Friday, April 13, 2012

Reclaiming American History Part I - Focus on the Founders

[This is the first in a series of posts about how progressives can reclaim American history from the right wing.]

One key component of the conservative messaging success of the past three decades has been their ability to claim American history as their own. Although we have come a long way in how we understand the past, most people still view American history through a conservative lens. They think of the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives, view the American Revolution as a war against taxes, and believe that the United States grew rich and powerful because of its free enterprise, laissez-faire system.

That these claims are false (or, more accurately, highly misleading), should not distract from the fact that they have an important effect on our political discourse. How we think about the past influences the way we think about the present and the future, and countless academic books and articles that paint a progressive picture of American history have failed to impact the way most Americans really understand the nation's past.

Let me explain in a little more detail.

There are two main ways of thinking about American history, each of which lends itself to different political implications. The first sees the nation's past as a slow but steady progression towards greater freedom and prosperity. According to this view, the United States was a deeply flawed nation at its birth, but for a variety of reasons it has become better over time. This interpretation, which historians often term Whiggish, tends to be held by people on the left and emphasizes the contributions of various social movements, such as the labor movement and the civil rights movement, as engines of progress.

By contrast, many conservatives subscribe to a view of American history in which the United States was born great but has fallen (or struggles to remain great) because we have strayed from the ideals of previous generations. This "declensionist" view tends to focus on valorizing the Founding Fathers and discrediting the 1960s.

So what's the problem? Well, my sense is that, although we've come to accept the contributions that marginalized groups and social movements have played in American history, the declensionist view dominates popular understandings of our nation's past. It is great that we have things like Black History Month, but many people - and not just racists or diehard conservatives - still think that the United States was more free in the 1950s than it is today.

Why is this? One reason is that the media, politicians, and other people who set the terms of public discourse are, by their very nature, concerned with critiquing the present and, as such, have a tendency to look favorably upon the past. Those of us who pay close attention to the ins-and-outs of politics have a hard time stepping back and acknowledging that things are getting better. We have a natural inclination to complain about the here-and-now while longing for bygone days. In this sense, progressives engage in their own forms of declensionist thinking. For example, we hold up Franklin Roosevelt as a tireless champion of liberal values when, in fact, his presidency was characterized by the same sort of hesitancy that gets progressives riled up about Obama.

To my mind, the right wing has capitalized on declensionist tendencies among the public and the media - tendencies which tap into the respect for tradition moral foundation that Jonathan Haidt has talked about - by advancing a conservative vision of the Founding Fathers and other key authority figures in American history. Instead of fighting battles to get marginalized groups included in the story, the right wing has focused on using history to define the United States a conservative country. The main way they've done this is by portraying the Founding Fathers as Christian conservatives and claiming that the American Revolution was a revolt against government and taxes. They've done a lot of other things as well - trying to appropriate the civil rights movement, discrediting the Great Society programs of the 1960s, reminding people that Abe Lincoln was a Republican, etc. - but they have focused the vast majority of their attention on the Founding Fathers and the Revolutionary War.

This is really smart because the Revolutionary Era is, and will forever remain, the defining period in American history. It is what we all inevitably refer back to when we want to understand the "nature" of our country, which is the major contribution that history makes towards informing our political decision-making.

For this reason, I think it is high time that progressives push back on the conservative campaign to claim the Founding Fathers as their own. Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll be focusing on how we can debunk right wing myths about the Founders, particularly the view that they were extremely religious and advocated a laissez-faire approach to economic policy. Stay tuned.

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