By David Rogers. February 3, 2018. BLOWING ROCK, NC — Whether America is in a state of political turmoil or not largely depends upon from whom you are soliciting an opinion. To get a more objective answer, Blowing Rock News turned to a history professor at Appalachian State, Dr. Karl Campbell, who specializes in political history. We learned that he has a special interest in North Carolina political history, and we expect to have a future sit-down with him to look deeper into that subject. For this interview, our primary interest was getting an historian’s perspective of what is going on among the leadership in our nation’s capital.
Blowing Rock News (BRN): I can’t think of any more appropriate time for this conversation because we had the President’s State of the Union Address this week — we’ll call it the one-year anniversary speech for Trump’s first term in office — and the release of the Nunes Memo, which set off a political firestorm.
But before we get into that, let’s learn a little more about the guy to whom we are speaking. Let’s talk a little about you. Where did you come from?
Karl Campbell: I am a working class kid from Youngstown, Ohio, which is between Cleveland and Pittsburgh. My dad was a butcher and custodian and my mom worked in a school cafeteria. They dreamed that their only son would become a high school teacher and that’s pretty much what I thought I would do, too, but I didn’t have much money to go to college.
Then I saw an ad for a little school in North Carolina called Warren Wilson College (near Asheville) where you can work to pay for your room and board and I thought, “I’ll go meet the Southern people. It will be interesting to go to the South.”
In teaching, you get to tell stories and you have a captive audience!
Warren Wilson was the turning point of my life. I fell in love with the mountains, and the South, and a girl that I met in college and married. I decided I would not only become a high school teacher, which I did for five years in public and private schools, but that I would go to graduate school so I could become a college professor.
So I went and got my masters and Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill while my wife went to Duke to become a Presbyterian minister (she is now the pastor at Crossnore Presbyterian Church). My career took me through different parts of North Carolina and I ended up in my dream job at Appalachian State University.
BRN: What is it about history that captured your imagination?
KC: History and teaching are my passion. In teaching, you get to tell stories, and you have a captive audience! I absolutely love being in the classroom. History is also about telling stories. As a historian, I get to study the human condition, put it in a narrative form, and then help people understand where they come from and who they are.
One thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand about history professors, actually about all college professors, is that we wear several different hats. We are teachers but we are also scholars. As scholars we share our research and enter into academic and public debates, but as teachers we don’t advocate our political positions in the classroom. Educators don’t tell students what to think, we teach them how to think.
BRN: Since you started teaching, have students changed over the years? If so, how?
KC: Oh, there are some huge differences. I have been teaching for 20 years at App State. For a while there was not a lot of interest in politics. People 20 years ago were more satisfied with their parties. 9/11 changed that. From that moment students were asking where? Why? What? How?
Some of my students dropped out and went overseas to fight for their country. Others went on to graduate school, joined the FBI, and the Peach Corps. They were moved and motivated by 9/11 and for many years there was a huge interest in politics. Then numbness settled in. I fought much harder to engage students in that time.
Educators don’t tell students what to think. We teach them how to think.
I think the Obama period excited many students for a while, both those who liked the president and those who opposed him. Now I think a lot of students feel angry. I sense a frustration among them because they don’t think the system is doing what it is supposed to do and they want to know why. I feel like that frustration could take a positive turn into activism. Students are paying attention right now, and they are concerned.
BRN: Given Trump’s low approval ratings according to a number of national media sources and the very divided political climate, it seems appropriate to ask an historian if we have ever seen anything like this period of time in political history?
KC: Well, yes and no. There have been other times in which the political environment has been polarized. Yes, we have had poisoned politics similar to what we have today, certainly, right before the Civil War, and in the 1890s. Today, though, is structurally different than anything we have seen in a long time.
Talking about politics shouldn’t just be focused on the personalities of Donald Trump, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. I think we should be talking about things like the structure of the parties, the economic transformation we are going through, and the cultural changes. In that respect, I think today is different. I really do.
