Why Politicians Need to Know History

Question: Why is it so important for politicians and policy makers to read history?

T.J. Stiles: 
I think it's important for us today to have a deep understanding of the complexity of human affairs and the ways in which for example, business and law, and politics, and culture all intersect. And in Vanderbilt's lifetime for example, we see that the business world was very closely connected to changes in political values and changes in cultural values in American. Vanderbilt's early life wasn't simply about a poor farm boy who was lifting himself up by his bootstraps. It's about the end of an older hierarchical patrician culture in America that we had during the colonial era and that the revolution had helped to undermine and that the rise of a new competitive individualistic commercial marketplace helped really wipe out.

And that it was also closely tied to the new Jacksonian politics, you know, those very kind of individualist anti-hierarchical attitude towards society, towards business towards politics. It was all intersected and the ways in which, you know, early cultural and social, and political attitudes continue on and often the thread continues even though it kind of twists around and shows up in odd places. For example, in today's world we have the Tea Party Movement and people are often flummoxed that there's this kind of populism outrage at the government when in fact the great mass of people actually benefit from a lot of so-called government programs like Medicare and Social Security, but in fact, a kind of fear of a large central government started off in life in American History as a very radical idea because government originally would have intervened in the economy intended to grant favors to wealthy and patrician men.

And so the radicals said, “No, stop doing this. Keep the government out of the economy because we want every individual to rise by his or her own merits." And once you had big business - you had the rise of big business then that changed the playing field. And the political discussions started to change. Regulation became the radical view and yet there was an American culture still this idea, this kind of gut instinct that originated in a very different world, very different America. But it doesn't mean that the idea does, the kind of attitude toward government does. It kind of lives on and twist around and takes a different shape and so when I look at today's political landscape for example, I'm never dismissive of people's attitudes whether I agree with them or not.

I can see the fact that there are deep roots to them even when I disagree with them in many cases. All over the political spectrum there are ideas I agree with and disagree with but I can see how they have a historical life of their own in a sense. But, you know, more specifically I would like, you know, people who are involved in both in business also I think it's important for them to think about some of the issues that I mentioned about the CEOs responsibilities to shareholders, to regulators, to people who are policy makers in Congress for example to understand the complexity of the relationship between the large enterprise and the public sector. And that regulation is something that is both necessary but also has to be handled with a certain amount of circumspection, the fact that we get things wrong. We don't have a clear picture of our world until much later and even then people argue about it, which doesn't mane that regulation is not necessary. It often is.

It's just that we have to realize that we may get it wrong. We have to be willing to adapt. I think that history doesn't so much teach us specific lessons as much as it gives you an appreciation for the complexity of things, for how difficult it is to get it right even though we sometimes have to act before we know exactly what the right answer is.

Recorded May 25, 2010
Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

The past doesn't so much teach us specific lessons as give us an appreciation for the complexity of the issues we face.

LinkedIn meets Tinder in this mindful networking app

Swipe right to make the connections that could change your career.

Getty Images
Sponsored
Swipe right. Match. Meet over coffee or set up a call.

No, we aren't talking about Tinder. Introducing Shapr, a free app that helps people with synergistic professional goals and skill sets easily meet and collaborate.

Keep reading Show less

In a first for humankind, China successfully sprouts a seed on the Moon

China's Chang'e 4 biosphere experiment marks a first for humankind.

Image source: CNSA
Surprising Science
  • China's Chang'e 4 lunar lander touched down on the far side of the moon on January 3.
  • In addition to a lunar rover, the lander carried a biosphere experiment that contains five sets of plants and some insects.
  • The experiment is designed to test how astronauts might someday grow plants in space to sustain long-term settlements.
Keep reading Show less

A world map of Virgin Mary apparitions

She met mere mortals with and without the Vatican's approval.

Strange Maps
  • For centuries, the Virgin Mary has appeared to the faithful, requesting devotion and promising comfort.
  • These maps show the geography of Marian apparitions – the handful approved by the Vatican, and many others.
  • Historically, Europe is where most apparitions have been reported, but the U.S. is pretty fertile ground too.
Keep reading Show less

Love in a time of migrants: on rethinking arranged marriages

Arranged marriages and Western romantic practices have more in common than we might think.

Culture & Religion

In his book In Praise of Love (2009), the French communist philosopher Alain Badiou attacks the notion of 'risk-free love', which he sees written in the commercial language of dating services that promise their customers 'love, without falling in love'.

Keep reading Show less