoy its benefits still seem determined to win it. That is the greatest reason for optimism that democracy is not permanently in decline. And it is a call to redouble our commitment to the proposition that no one should live in tyranny—even if the road ahead is hard and long.

Condoleezza Rice served as the 66th United States Secretary of State.

Use promo code HDPD to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy of Democracy in Decline? on our website or by calling 800-537-5487.

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An interview with author Sean Condon

Guest post by Natalie Guajardo

condonSeveral years ago, author Sean Condon and JHU Press editor Bob Brugger began discussing ideas for a book that would fit JHUP’s highly-regarded Witness to History series—short works meant to appeal to students through narrative accounts of important historical events. Since his arrival as a professor at Merrimack College, a small liberal arts college in New England, Condon had worked to integrate local and regional primary sources into his classes on early American history. Some of his most successful class sessions had involved discussions of documents related to Shays’s Rebellion, the 1786 uprising in central and western Massachusetts. Persuaded by these positive classroom experiences, Condon and Brugger agreed on a topic. The the result is Shays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America, published earlier this year.

Until he decided to write a narrative history of Shays’s Rebellion, Condon’s research had focused primarily on slavery in the post-Revolutionary period, but he found freedom in undertaking something new. After steeping one’s self in a single subject for a long time, Condon observed, it is easy to get bogged down in historiographical arguments and lose sight of a bigger picture. Working on this new topic, he could more clearly see the beginning, end, and big themes arising in his research and text. He also enjoyed writing in a style that students would appreciate, employing a narrative structure similar to how he would teach the subject in a class. The book’s opening passage, for example, reads:

On the morning of Tuesday, September 5, 1786, a crowd of approximately two hundred men marched through the streets of Worcester, Massachusetts, and headed for the courthouse. Some of the men marched with sticks or clubs, while others carried guns with bayonets fixed. Accompanied by fife and drum, the men paraded to the entrance of the courthouse, stopped, and waited. Later that morning, another procession made its way towards the courthouse, led by Worcester county sheriff William Greenleaf, followed by judges and a number of lawyers. These men were coming to open the scheduled session of the Court of Common Pleas, the lower court that met four times a year in each county of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to handle civil cases like debt litigation. As the procession reached the courthouse, the crowd of men “opened to the right and left,” but six armed members of the crowd remained guarding the courthouse door, with their guns raised, preventing the sheriff and judges from entering.

Several of the book’s themes recall key issues relevant in the United States from the founding of the country to the present day. While Condon clearly describes the economic and political circumstances revolving around the uprising in Massachusetts, he deliberately leaves the reader with pertinent and timely questions. What happens when very similar people are destructively pulled apart after differences emerge? How do ordinary Americans rise up in response to oppression and construct a significant movement of resistance? What are the repercussions of such acts? How can a rip in society be mended? While it is easy to sympathize with the rebellious farmers, Condon challenges his reader to also see Shays’s Rebellion from the perspective of the government officials, men of wealth and station.

Condon found that writing the book helped focus his attention on questions of how we as Americans function in an increasingly polarized environment and how we can communicate with people with different views from ourselves. Shays’s Rebellion hits at the core the human tendency to define right and wrong, which is not limited to time or age. We need to look at facts and details of each case for ourselves, Condon observes, and use our own judgement to determine when rebellion is justified. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing. . . . It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.” Now, if you’ve ever attempted to get a kid to take medicine, you might understand just how difficult it is to do the same on a national scale.

Sean Condon is an associate professor and chair of the History Department at Merrimack College and the author of Shays’s Rebellion: Authority and Distress in Post-Revolutionary America.

Natalie Guajardo is a senior English major at Goucher College and was a 2015 summer intern at JHU Press.

