On the Use (and Abuse) of History

Most would agree that right-wing advocates have been adept at employing history in the service of their cause. David Barton’s lessons on the Christian roots of liberty and Glenn Beck’s chalkboard seminars on the sins of American Progressives are but two examples of conservatives using the past (i.e., their version of it) to score political points. By stressing certain historical themes, notably the role of individualistic freedom and private enterprise, they have been able to add a sheen of legitimacy to current right-wing agendas.

The Tea Party has been particularly effective in identifying with historical symbols and ideas. Its use of the tea party label itself, synonymous with rebellion, its embrace of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, and its reference to constitutional amendments on guns and state prerogatives all add heft to its individualistic message. An emphasis on America’s capitalist past and stern disapproval of FDR’s “socialistic” New Deal  round out the economic side of its historical worldview.

Partisan history of this sort can, of course, involve embarrassing problems of accuracy. Barton’s pro-Christian interpretations have become rich targets for internet watchdogs, while two mavens of the Tea Party movement, Michelle Bachmann and Sarah Palin, have made themselves the butt of jokes over simple questions of geography (where is Concord?) and history (was Paul Revere ringing bells for the British?). Still, the mere focus on America’s heritage enables conservatives to repeat and inculcate certain clarion themes.

Liberals, by contrast, have been much slower to appreciate the connection between current ideas and the esteemed precedent of history. As a result they find themselves less able to sustain an overall narrative for their point of view. E.J. Dionne, in his recent book Our Divided Political Heart, points out that this has not always been the case. Franklin Roosevelt was skilled in using history to buttress his governing approach, and even Bill Clinton knew how to evoke national symbols to underline a message.

Dionne argues that a counter-narrative is now sorely needed to correct the one-sided portrait of history offered by today’s right. While acknowledging that  individualistic freedom was a valid strain of the American tradition, he stresses that it was almost always counterbalanced by an idea of the common good, the community, and the role of a supportive government. The current Tea Party rhetoric, which sees a sharp division between private and public, was simply not typical of an earlier America.

The Constitution itself provides a good corrective to the view that individual and states rights were ultimate priorities. It was established, one needs to be  reminded, to strengthen government after the country’s failed experiment with the Articles of Confederation. Its Preamble speaks of promoting “a more perfect Union” and “the General Welfare.” And while Madison stressed “checks and balances,” Hamilton was just as forceful in support of government involvement in “matters of internal concern.” He stood for an energetic policy of supporting industry and national development, a concern taken up later by Henry Clay and the Whig Party.

For most of the nation’s first century, it was assumed that public life and private endeavor were interrelated and often complementary. Government activity was not inconsistent with the development of individual freedom, but rather supportive of it. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was following accepted tradition when he used federal power to foster growth and opportunity for all. During his tenure, he was noted for supporting the Homestead Act (offering free land for homesteaders), the Morrill Act (granting land to states for the founding of colleges), and the creation of the National Academy of Sciences.

The whole idea of radical individualism, so dear to the current Tea Party, has a parallel of sorts only during one brief period of American history, i.e. the age of the robber barons, between about 1877 and 1900. It was reflected in the Supreme Court decisions of the time, which supported the rights of corporations (Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad) and prevented states from legislating on such things as child labor (Lochner v. New York). Private and public were starkly distinguished from each other, and the government’s role in regulating the market was limited.

This changed, of course, with the introduction of progressive reforms under Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and FDR, which provided at least minimal protection for consumers, workers, retirees, and the unemployed. Far from being outside of America’s traditions, such reforms were a way of restoring a balance between runaway individualism, on the one hand, and community, or public mindedness, on the other.  By regulating markets so that they were more in tune with public needs and the “general welfare,” such reforms were able to further the national interest while still maintaining a wide scope for individual activity.

Today’s liberals and progressives need to brush up on their history and realize that it is hardly the simple-minded narrative that the right portrays it as. Broadening the discussion can help in smashing some persistent stereotypes and furthering progressive goals.

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