The right has been relentless in explaining American history through a conservative prism.
The rank-and-file have taken The Answer to heart. They are eager students; they are always discovering new things. In living rooms across the country, they take notes while they watch, then go to Amazon.com to buy new books. They march to seminar rooms to be taught by Tea Party organizers, who give them the talking points of the new history. They turn out for school board elections and meetings to get the right kind of history in our children’s textbooks—a history that says the Bill of Rights was inspired by Jesus Christ, that the slave trade was actually the “Atlantic triangular trade,” that Thomas Jefferson and his Enlightenment ways were less important than we’ve been led to believe. In a profile of Beck in The New York Times Magazine by Mark Leibovich, a woman waiting in line to get free tickets to a Beck event at the Kennedy Center yells out, “We hate Woodrow Wilson.” That a president from nearly a century ago has become the object of a tailgate jeer underscores just how deeply the conservative rendition of American history has penetrated the public. And thus do obscure and wrong-headed arguments become the foundation for our political discourse.
Beck and company are filling a void left by progressives. The progressive movement for a long time now has failed to develop “a coherent vision,” as Shlaes said Beck offered. We have grown complacent about our accomplishments. Yes, we may have won the culture war, and the achievements of the New Deal and the Great Society are so monumental that we are tempted to think that they are enduring—that that history is settled. But we forget what conservatives know: that everything can be—is—contested. Think FDR’s status as democracy’s savior is sacrosanct? Think again. Fifty years from now, he may well be a controversial figure, his greatness whispered only among cultists. And if you thought that not even posterity could rescue George W. Bush, those Gallup polls should shatter your smugness.
There are signs that progressives are learning. In January, the History Channel announced that it was canceling a miniseries about the Kennedys produced by Hollywood conservative Joel Surnow after numerous complaints about the distortions and inaccuracies in the script. Liberals and moderates have also expressed increasing alarm about the conservative campaign to rewrite our textbooks. Protests like these show a recognition that history needs to be defended from the depredations of propagandists.
But we need to move beyond playing defense and go on offense. We need to promote a progressive idea of history like the one Senator Obama painted for those students years ago. Progressives in government, media, academia, and the grassroots need to engage the battle over our past, and trumpet our accomplishments and the ethos that binds them. In a recent piece in The Washington Monthly, historian Michael Kazin urged Obama to “appeal to history” in his State of the Union address. “[Y]ou might remind Americans that, from the Civil War to the present, the federal government has played an active part in boosting the economy, promoting technological progress, and providing a social safety net,” Kazin wrote. That exhortation applies to the larger progressive sphere.
Just as important is to tell Americans of a past that we need not repeat. We have failed to remind Americans of the disasters that conservatism has visited on American life. A radical idea underpins conservatism: to stand athwart history and yell “Stop!” And from race to foreign policy to the economy, conservatives have so frequently been on the wrong side of history—which is why they feverishly seek to revise it. Let’s hang those failures around their necks. If we don’t fight for history, progressivism itself will be history.
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