 

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Reflections on the Bicentennial of the War of 1812

Guest post by Donald R. Hickey

Flag 1812With the completion of a small conference on the legacy of the War of 1812 in Rostrevor, Northern Ireland, over the July 4th weekend, the commemoration of the Bicentennial of our “forgotten conflict” appears to be over. For those of us with a fascination with the contest, it has been quite a run. Although interest in the Bicentennial was limited mostly to sites in Ontario, Canada, and east of the Missouri River in the United States, there was plenty from 2012 to 2015 to keep students of the war busy. Although the significant battles took place mainly in the borderlands along the Canadian-American frontier, the Chesapeake Bay played a significant role in the war. It was only one of ten major theaters of operation, but it was the scene of the most British raids. These included the low point in the war for the United States—the British occupation of Washington, D.C. in August 1814 and the burning of the public buildings there—and a high point three weeks later—the successful defense of Baltimore, which produced “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Maryland did more than any other state to promote the Bicentennial. Maryland officials realized that this was their opportunity to publicize the central role that the Chesapeake had played in the war and in forging the national memory of the contest. Both the Maryland Historical Society and Fort McHenry did their part to see that Baltimore was included in the commemoration. As memorable as any event connected to the Bicentennial was the 2012 June weekend in 2012 when the tall ships docked in Baltimore. It was a rare treat for students of the war because it seemed that the conflict was the talk of the town. Annapolis followed up a year later with one of the most memorable conferences on the war. “From Enemies to Allies: An International Conference on the War of 1812 and Its Aftermath” generated attention not only in the United States and Canada but also in Great Britain.

The Bicentennial produced a flood of books on the war. Most dealt with the conflict’s military and naval history, but there were also some works on other aspects of the conflict. Once again the Chesapeake played a significant role. Especially noteworthy were the books published in the series Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812. There are now seven books in this series. These include several titles by Ralph Eshelman illuminating the war in the Chesapeake, Dave Curtis Skaggs’ fine study of William Henry Harrison’s western campaigns, Faye Kert’s pioneering book on privateering, Don Shomette’s seminal study of Commodore Joshua Barney’s flotilla in the Chesapeake, Carl Benn’s meticulously edited collection of native memoirs, and an illustrated history of the war that Connie D. Clark and I co-wrote. The Press also has published a short book that I wrote on Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans.


The War of 1812 in the Chesapeake: A Reference Guide to Historic Sites in Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, by Ralph E. Eshelman, Scott S. Sheads, and Donald R. Hickey

The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, by Donald R. Hickey and Connie D. Clark


Will the flood of books and related activities during the Bicentennial mean that we no longer have to characterize the War of 1812 as a “forgotten conflict”? This is unlikely. After all, the war hardly compares in grandeur and importance with the Revolution and Civil War, those two great contests that are bookends for the period in U.S. history from 1775 to 1865. And there are many other reasons why the War of 1812 has slipped so deep into the recesses of the public memory. Its causes—maritime rights on the high seas in the Age of Sail—don’t resonate with Americans today. In addition, the war was waged inconclusively in far-flung theaters that stretched from Mackinac Island in northern Michigan to New Orleans on the Gulf Coast. Furthermore, it is not really clear who won the war (although everyone can agree that the biggest losers were the Indians, who were defeated both in Tecumseh’s War in the Old Northwest and the Creek War in the Old Southwest). Finally, the battle casualties cannot begin to compare with the losses in either the Revolution or the Civil War.


Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, by Donald G. Shomette
William Henry Harrison and the Conquest of the Ohio Country: Frontier Fighting in the War of 1812, by David Curtis Skaggs
Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William Apess, by Carl Benn
Privateering: Patriots and Profits in the War of 1812, by Faye M. Kert


What usually goes unappreciated in most treatments of the War of 1812 is its extraordinary legacy. If we measure wars by their consequences, then it’s hard to ignore the War of 1812. In the United States, the conflict boosted American self-confidence and nationalism, opened the door to territorial expansion, generated the birth of the American military establishment, and shaped the political landscape until the Civil War. Seven of the eleven presidents between James Madison and Abraham Lincoln either launched or boosted their public careers during the War of 1812, and anyone who had served in the field during the conflict had a significant advantage in any quest for elected public office.

