On the anniversary of Shakespeare’s death I think it is appropriate to delve into the bard’s almost -sacred texts and present you with some of his finest wisdom: This above all: to thine ownself be true.
The only problem with this quote is that it is intended to show what a hypocritical blowhard Polonius is, as he spouts platitudes to his children and describes values that he clearly does not share. The point is that we forget context. When we reach into the multitudinous past of history and literature we try to find kernels of truth and sage advice that we can apply to the here and now. But often we learn nothing. That short quote, what does it tell you? Not nearly as much as the entire play (“Hamlet” by the way) does, which deeply examines the fundamental lack of knowledge of our world and of others that we face as we try to shape our lives. We cannot separate a part from the whole and gain much insight.
As the United States heads to a possible contested convention for the Republican Party, as well as its splintering, many writers have tried to find an analogy from the past that will inform our view of the present. The most popular, and recent, in “The Atlantic” today, is to look to Teddy Roosevelt in 1912. The admittedly light-hearted article suggests that Trump’s actions and rhetoric and a forcefully contested convention are nothing new and that the United States came through the chaos fine then and so should be ok now. This does not take into account the very different circumstances in play. The political parties have different platforms, Trump’s insurgency has not been outright dismissed by the Republican Party, the structure and concerns of the nation were completely different, and the institutions of the time were constructed differently. There is no precedent for what is happening right now in American politics and attempting to predict the future is risky.
When we do look to the past we can use it to inform our understanding of the present. We do this not by comparing actions directly but seeing their similarities on a fundamental level and using that to make broad conclusions about a current event, not a specific one about a specific instance. Guessing specifics is almost impossible. Saying that this has happened before without taking into account the completely different circumstances surrounding the event in question gleans little insight into what the consequences of a modern-day contested convention will be. I am positive that, in context, it is apparent that this splintered Republican Party and a possible contested convention would have nothing in common with Teddy Roosevelt’s in 1912.
What we can understand from that historical analogy is that political parties are durable institutions and that outsized personalities may inspire unusual loyalty in their followers, besides that we face the same uncertainty that the Prince of Denmark did.