The Politics of History

The Politics of History –

This episode reminded me of an inquiry posed last fall by a respected public radio producer. After interviewing me for a program on campaign history, he asked me to suggest prominent Democrats who might comment for the show. He wanted the views of a few politicians to compliment those of historians, but he could only think of Republicans who knew much about history.

Having once worked for Congress, I started running through its members in my head. Various Republicans sprang to mind, but no living Democrats. Finally I hit on former Sen. George McGovern as probable and a couple of others as possible, but it was tough.

A few days later a journalist asked me this question: Why do conservatives like history more than liberals? Most historians vote Democratic, I assured him, but I realized that there might be something to his query. The current Republican candidates for president often refer to past presidents from both parties, he noted, while the Democratic candidates rarely do. (Barack Obama has expressed admiration for Illinois Republican Abraham Lincoln and the inspirational leadership of John F. Kennedy.)

The author then continues on to discuss how the Democrats are likely embarrassed by their “ancestors,” to a greater extent than Republicans are. He cites: Jefferson was a slaveholders; Jackson was as well, plus a murderer; William Jennings Bryan fought the teaching of evolution; Woodrow Wilson was a racist and a fascist; FDR put Japanese Americans into prison camps; LBJ brought the Great Society, but also the Vietnam War. In addition, I’d add the indisputable fact that the Democrat Party was the party of slavery and segregation.

But Republicans, and conservatives, also have skeletons in their closets, or given the history at question, crazy uncles in the attic might be a better analogy. Why are they less embarrassed at their history and more likely to draw lessons from it? (Conservatives even cite John C. Calhoun favorably, and he was certainly pro-slavery.)

Why the difference? I think it comes from the implicit assumption in all conservative thought that people are, by nature, imperfect. We all have flaws, and once we accept that about ourselves, we become more tolerant of flaws in others. So, we can draw political lessons from a Calhoun or a Jefferson, and ignore them where they seem to be wrong. It seems that one of two impulses drives liberals: they either believe people to be perfect, only to be dragged down by a corrupt society, or essentially flawed, and therefore need the guidance of an elite who will steer them in the proper direction, against their will, if necessary. Conservatives, recognizing the essential, but incomplete, goodness of people, resists a concentration of power, lest that power tend to corrupt, as Lord Acton so cogently warned us.

There are other factors that I believe tend to diminish a liberal’s interest in history. One, liberals, believing they know how best to order society, are less likely to be interested in other opinions about how to do so, so feel less need to learn from the mistakes and successes of the past. Conservatives, on the contrary, recognizing the organic nature of any culture, believe we must know where we come from, lest proposed changes take us in a completely new direction that people are not ready for. As an analogy, we can’t go straight from Nevada to New Jersey; there are many states in between. Many non-conservatives, since anyone of an ideological bent can be guilty of this rashness and radicalism, would have us attempt to skip those intermediate states and cause much disruption and error.

Additionally, as my cousin-in-law, a former liberal, told me: study of history, especially American history, tends to make one conservative. The allegedly soon to be beatified and convert to Catholicism Cardinal John Henry Newman told us “To be steeped in history is to cease being Protestant,” the same is often true of ceasing to be liberal.