The war also forged a national identity. The sayings and symbols that either originated in, or gained wide currency during, the war helped Americans understand who they were as a people and where their nation might be headed. Most of these sayings and symbols still resonate with us today. Among them are “Don’t give up the ship” (Captain James Lawrence’s words as he lay dying after the defeat of the USS Chesapeake by HMS Shannon); “We have met the enemy and he is ours” (Commodore Oliver H. Perry’s laconic report after defeating the British squadron on Lake Erie); “Old Ironsides” (which enjoyed four successful cruises during the war and even today is probably the best known U.S. warship); the Fort McHenry flag (long on display as the Smithsonian in Washington); “The Star-Spangled Banner” (which Congress named the national anthem in 1931); Uncle Sam (which became a common nickname for the U.S. government); the Kentucky rifle (which won an inflated reputation as game-changer and war-winner); Andrew Jackson (whose success in the field made him a symbol for the entire postwar era); and the Battle of New Orleans (which forged the myth of American victory in the war).

The war had no less an impact on Canada, for it was essentially that nation’s war of independence, and thus looms large in Canada’s public memory. Even Great Britain could not escape the war’s legacy. Although the British people quickly forgot about the conflict, the British government could not afford this luxury because it was responsible for defending Canada, and no one at the time thought this would be the last Anglo-American war. It did not take British leaders long to realize that the best way to protect Canada was to accommodate the United States, and this strategy ultimately paid off. Despite an often rocky road that included more than a couple war scares, by the end of the nineteenth century a genuine accord had blossomed between the two English-speaking nations. This turned into co-belligerency in World War I and a full-scale alliance in World War II that persists to this day.

The War of 1812 may have been a small and inconclusive war, but it left an outsized legacy that continues to shape the transatlantic world today. This is certainly reason enough to accord the war a bigger place in our public memory and in our history books. By all rights, the forgotten conflict should be forgotten no more.

hickeyDonald R. Hickey, whom the New Yorker described as “the dean of 1812 scholarship,” teaches history at Wayne State College in Nebraska. He has written seven books on the conflict, including Glorious Victory: Andrew Jackson and the Battle of New Orleans, The Rockets’ Red Glare: An Illustrated History of the War of 1812, and The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. He served as series editor for JHUP’s Johns Hopkins Books on the War of 1812.

 

 

 

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Hooked on history: the Missouri Crisis, San Juan Hill, and my grandparents’ attic

Guest post by John R. Van Atta

Sevvanattaeral years ago, as I wandered around the book exhibit at a meeting of the Organization of American Historians in Houston, Johns Hopkins University Press’s Witness to History series caught my eye. After the meeting, acting on senior history editor Bob Brugger’s encouragement, I worked up a proposal for a volume on the Missouri Crisis, a subject that we thought could stand a little more consideration than recent literature had given it. The proposal eventually won approval from JHUP’s editorial board, and that was about all there was to it. Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 was published in May.

In years past, historians have paid more attention to the internal political dynamics of the Missouri controversy—the strategies within the debate itself, the implications for party development, the mechanics of Congressional deal making, and so on—than to the external social, cultural, and economic forces that gave the confrontation such urgency in the first place, informed the participants of the debate, and generated much of the reaction afterward. This book attempts, briefly, to unpack the crisis from that old box, examining the outside stimuli that gave the confrontation in Washington such resonance around the country.

