The right has been relentless in explaining American history through a conservative prism.
We live in an age of what historian Thomas Frank calls instant forgetting. It’s not just that we forget things—it’s that we seem to replace the past with inexplicable fictions.
Take how Americans remember the previous president. In December, it was reported that George W. Bush’s Gallup approval ratings had risen to 47 percent. That represented a dramatic increase from his ratings in office, which by his last year never broke 35 percent—a befuddling improvement considering nothing about his legacy has changed in the years since he left office.
Let’s chalk it up to a decent society’s magnanimity. But how to explain the short-term memory loss that has gripped the public when it comes to the ideas Bush stood for? The first two years of the Obama era have brought something many liberals did not expect: the revival of a conservative economic philosophy that had been thoroughly discredited by the eight years of Bush—or so we thought.
That renewal casts a pall on this era. For as fruitful as President Obama’s Administration has been, it would be hard to argue that his legislative triumphs have been accompanied by a renascence of public progressivism. Somehow the old, tired mantras of a bankrupt ideology—smaller government, deregulation, tax cuts above all—have carried the day in our discourse. Americans, it would seem, have already forgotten what got us in this mess in the first place.
These episodes of forgetting get at something fundamental: Americans are simply not very good at history. If, as Harry Truman said, the only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know, then Americans are always discovering new things—new, erroneous things.
But there is a deeper failure in this forgetting. Beyond the circumscribed world of academic journals and conferences, history is being taught—on TV and talk radio, in blogs and grassroots seminars, in high-school textbooks and on Barnes & Noble bookshelves. In all of those forums, conservatives have been conspicuous by their activity—and progressives by their absence. What accounts for the complacency? Our victories in the culture wars, eloquently recapitulated by Ethan Porter in these pages last summer [“V-Day in the Culture Wars,” Issue #17], have perhaps made us lax. Or maybe our reality-based orientation, our serene confidence that the facts will out, explains it. Surely, we tell ourselves, no one can challenge what actually happened?
Yet that is exactly what the conservative movement is doing, and has been doing, for decades. Theirs is a crusade to explain American history from conservative premises. It is a dogged campaign that they have been waging—and winning.
The failures start at the top. Barack Obama has, without doubt, governed as a successful progressive president. From health care to financial regulation to the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to the largest stimulus in history, Obama has accomplished a great many things in the face of record-breaking obstruction from an ever-more radical Republican Party. But in one crucial regard, he has been found wanting: He has failed to contextualize his victories in a larger progressive history.
It’s an ironic failure. Barack Obama may have rocketed to political stardom with his speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, but it was another address—one devoted to a retelling of history—that made many progressives sit up and take notice at the beginning of his national career. On June 4, 2005, then-Senator Obama delivered the commencement address at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. It was a masterpiece of a speech, and it offers now what it offered then: a tantalizing glimpse of an Obama presidency that could tell a good story about progressivism.
The speech was a departure in more ways than one. For one thing, it generally eschewed the platitudes of the dreaded genre. It exhorted and inspired, of course, but it also spent most of its time folding the achievement of the class of 2005 into a larger story. Ruminating on the absurd question that had been asked him by a reporter upon his election—“Senator Obama, what’s your place in history?”—Obama told the students that for most of human history, the individual had little say in answering that question. “And then,” he said, “America happened.”
What followed was a bracing story of the American experience that drew a direct line from the founding through the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II, and the civil rights movement, right up to the challenges of the present. But it’s the prism through which Obama invited his listeners to view this past that made the speech stand out. For in recounting the past, Obama articulated—beautifully—a progressive vision of history. At every turn, when confronted with a crisis, what did Americans do? “We chose to act, and we rose together,” he said. His was a vision of a nation that picked its town-hall, rather than rugged-individualist, traditions when confronted with moments of reckoning. And he called on the students of Knox College to find that tradition again to bring America into a new millennium.
But even more rousing was his juxtaposition of that progressive tradition with the conservative one. The address was unusual for Obama in its willingness to engage ideology directly. He invoked Bush’s “ownership society,” noting that “in our past there has been another term for it—Social Darwinism, every man or woman for him or herself.” But Obama said this outlook was problematic. “It won’t work,” he said. “It ignores our history”:
It ignores the fact that it has been government research and investment that made the railways possible and the Internet possible. It has been the creation of a massive middle class, through decent wages and benefits and public schools, that has allowed all of us to prosper. Our economic dominance has depended on individual initiative and belief in the free market; but it has also depended on our sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.
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