“Ridin’ in a Stutz Bearcat, Jim

Those were different times”

-“Sweet Jane” by Lou Reed

The public reaction to the death of President George Herbert Walker Bush two weeks ago got me thinking about the phrase, “those were different times.” Bush 41 was the last of his generation to serve as president. He was a World War Two navy pilot, and he was in office when the Berlin wall came down and the cold war ended. He was an establishment WASP, a preppy, the kind of New England country club Republican who is all but extinct today. Much that was written immediately after his death emphasized his basic decency, and the relative civility with which politics was carried out in his day. As I read through the obituaries and tributes, I found myself thinking that “those were different times” indeed.

But what do we mean by that phrase? Its plain meaning is utterly banal: of course those were different times — they were before the time we’re living in right now. We obviously mean something more significant than that. I reflected that we only use the phrase when we’re referring to a time when there were important differences between the way people thought or did things then and the ways we think and act today. That got me to thinking in terms of the Four Question Method, because that’s how I think about pretty much anything historical now, and I came to the conclusion that “those were different times” has meaning for us in terms of Question Two (“What were they thinking?”) and Question Three (“Why then and there?). Here’s my reasoning:

“Those Were Different Times” and Q2

When we say “those were different times” one of the things we mean is that people thought differently than we do today in important ways. This is, I think, why the phrase initially came to mind when I was reading about Bush 41. Many commentators contrasted the bitter and angry partisanship of American politics today with the relative respect and bi-partisanship of his era. Politicians and voters both thought differently then: members of the opposing party were generally treated like a loyal opposition, rather than as real or potential traitors to the country’s ideals, Republicans and Democrats often thought of each other as friends, and the parties regularly cooperated on major legislation. One of the reasons Trump’s 2016 victory shocked the pundits is that they had not realized how dramatically “the times had changed.” Voters and politicians in 2016 think very differently than they did in Bush 41’s time.

“Those Were Different Times” and Q3

After I’d figured out that I was thinking about Question Two when I thought, “those were different times,” I started wondering about Question Three, “Why then and there?” Why did people think differently about politics in Bush 41’s time? What explains the different mindset of the people in that era?

The logic of Question Three is the logic of social science. We use social science categories like “political,” “social,” “economic,” and we seek to “explain a change with a change or a difference with a difference.” Our first step in doing so is to identify the change or difference we seek to explain. There’s actually a cool word for that thing: it’s called the “explicandum.” (Look it up!) There are lots of contrasts between America today and the America of Bush 41, but my answers to Question Two focused on bipartisanship and civility in national politics. So my explicandum, the change I wish to explain, is the change from civil and bipartisan politics to bitterly partisan politics.

The next step in thinking through Question Three is to look for an underlying change in conditions that might plausibly be connected to my explicandum. People don’t suddenly start thinking differently for no reason; that’s what why we have to “explain a change with a change.” What underlying change might explain why people thought differently about politics in the 1980s? There are a number of possibilities, but here’s one that might work: Bush 41 presided over the end of the Cold War. Between 1945 and 1989, all of American politics took place in the context of the ideological and geopolitical conflict with the Soviet Union. Perhaps the global communist threat had a moderating influence on domestic politics in the U.S. during those years. It seems possible that more Democrats and Republicans were willing to cooperate when there was a powerful ideological and geopolitical foe poised to profit from serious discord between them. And perhaps the disappearance of that threat unleashed a new era of bitter partisanship.

4QM Helps Clarify Our Study Of The Past

This explanation is obviously insufficient, and could be totally wrong. (I’m sure some readers are already noting flaws in the hypothesis.) But the point of this post is not so much to provide an accurate and true explanation for the difference between our times and those of Bush 41 as to illustrate how 4QM thinking can help us understand times that are different from our own. Noticing contrasts between time periods is what drives our entire discipline: if nothing ever changed, why would we study the past? We can use the Four Question Method to make our examination of those contrasts more intentional, and our understanding of them more comprehensive. It works for history teachers and students, and it works for nerdy citizens, too. So maybe you’ll also remember the Four Questions the next time you find yourself thinking about a time when “The poets, they studied the rules of verse / And the ladies, they rolled their eyes.