…Those Liberal Historians

Barack Obama

Generalizations are a normal function of human thought. We preach the importance of not judging people without first getting to know them, but it’s an undeniable fact that we make generalizations about others before meeting them because we believe they give us a sense of order and help us explain the actions of a group of people or things. We make generalizations based on a wide range of factors that include appearance (gender, skin color, ethnicity, clothing, etc.), mannerisms, employment, and education levels. But generalizations can also distort our understanding of the world and lead us to false assumptions about others with little evidence to back up our views. There are times when generalizations are appropriate (like that moment when a sports broadcaster announces that “the fans are going wild!” even though not all spectators may be cheering at that particular moment) and times when they are not appropriate (like making a claim about an entire racial minority group based on an interaction with one person from that group).

As a practicing historian, it’s always humorous to me when generalizations are made about historians and their political preferences, which are usually labeled under the vague phrase “liberal historians.” You hear claims like this all the time, but I think Matthew Hennessey takes the cake in writing for City Journal. In his mind, “liberal historians” are actively scheming to defend President Barack Obama at all costs in an effort to cement his legacy as a great U.S. president. Hennessey claims that he’s not exaggerating or cherry-picking in constructing his argument, but he does just that in a vain effort to connect historical appraisals of past left-leaning presidents with a speculative prediction about historians’ future interpretations of Obama.

I want to address a few of Hennessey’s claims about these historians. Then I’ll address the concept of “liberal historians.”

Cherry-picking historians’ attitudes

Hennessey immediately screws up by stating that most historians “make their living in academia.” That is patently false, as there are literally tens of thousands more historians teaching in k-12 classrooms and working in public history settings that include national parks, museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, government agencies, and businesses. He then proceeds to suggest that historians will give Obama a pass on things like health-care, foreign policy, and immigration. Quite humorously, he also believes that “they will hail him for trying to close the military prison at Guantanamo [sic] Bay.” Regarding the latter claim, Hennessey clearly has no awareness of the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, a national collaboration between academic history and museum studies programs that has vocally criticized Obama’s inaction and whose project leaders are far from conservative. But hey! Liberal historians love Obama and will do anything to defend him, right?

Hennessey then jumps into historical analysis and argues that historians are too light on FDR and LBJ. Regarding FDR, he complains that “historians love the New Deal and the welfare state” and seems to believe that no one ever talks about Roosevelt’s controversial actions, such as his effort to pack the Supreme Court in 1935 or his executive order relocating Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. I guess he’s never read the liberal Ira Katznelson’s critical analysis of the New Deal in Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, nor has he bothered to study any number of recent studies on FDR’s controversies, which include this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, this one, and this one. I’m sure there’s at least one “liberal historian” in that group of authors.

Hennessey also argues that LBJ gets a free pass for escalating the Vietnam war while Richard Nixon gets blamed for Vietnam “when he isn’t taking heat for everything from the Clinton Impeachment to the obesity epidemic.” Of course LBJ gets plenty of blame from historians for Vietnam, so that claim doesn’t even merit a response. In arguing that historians blame Nixon for Clinton’s impeachment, he links to a 2005 article quoting a Republican congressmen who stated that “I…thought that the Republican party should stand for something, and if we walked away from this, no matter how difficult, we could be accused of shirking our duty, our responsibility.” Regarding the claim that Nixon is blamed for the obesity epidemic, the article Hennessey links to lists several different reasons for this supposed epidemic, one of which includes poor policy planning under the Nixon administration. That’s cherry-picking and exaggeration in my book.

What does it mean to be a “liberal historian”?

There are several noteworthy ironies in claiming that liberal historians will do anything to protect President Obama’s reputation and legacy.