I think the turning point was the 1970s.
BRN: What has brought us to this point?
KC: As an historian, I take the long view. I would start with economics. We should start with the long view of the economic changes in America.
I think the turning point was in the 1970s. If you look back before the 70s, most people in America could support a family living a middle class lifestyle if they had a good middle class job. After the 70s, it took two middle class jobs to support a single family at that level.
Really, the 70s were a transitional time and a couple of reasons stand out. First, almost every other nation’s economy had been destroyed in WWII. That is, just about every country except Canada, Australia and the U.S. We lived in the golden age of the American century. Then, by the 1970s, everyone had rebuilt and caught up.
Second, by the 70s cheap oil was gone. So in the 70s you begin to see a structural change that affects Americans greatly.
BRN: Are you suggesting, for example, that some of the trade agreements like NAFTA might have been a mistake?
KC: As an historian, I don’t know, yet. I want to look at the data over a longer period of time. I feel like a lot of Americans feel like NAFTA was a mistake, but that might be just as much about perception as reality. Most Americans, including myself, don’t have a clear idea about the economic forces that are shaping our lives. Sure we can find symbols. We can talk about NAFTA. We can talk about immigrants. We can talk about the rise of the one percent who gained so much wealth. But in truth, there are more sophisticated and structural economic transformations that are affecting us.
How do you make a living when the world doesn’t need you to make a living?
BRN: Such as?
KC: For instance, something that politicians barely talk about it, and most Americans seldom think about, is the rise of artificial intelligence and robotics.
Think about it. We could be looking at an historical transformation as large as the Industrial Revolution. In the next 10 to 20 years, we could be looking at a time where many people no longer need to work because the work will be accomplished by machines. When that happens, how do we change our political and moral understandings?
BRN: I guess the better question is how do people make a living?
KC: Yes, how do you make a living when the world doesn’t need you to make a living?
BRN: Back when the nation was first formed and we first created the House of Representatives in 1789, there were only 65 representatives, and each one represented about 30,000 people. Over the years, we added states, but in 1911 Congress capped the number of representatives in the House at 435. Even when we added states after 1911, the 435 seats were reapportioned rather than more added. But the U.S. population has more than tripled since 1911. Have we gotten to a point where congressmen are representing so many people that they are out of touch with their constituents?
KC: I don’t think so. As history has transformed the numbers in relation to geography we also had a technological change. Politicians responded to technological changes in mass media. First you had the expansion of newspapers. Then FDR addressed the nation using the radio. John F. Kennedy leveraged television. And now, rightly or wrongly, Donald Trump communicates with his base, as well as the rest of the world, via tweeting. So in a way I think technology has mitigated the problem of an increase in the ratio of population to representative. I don’t think people are any more or less informed than they were in the past.
If you are only listening to one side of an argument then you are only half informed.
BRN: But isn’t at least some of politics about personal relationships? If we increase the number of congressmen to increase their personal relationships with the people and encourage greater access of the regular citizen to his or her representative, with technology we could probably accomplish that. Does that help defuse the influence of special interest groups that are wielding such a large influence today in legislative halls?
KC: Again, I don’t think so. I think the bigger structural transformation is the money flowing into politics combined with new technology. We thought that the Internet was going to allow a new era of democratization, that average people could communicate our views to politicians more clearly. But it ended up being just the opposite because of the tribalism that evolved. People listen to those they want to hear and shut out the rest. A lot of money is spent to reinforce peoples’ preconceived notions.
People are using the term, “echo-chamber,” but I like to use the word “tribal.” I tell my students that if they are only listening to one side of an argument, they are only half informed.
BRN: So to put that into perspective, you have the Trump tribe, the Hillary tribe, the Conservative tribe, the Liberal tribe, the Democrat tribe, the Republican tribe…
KC: And even smaller tribes. Look at voting behavior. For years we’ve known that the biggest factors influencing how people vote are geography (for instance whether a voter is urban or rural), ethnicity, and religion. We can basically look at the political party system and predict that a white male Baptist living in the rural South has an 80% chance of being Republican.
