Winston Churchill or Lord Bath? The Power and Problems of Historical Analogy

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“Trump is like the Nazis.”

“Johnson is like Charles I.”

“Corbyn is Stalin all over again.”

“Nice parliament you’ve got there. Would be a shame if someone was to shut it down…”

Every time political news breaks, it’s accompanied by a raft of historical analogies. Whether it’s comparing immigrant internment camps with those used against the Boers and Jews or comparing the British Prime Minister’s policies with those that triggered the Civil War, these are powerful images.

I’m always pleased to see people learning from history, and perhaps becoming better informed through these comparisons. But I’m also very wary of these analogies. They’re powerful, in both good and bad ways.

How Analogies Help the Individual

Historical analogies can be really useful to us as citizens.

Firstly, they help us understand what’s happening. Familiar stories and recurring patterns give us a way to wrap our brains around events. Past examples create expectations for the future, reducing uncertainty.

Man carrying heavy crate
An analogy would be so much lighter.

Then there’s the emotional weight they carry. Not just the alleviation of uncertainty, but the summoning of other feelings. Analogies give us an instinctive feel for whether an event is good or bad. They tap into existing feelings, and so do the emotional heavy lifting for us.

Together, these factors mobilise us to action. That might be protest, it might be voting, it might be sitting back in pleased acceptance. Whatever the outcome, the analogy helps get you there.

How Analogies Help the Politician

Analogies are also incredibly useful for politicians.

Because they’re heavy in information, they can convey a complex message in a simple way. That’s an important tool when trying to either persuade or inform citizens.

For politicians relying on shaky logic, analogies can be particularly useful. Once people accept that situation A is like situation B in one way, they are more likely to assume that it’s similar in other ways. That saves the politician from explaining how A will actually reach a particular outcome – it will get there because B did. This smooths over contradictions and logic gaps.

This is a great way to justify policies. “You know what happened last time we ignored a country backing religious extremists…” is a great excuse for kicking off on Iran. But it ignores the differences between Iran and “the last time”, as well as the religious extremists we’ve left alone.

The Weakness in Historical Analogies

This leads into the bigger issues with historical analogies.

“What the hell? No-one ever cites me in blog posts! Couldn’t you find a picture of Churchill?”

Firstly there’s the pretense of objectivity that historical comparisons bring. Which analogy you choose is subjective and based on what point you want to make. Whether you compare Boris Johnson to Charles I, Julius Ceasar, or Lord Bath is a matter of political choice. Johnson’s attempts to make us think of Churchill have been almost comedically blatant.

It’s possible to choose from many different good analogies to any situation, which can teach valuable yet contradictory lessons. It’s also possible to pick bad analogies and have people accept them.

Analogies are dangerous because of the simplifications they bring. The analogy itself usually ignores nuance and difference. The vision of the past period it summons is usually a simplified, stripped-down one, ignoring debates, uncertainties, and complications about what happened. By extension, it makes the current situation seem simpler than it is.

Any analogy comes with assumptions about cause and effect, based on common historical understanding. “X was followed by Y, so if Z is like X than Y will happen again.” But what if X didn’t cause Y? Or what if, as is usually the case, it was caused by multiple complex factors? In that case, Z could have very different results.

Every situation is different from every one that came before, if only because we know about the previous ones.

Should We Ignore Historical Analogies?

So should we ignore historical analogies?

Of course not. And I don’t just say that because I write about history for money.

Historical analogies are very useful. They can provide perspective and understanding. They can motivate us to action, if only to ensure that the outcome is different this time, that the analogy breaks down and we free ourselves from history’s heavy hand.

But we should be very careful with analogies. We should be aware of their limits. And we should watch out for when they’re used to manipulate us, by our political allies as much as our opponents. Because the insidious analogies aren’t the ones we laugh at or decry. They’re the ones we unquestioningly accept because they feel right.