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The New York Times’ most liberal columnist, Charles Blow, recently published a brief commentary that argues that the nation is likely to witness a reprise of the 1968 presidential election as antiwar protests divide the Democratic Party.

Sure, history doesn’t repeat itself in a literal sense. Nor do specific events, circumstances and figures recur in precisely the same form. Every historical event is the product of a unique context.

That said, patterns, themes and dynamics can and often do re-emerge across different periods of time. Comparable conditions do tend to produce similar outcomes.

One can point to a host of dramatic differences between 1968 and 2024. Protests haven’t been directed at a Democratic president, nor have they drawn vast swaths of the youth population. No major political figures have been assassinated, sparking disillusionment and outreach. Urban uprisings like those triggered by the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. haven’t occurred. The United States is not itself at war.

Still, there are some eerie parallels between 2024 and 1968. These include deep divisions within the Democratic Party, a highly polarized political environment and very visible, widely publicized protests. There’s also a series of events—the pandemic, the issues of racial injustice, the post-COVID inflation surge, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and more—that have had a significant impact on the nation’s sense of security and well-being. In addition, there’s a presidential candidate running on a “law and order” platform and the presence of third-party candidates who could potentially draw votes away from one of the major parties and help decide the election.

It may well be that the 2024 presidential election will be decided more by apathy than activism, by a sense of resignation or inevitability rather than outrage and anger. Time will tell. But an awareness of past history should surely serve as a warning sign.

One widely repeated historical analogy is that the United States is in the midst of a new Gilded Age, drawing a parallel between the current socioeconomic and political climate and the late 19th century. Both eras experienced rapid technological innovation and economic growth; both were characterized by stark inequalities and monopolistic and oligopolistic business practices. What Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner described in an 1873 book seemed to be true today: a superficial layer of gold masking deeper problems of social inequality and moral decay.

At the analogy’s heart is the notion that American society today faces many of the same problems that beset the country in the past: significant disparities of income and wealth, the undue influence of large corporations and the ultrawealthy on politics and policy, extraordinarily rapid technological change that threatens to disrupt existing jobs, and bitter struggles between capital and labor, coupled with deep cultural divides, strong anti-immigrant sentiment and an insurgent populism that challenges existing political norms.

Not only can this analogy be found in social and political commentary, but it has been embraced by policy advocates and even academics who study the dynamics of democracy and capitalism, race and inequality in this country.

Historical analogies don’t just haunt historians. Historical analogies play a significant role in shaping policy decisions, as policymakers look to past events to guide their understanding of current challenges and to forecast the outcomes of their decisions. By drawing parallels between previous situations and present circumstances, leaders can justify actions, persuade stakeholders and frame policy choices. However, the use of historical analogies also comes with risks, as oversimplified or incorrect parallels lead to misjudgments.

Here are specific examples illustrating how historical analogies have influenced policy:

For many foreign policy hawks, it’s always 1938. Perhaps the most frequently cited historical analogy is the Munich Agreement, with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement toward Adolf Hitler’s Germany often invoked to argue against negotiating with aggressors. During the Cold War, U.S. leaders often referenced Munich to justify a hard-line stance against the Soviet Union, arguing that negotiating or the appearance of weakness would only encourage further aggression.

Similarly, this analogy has been applied to situations involving North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear programs, with leaders arguing that concessions could embolden these regimes.

Conversely, for foreign policy doves, the Vietnam War has served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of U.S. military intervention and nation building abroad, particularly in situations where there is a risk of becoming bogged down in a prolonged, unwinnable conflict or when the United States doesn’t really understand the region.

This quagmire analogy was frequently cited during the debates over U.S. involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Critics of those wars warned that, like in Vietnam, the U.S. risked entering conflicts without a clear objective or exit strategy, potentially leading to significant casualties, unanticipated costs and political fallout.

The success of the Marshall Plan, which helped to rebuild Europe after World War II, is often used as an analogy for the potential benefits of investing in postconflict reconstruction and economic development in war-torn countries or investing at home to solve a pressing domestic problem.

This analogy influenced the U.S. approach to reconstruction in Iraq and Afghanistan, with proponents arguing that substantial investment in rebuilding infrastructure and institutions could stabilize these countries and promote democracy. However, differences in historical context, political dynamics and societal structures between post–World War II Europe and contemporary conflict zones challenge the applicability of this analogy.

During the Cold War, the domino theory posited that the fall of one country to communism would lead to the spread of communism throughout a region. This theory was used to justify U.S. involvement in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, under the belief that stopping the spread of communism in Vietnam was essential to prevent its spread across Asia. The analogy influenced a broad range of policies aimed at containing communism through military intervention, economic aid and political alliances.

A historical analogy in widespread circulation today is between the World War II Axis powers—Germany, Italy and Japan—and the so-called axis of resistance, consisting of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea. This analogy is intriguing but shouldn’t be accepted without careful consideration.

For those who embrace this analogy, it helps the United States understand the challenges that the new axis poses to global stability and geopolitical structures and norms and the strategic response required by the Western democracies.

Like the WWII Axis powers, the new axis shares a common opposition to the Western-led international order. The alliances in both eras were formed not out of shared ideologies but out of strategic convenience, aiming to counterbalance the influence of dominant powers.

Both alliances sought to expand their influence through aggressive actions—militarily in the case of the Axis powers and through a mix of military, cyber, economic and political means by the contemporary states.

But we mustn’t minimize the historical differences. The Axis powers, despite their disagreements, were more ideologically aligned in their fascist and imperialist objectives than the current disparate grouping of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, whose motivations range from regional dominance to ideological survival.

The WWII Axis was a formal military alliance with a clear objective—territorial expansion and the establishment of a new world order under their control. The contemporary relationships among Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are more fluid, marked by cooperation in certain areas but not a formal alliance with a single, unified goal.

Equally important, the global context today dramatically differs from its 1930s and early-1940s counterpart. Today’s world is far more interconnected and interdependent than in the World War II era. The presence of nuclear weapons further complicates the dynamics of international conflict.

While there are superficial similarities in the nature of these alliances and their opposition to the prevailing global order, significant differences in ideological coherence, global context, the nature of alliances and global interdependence render any simple analogies problematic.

Historical analogies can provide insights into contemporary challenges but must be used with caution, recognizing the unique aspects of the current international environment. The analogy between the WWII Axis powers and the modern informal alliance among Russia, China, Iran and North Korea highlights the importance of strategic vigilance and cooperation among democracies to uphold the international order, but it also underscores the need for nuanced diplomacy in a complex and interconnected world.

Historical analogies are a double-edged sword in policymaking. These comparisons offer a framework for understanding and action but must be used with caution to avoid the pitfalls of misinterpretation and oversimplification. Too often, these analogies constrain policymakers’ imaginations, leading to rigid or formulaic responses. Effective use of historical analogies requires an awareness of the significant differences between historical and current contexts and a critical evaluation of the lessons drawn from history.

Because history echoes, historical analogies are seductive—and dangerous. Yes, as we move forward we should also keep an eye on our rearview mirror, while always remembering that drawing historical parallels is an art, not a science.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the author, most recently, of The Learning-Centered University: Making College a More Developmental, Transformational and Equitable Experience.

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