We are living in a time of political realignment.
Throughout history we can name the factions, or tribes, and predict political behavior, but then there are realignments, times when new issues, events, and technologies overrun those systems and you start to get an upset, a new political system forming. That’s why many things seem so confusing for everyone right now, including for politicians. I believe we are living through a political realignment.
BRN: I am currently reading two books and both were written in the early- to mid-1990s. One is G. Edward Griffin’s “The Creature from Jekyll Island” about the creation of the Federal Reserve System and the dangers of printing fiat money. The other book is Peter Drucker’s “Post-Capitalist Society.” Based on what I have read so far, both of them predicted that this sort of polarization would happen, even if looking at it from two very different perspectives.
KC: I have not read those books, but I am generally in agreement with scholars who talk about a segmented society. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, we began to segment ourselves into different jobs, classes, even neighborhoods. This process of segmentation has been going on for a very long time. But again, I think we have reached a point where the working economy, as we have understood it, is undergoing a major transformation.
I recently read a study that said Millennials will have an average of 22 to 24 jobs in their lifetime. For Gen X it was 6 to 8. Those numbers suggest that something important is changing in our economy and in our politics. The ways we think and talk about politics right now is personalized on Trump, Obama, and Clinton on a national level, and Cooper and McCrory on a state level. But I think most historians will suggest that if you take a step back and look at the underpinnings, at the changing structures, that you will get a better idea of politics than by just looking at the personalities that dominate the news.
BRN: Does the degree of transparency enabled by technology have a role in this?
KC: I am not sure if technology has led to greater transparency. I certainly don’t think it has improved our political dialogue. Look at how Facebook and other social media reinforce our prejudices and keep us looped in to only seeing information we want to see.
Technology has not improved our political dialogue.
Then you add the disintegration of national news, the “Foxification” of the media. Sure there were partisan newspapers back in the day. But, as flawed and imperfect as they have always been, for the most part these news outlets tried to be professional, they tried to give both sides of the story. Facts mattered. Of course they were biased. Everyone is to some degree. But the goal was fair and honest reporting.
But then Fox News came along with a different model. Instead of striving towards neutrality, Fox set out to add a conservative voice to offset what they considered the liberal bias in national news. This intentional ideological and partisan approach to reporting the news began a negative trend. Other networks responded with their own biased coverage. Not all media outlets are as one-sided as Fox, indeed most aren’t, but trust in the news media has fallen. American political dialogue has been damaged. Today we are in a situation where many Americans never encounter or engage with opposing viewpoints.
BRN: With these transformative changes in government, the economy and society, will the freedom of opportunity still be available to our great grandchildren? Will any of them get to experience that Horatio Alger phenomenon we call “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps?”
KC: I am presently working on a biography of former North Carolina Governor Luther Hodges who as a young boy lived in extreme poverty but worked his way up to become a successful businessman, governor, and President Kennedy’s Secretary of Commerce. Luther Hodges’ story is inspiring, but whether opportunities were ever equally available to all Americans is up for debate.
But I can say this, with every transformation there are new opportunities and challenges. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether or not the technological revolution we are experiencing now will be a net positive or negative for human existence. Will it result in new opportunities of leisure if we are removed from the grind of producing food and shelter? Will humanity rise to a new level of creativity, peace, and prosperity? Or will this technological revolution allow those with great wealth and power to enrich themselves in a far less democratic society?
We are in the midst of a significant change.
BRN: Well, is the glass half full or half empty?
KC: I am pessimistic. We historians are shy about claiming that we are at a turning point in history because every day is a turning point in history. But I think we are in the midst of a significant change. Dating it and explaining it may be difficult. Naming it is even harder. But I fear that American democracy as we have known it will be greatly challenged in the next few decades.