The sectional conflict that led to the Civil War supplied plenty of historical drama over the years, never more so than in the fight over Missouri statehood, which first surfaced in Congress in 1819 and did not grow seemingly quiet until early 1821. At that time, Thomas Jefferson said that dealing with the implacable issue of slavery in national politics resembled trying to hold a “wolf” by the ears. Focusing on whether federal lawmakers should, or even could, prevent slavery from spreading beyond the Mississippi, the “Missouri Crisis” provided the first full-blown sectional controversy in United States history. This fight held the potential to end the fragile Union then and there. Angry exchanges during the Missouri debate proved as heated as any in the sectional disputes that followed and led to southern secession in 1861, and while the Missouri confrontation appeared to finish amicably with a famous compromise, the passions it unleashed proved bitter in the extreme, widespread, and long-lasting.

In North vs. South struggles after 1820, the language that antagonists employed always seemed reminiscent of this earlier crisis, but why did pent-up feelings explode in 1819–1821—and not at earlier moments when the subject of slavery had arisen? The answer, in large part, is that the Missouri Crisis revealed the power that slavery by then had gained over American nation-building, an impulse that fueled both anti- and pro-slavery convictions. Thus the need to focus on the larger historical processes at work in the years leading up to 1820, as revealed not only in Congress but also at the grassroots level—in towns, hotels and taverns, churches, state houses, lecture halls, and the like all around the country—a far broader “public sphere” than that of Washington, D.C. alone.

My discussion in this book broadly tracks the slavery issue from the Revolution to the Civil War, with a primary goal of looking ahead to, concentrating on, and relating back to the events of 1819–1821. The analytical emphasis falls less on the insider-politics detailed in other studies and more on beliefs, assumptions, fears, and reactions on both sides of the slavery argument. Some might fault this approach as “missing the trees for the forest.” But that vast, tangled forest is where one finds the keys to changing sectional perceptions that distinguished the Missouri Crisis from previous ones, animating not just the politicians in power, but many other Americans at the time and later down the road.

For my next project, I am under contract with Johns Hopkins to write another volume for the Witness series that will concentrate on Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War. I’m approaching the story much more as a cultural study than as a military one. It will be entitled Charging up San Juan Hill: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of Imperial America. In a broad sense, this inquiry would furnish largely for student-readers a look into historical forces that underlay American empire-building at the end of the nineteenth century.

The overarching problem to be addressed in this next book would be the cultural meaning of “empire” for a hitherto republican civilization, all the more vital in an era of jarring social changes and lingering sectional tensions between North and South. Serious worries about Americans becoming corrupt, lawless, self-centered, fixated on luxury, and otherwise lacking in fundamental values had developed much earlier than the 1890s. Many observers understood republics to be fragile and that commitment to republican governance required attention to the more general question of the structure and character of society. They knew that republican societies, being vulnerable to decay from within, seldom survived very long without regenerating core virtues that provided the hardiness and moral strength of their people. I would argue that a vernacular of regeneration, varying from voice-to-voice and shifting in form to fit changing circumstances, echoed farther into the nineteenth century than historians sometimes realize. Although he wrote and spoke of roles demanded of both genders, Roosevelt’s primary concern focused on American manhood—the declining strength of male leaders in society, especially the privileged elite. He and others often expressed that concern in updated terms, of course, but still in language really not so distant in meaning from that of public virtue in the earlier nineteenth century.

Sometimes people ask me what led me into a career as a historian, and I usually answer that question by referring back to my childhood. We lived in southern Illinois back then, and every summer my parents would take my brothers and me to stay for several weeks at my grandparents’ farm in northwest Ohio, near the town of Clyde. We usually worked in the peach orchard all day. At about age 12, I first learned to drive on my grandfather’s World War II-era Willys jeep, traveling around the orchard and gathering the dozens of half-bushels that we had picked. More to the point, I found that exploring the attic and the closets upstairs in that old 1890s farmhouse was, for me, like opening a treasure trove of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century artifacts, including decades-old magazines that my grandparents never threw away, old World War II army uniforms that had belonged to my father and uncle during the war, and other bric-a-brac representing times very distant from my own experience. All of it seemed like entering into a magically different world. It fascinated me; I was hooked.

vanattaJohn R. Van Atta teaches history and constitutional law at the Brunswick School in Greenwich, Connecticut. He is the author of Wolf by the Ears: The Missouri Crisis, 1819–1821 and Securing the West: Politics, Public Lands, and the Fate of the Old Republic, 1785–1850, both published by Johns Hopkins.