For one, historians argue about any and everything, from the most serious and fundamental to the most trivial and pedantic. These disagreements cover writing styles, historical methods and interpretations, and present-day politics. Historians who lean to the left of the political spectrum include communists, socialists, democratic socialists, and liberals who rarely agree with each other. Tony Judt, for example, infamously critiqued Eric Hobsbawm in 2003 for never renouncing his membership in the communist party. More recently the socialist publication Jacobin has published a series of critical posts against Obama that include “Obama to America: Work Harder,” “Obama Channels Reagan on Welfare,” “Imperialists for ‘Human Rights‘,” and “What Does Obama Think They Were Doing at Stonewall?” None of these articles are very complementary to Obama.

If Congress were run by historians right now, it probably wouldn’t be much more productive than it already is thanks to the arguing and bickering that would take place.

Secondly, academic historians allegedly face a crisis in which they struggle to connect their scholarship with the public, so much so that Nicholas Kristof wrote a plea in the New York Times calling for professors to write for public audiences and involve themselves in policy debates. Yet academics in the minds of people like Hennessey have so much power and influence over public dialogue that they fear a vast left-wing bloc of historians successfully shoving propaganda about the greatness of President Obama down the throats of the American public.

Finally, there have been and continue to be plenty of notable right-leaning historians in the field. Niall Ferguson, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Jeffrey Rogers Hummel, Russell Kirk, Daniel Boorstin, Jacques Barzun, and Jay Winik immediately come to mind for me, although there are no doubt many more. And one of my favorite books from graduate school, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, was written by the conservative historian John Lewis Gaddis, who just so happens to be good friends with former U.S. President George W. Bush.

I don’t doubt that many historians, if not most, lean to the left. That generalization is actually backed with evidence. But this idea of a homogenized group of “liberal historians” conspiring to protect President Obama is utter poppycock. When you make generalizations without evidence to back up your claims, those claims ultimately say more about you than the they do about the group you are attempting to generalize about.

End rant. Cheers and happy new year!

10 thoughts on “…Those Liberal Historians

  1. The idea of “liberal historians” and the statements about President Obama particularly bother me because it also automatically homogenizes all of those who are liberal/left-leaning and interested in the past as impossibly biased. I have criticized the President on a number of occasions. I actually think he is more of a moderate or conservative than a liberal. People don’t understand that, for example, Liberalism and the Democratic Party rarely, if ever, match.

    Great post, as always!

    1. Thanks, Andrew. Your point about bias is particularly relevant because Hennessey believes that there is actually an objective path to “just the facts” untainted by political considerations or interpretive theories. So, at the root of this “liberal historians” claim lies a fundamental misunderstanding of epistemology.

  2. Great post, Nick, though I think we shouldn’t consider Jay Winik to be a historian. I suggest replacing him with Allen Guelzo, a historian of the first order and definitely not a liberal.

  3. This is the opposite of concise. Your argument is pretty terrible and basically amounts to “Historians aren’t left leaning because look at all the times they have complained presidents weren’t liberal/leftist enough!”

    1. Huh?

      Had you read the argument a little closer, you’d have noticed that one of the central arguments of Matthew Hennessy’s article was that historians would be protective of Obama, and he did so on the claim that “liberal historians” have previously been too easy on LBJ and FDR. So I pointed out several historical studies suggesting that the accuracy of that claim is questionable, because every American president and just about every important person in human history has come under scrutiny by historians, regardless of the historian’s ideological beliefs. I even acknowledged that most historians probably lean left and cited a study to verify that, thus your argument that I’m denying that many historians lean left politically is wrong. You seem like a very pleasant person to have thoughtful online conversation with. Have a better day.

  4. “there are literally tens of thousands more historians teaching in k-12 classrooms and working in public history settings that include national parks, museums, libraries, archives, historical societies, government agencies, and businesses.”

    1. The Membership rolls of organizations such as the National Council on Public History, American Association for State and Local History, American Alliance of Museums, Society for American Archivists, the American Library Association, Society for History in the Federal Government, National Association for Interpreters, and other related organizations. The many others who may not have a professional affiliation but identify as public historians, writers, or who participate in the historical enterprise in some way that is affiliated with an academic institution. And the basic fact that there are many more middle and high schools that employ history teachers than academic institutions that employ historians.

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