BRN: How do we reign in the influences of social media as they impact our politics and elected officials? Is that a worthwhile endeavor?
KC: Sunlight is the best purifier. I don’t know if the liberal or conservative answers to our problems are the best, but I do know that sunlight and openness are going to be critical to the debate. The more we close up information, the more that we remove the ability for citizens to see what is happening, the more danger we are in.
Every generation has to fight for its freedom and liberty. The current generation is going to have to do the same. The battles will be different, but if Americans want their liberties, they will have to fight for them.
BRN: Is there any one thing that troubles you more than others?
KC: I think the unprecedented money in the political process is the scariest thing that is happening these days. Just this week, the Koch brothers said they will spend $400 million to defend Republicans in the midterm elections and $20 million to defend President Trump’s tax cuts. Then you have Tom Steiner, the liberal billionaire, who can afford to purchase primetime television ads to voice his opinions against President Trump.
This dark money is dangerous and we must fight for sunlight in elections.
To me, this represents an unfair and unequal voice for a few billionaires who have too much power. Worse, many political organizations don’t even have to disclose who is giving them the money they spend on lobbying and political advertising. I think this dark money is dangerous and we must fight for sunlight in elections.
BRN: But it is a bit more complicated than that, isn’t it?
KC: Yes, it is complicated. It can be argued that if someone is making that much money they should be allowed to use it to voice their opinion. It is freedom of speech, after all. But is it? When I look at the last few elections I see a political system in which unaccountable dark money is perverting the democratic process. The voice of the few can block out the voices of the many. This is where the government needs to step in and protect the integrity of the process by at least establishing some degree of openness, accountability, and, as I said earlier, sunlight.
Everyone wants to talk about Donald Trump but I think there is more going on than just the challenges created by this unique politician. If Americans are patriotic and love their country, they should be listening to multiple sources of information and deciding to get involved because if the American people don’t do it, a handful of very wealthy plutocrats will.
With dark money, the voice of the few can block out the voices of the many.
BRN: Why is it that we have such an obsession these days with sexual harassment and misdeeds of people in prominent places? Lots of people thought Trump was going to be toast after he was caught on tape saying and doing the things he did. How did he escape it?
KC: How will we explain to future generations the contradiction that American evangelicals supported Trump even though he was caught having sex with a porn star after the birth of his fifth child with his third wife? It goes back to the idea that politics is really not about rational arguments. It is about our irrational feelings, self-interests, and cultural identity. We construct our arguments to rationalize our desires and understand the world around us.
We’ve known for a long time that fear motivates our politics more than hope. And in a time like these, with so much economic change and cultural transition, Trump has provided a lot of people with rationalizations for their fears. And, he has given a voice to a lot of frustrated people who did not feel like they had a voice in politics. I think most historians would use terms like ethno-nationalism and cultural venting to explain Trump’s success.
BRN: Well, there are a lot of people who voted for Trump not because they were voting for Donald Trump but because they were voting against Hillary Clinton.
KC: Yes, and vice-versa. Many political scientists argue that people vote more against someone than for someone, or more to defeat perceived threats than to promote policies and positions.
I would also add that if we want to look for an historical parallel to the present we should look to Richard Nixon and the 1970s. Watergate is going to become increasingly important over the next few months and years, I really believe.
BRN: How so? Do you feel like the investigation of the Trump campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia is gaining traction? Are we looking at impeachment?
KC: I don’t know if we are looking at impeachment, but we are looking at the potential for great scandal, constitutional crisis, and political debates that are going to tear at the very fabric of our system of checks and balances. Certainly the ridiculous political machinations surrounding the release of the Nunes Memo, and the reactions to it, suggest that we are approaching a political and constitutional crisis.
The lesson from Watergate is not that the system worked, but how close it came to NOT working.
BRN: Can you expand on that thought some?