 

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Late-night talk shows (or what keeps me up at night)

Guest post by Rebecca Krefting

I’m a worrier. I worry that I will sleep walk and chug turpentine (it happens). I worry that I will throw myself off a cliff given the right opportunity (that’s a thing). I worry that my neighbor’s cat will give me poison ivy (that’s for real). And I worry about the state of late-night television in the coming years. Without Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s conservative alter ego, where are we headed, what can we expect, and where exactly will I find my nightly dose of satire?

Jon StewartJon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show ends next week. The last taping will be on August 6th, and millions will be tuning in for Stewart’s farewell show. Though the numbers are not in yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if viewer ratings rivaled David Letterman’s final show last May. Relatedly, in December 2014, after nine years and nearly 1,500 episodes, Stephen Colbert hung up his hook as conservative bombast on The Colbert Report. No doubt these changes in late-night talk show hosts will test viewers’ allegiance to the show versus its host, though there are plenty of examples of shows remaining successful with host changes, e.g., The View (boasting the highest turnover rates), The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (formerly hosted by Jay Leno), and The Daily Show (formerly hosted by Craig Kilborn).

Here’s one way these late-night talk shows might have reassured me, keeping my blood pressure within a normal range: Stop hiring only men (and mainly white men at that) as if being a dude is a requisite for the job. Of course, producers can argue that a familiar face will sustain good ratings—that’s why Colbert will succeed Letterman as host of The Late Show on CBS on September 8th. But Stewart’s replacement, South African comedian Trevor Noah, doesn’t quite fit the formula because not many people knew who he was prior to this monumental passing of the baton. You know who would fit the formula if it were just a ratings game? How about: Sarah Silverman, Wanda Sykes, or Chelsea Handler? Janeane Garofalo would also make a terrific host for The Daily Show. She is known for her charged comedy, exhibiting a deft ability to critique the political machinery and a keen understanding of social inequalities. Plus, as the former cohost of Air America’s The Majority Report, she has the right kind of experience to maintain the careful balance of comedy and pointed social critique that Stewart so carefully cultivated. Now that’s a show I wouldn’t miss. Even newbie funny lady Grace Helbig, whose social media metrics were similar to Trevor Noah before he got this ridiculous promotion, would be a viable female candidate up to the challenge of replacing Stewart.

But we got Trevor Noah instead. The same guy who came under fire for some sexist tweets shortly after the announcement was made. I share stand-up comic Patton Oswalt’s views (and many others’) that comics have a right to free speech. And yes, I understand that social media is the new drawing board for testing material, a place where comics can flex their creative muscles.

However, I also live by the rule WWJD? (What Would Jon Do?), and I am pretty sure he wouldn’t have peddled such schlock.

I am not optimistic that The Daily Show on Noah’s watch will deliver the biting political commentary that it did under Jon. More likely, the show’s writers will adjust to Noah’s personality and comic personae, altering its deliverables and making it a new show with different content, as when Stewart replaced Kilborn many years ago.

Here’s what else I know: late-night talk shows, especially on cable channels, are going to pander to the widest audience possible. Colbert will make a terrific host for The Late Show—that is, if you enjoy a watered down version of the Colbert that stole my heart. With ingénue Noah as mouthpiece for The Daily Show and a network-friendly Colbert, someone hardly recognizable, I fret that real political satire (at least on television) is a thing of the past. And, with the 2016 elections looming, we need such voices more than ever.

kreftingRebecca Krefting is an assistant professor in American Studies and the director of the Media and Film Studies Program at Skidmore College. Besides being a worrier, she is the author of All Joking Aside: American Humor and Its Discontents. Follow her on Twitter: @beckrefting.

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