KC: Several years ago I wrote a book titled Senator Sam Ervin, Last of the Founding Fathers. Senator Ervin and Senator Howard Baker came from different political parties, but during the Watergate crisis both of them knew there was something more important than partisanship, something that transcended being a Republican or a Democrat. They rose to the occasion and did the right thing. That is not happening today and it concerns me deeply.
The lesson of Watergate is not that the system worked. It is how close the system came to not working. That is what concerns an historian like me because even after learning about Nixon’s immoral, illegal, unconstitutional behavior, many politicians still defended him and opposed his removal from office.
BRN: What are your thoughts about the claims of collusion with Russia?
KC: I don’t know and I wish everyone would say that, because we DON’ know. In Watergate, people made all types of claims without knowing the facts. Politicians spun all kinds of tales to manipulate voters. People tended to believe what they wanted to believe. Eventually most Americans had to face uncomfortable truths about their president.
It is obvious that the Russians are using technology to interfere with our democratic process.
I really hope that the facts about the various Trump stories will come out, whether they condemn or exonerate the president, but at this point we just don’t know.
It’s obvious that the Russians are using technology to interfere with our democratic process. And here in North Carolina, knowing what we know about how they attacked our voting machines, we should at least focus on some things we can control. I personally can’t imagine having any voting machine without a paper trail. It’s a non-partisan idea that make sense to me.
On the bigger questions raised by the Trump presidency and Russian collusion, I just really hope that the American people will rise to the occasion, pay attention, search for the truth, and put country above party no matter if they are Republicans or Democrats.
BRN: A lot of people in the middle are fed up with the Republicans and the Democrats. Do you think there could be a creation of a viable third party?
KC: American politics has never had a successful third party, one that stayed. I think a lot of young people don’t have much trust in institutions. They are not wedded to either party. They are open to pragmatic answers and open to being moved. I think we are in a realignment and that young people will be critical to that realignment. I think a lot of the old rhetoric is not going to work on them. They will be testing political candidates and they want to hear some authenticity, as well as practical solutions to problems.
BRN: Let’s turn this conversation to something a little lighter. What do you think about App State football?
KC: It’s a wonderful thing at App. There are certain things that have the potential to unite people, and football does that. People with a wide range of interests, Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal, on a Saturday afternoon they get behind the same mission, to win a football game. To beat Georgia Southern.
App has been very successful by keeping the stadium on campus. It is a unifying factor and really a lot of fun. Of course, as a faculty member I have concerns about the checks and balances, but so far I have been impressed that the school administration and athletic department have maintained those checks and balances well.
But, as we know in politics, where a lot of money flows, it has to be watched. We need openness. Hopefully the positive balance that we now know will continue as we grow into being the National Champions – and defeat Alabama in the next couple of years.
App is like an adolescent in that our personality is being reshaped. We are big, growing, and strong. But like an adolescent we are trying to find our personality in a new age. I think that is healthy. I think App has a pretty positive future. There are good discussions going on.
Every generation has to fight for its freedoms and liberty.
BRN: Have you noticed that change in the level of academic competency of students since the athletic program rose in stature?
KC: SATs have gone up, if only marginally. Clearly the win over Michigan helped. We get kids from not just the mountains, but everywhere in the southern region and across the U.S. The challenge for App is to continue to create diversity. That doesn’t only mean bringing more African Americans and Latinos into the classroom which is a top priority, but attracting liberals and conservatives, mountain culture and urban culture, environmental and industrial interests, etc. Diversity should be an intellectual commitment.
BRN: Local governments have a larger direct impact on our lives than the national stage does. How do we get more people involved and interested in the local government?
KC: It is the elected official’s job to reach out, inspire, and move people. In some ways apathy is the failure of politicians to not reach out. The successful politician is the one who gets those people, who connects.
I also think that it is absolutely the responsibility of both Democrats and Republicans to have informed and civil debates. People respond positively when politicians disagree but also come to some compromise. The more we talk about issues, put them in terms that people care about, have a good argument then go get a cup of coffee or a beer later, the better we will be.