“Weaponizing” History to Make Political Arguments is Lazy Historical Thinking

The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

The Ku Klux Klan in 1928. Photo Credit: National Archives & Records Administration

Over the past few days a good number of historians have been sharing an article from the Washington Post that ostensibly confirms what many of us in the field already know: history is relevant, important, and worth studying. The article, “In Divided America, History is Weaponized to Praise or Condemn Trump,” points out that thousands upon thousands of Americans on social media are using history–or, more appropriately, their understanding of history–to make arguments to “support or oppose” the current administration’s actions.  Moreover, the article provocatively claims that the President’s election has “certainly revived interest in U.S. history.” Many historians on social media are applauding these developments.

I don’t buy it.

While I agree that in our current moment we are seeing more online conversations that invoke historical figures and events, it’s worth asking a number of questions about this development. History is a tool that can be used to better understand where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Are we really engaging in conversations that actually strive to utilize historical thinking to understand what happened in the past, or have we simply turned basic historical facts into superficial rhetorical weapons to make political arguments about today? How productive is it to use history to debate government policy or predict how current policy will work in the long run? How useful is it to cite historical examples when the record is so vast as to justify any sort of political ideology or belief?

If there’s so much interest in history, why is the National Endowment for the Humanities facing the possibility of being cut completely from the federal budget? Why do colleges and universities continually trim down the budgets and staffing of history departments? Why is there a decline in students majoring in history? Why do high schools so frequently hire history teachers based on a candidate’s ability to coach a sports team and not because of their ability to educate students about the discipline? Why is visitor attendance to historic sites in a state of decline? Why do I have friends on Facebook who will simultaneously tell me that they enjoy reading history but that pursuing a liberal arts degree is “stupid” because such degrees are “fake” and “useless” on the job market?

Senator Ted Cruz recently argued that “The Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan . . . The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” While it’s factually true that the KKK was founded by Southern Democrats after the Civil War, anyone who has even a cursory understanding of U.S. history knows that the Republican and Democrat party platforms have changed, evolved, and in some cases flipped from what they were in 140 years ago. But then again, Senator Cruz isn’t making this statement in the interest of understanding the context and complexity of history, in this case the Reconstruction era. He doesn’t care that the second wave of the KKK that emerged following the theatrical release of The Birth of a Nation in 1915 recruited many of its members from the Republican party, so much so that in Indiana the KKK essentially took over the state Republican party and the State House in the 1924 state election. He doesn’t care that in 1890, amid a growing wave of black voting disenfranchisement initiatives throughout the South, the Republican party sold out its black constituents by giving up on the Lodge Bill, which would have allowed for federal oversight of federal elections and given circuit courts the ability to investigate voter fraud, disenfranchisement, and ensure fair elections. The Republican Party gave up on this bill so that it could get Southern support for a different bill that would raise tariffs rates, the party’s primary concern at the time. He doesn’t care that racism has been a staple of U.S. history and something widely supported by Americans of all political persuasions.

Senator Cruz doesn’t care about any of this because he is only concerned about using history as a weapon to praise his buddies and condemn his enemies. He wants to portray contemporary Democrats as bigots, racists, and ideological descendants of the KKK Democrats of the 1870s. He doesn’t care about the history.

It’s a shame that so many politicians on all sides of the political spectrum so often resort to weaponizing history.

A few days before the Washington Post article was published, Northwestern University history professor Cameron Belvins wrote what is in my mind the best essay of 2017 so far. He warns of the dangers of using history to predict the future and calls upon historians to consider the ways history might be counter-productive to understanding the complexities of today’s politics. You must read this essay – it is fantastic.

In sum, I think we historians still have a long way to go before we can declare victory in our effort to expose our students and the public more broadly to the joys and benefits of studying history. And I would argue that the value of studying history is not that it provides “answers” to contemporary problems or a solid blueprint for effective government policy in the future, but that it trains us how to interpret source material, appreciate change over time, and ask better questions about our world, both then and now.

Cheers

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5 responses

  1. […] in the Washington Post on the issue, but make sure to follow up by reading Nick Sacco’s response, which not only gets at some of what I’ve talked about here, but also the corresponding […]

  2. […] to read/research/ponder history and thus revives interest in it. On his always excellent blog, Nick Sacco is not buying it, and makes a passionate argument “that the value of studying history is not that it provides […]

  3. Reblogged this on Student of the American Civil War and commented:
    Nick Sacco has a very thoughtful post on the use of history as a weapon by politicians. Or perhaps “misuse of history” is a better way to put it. Needless to say I’m in agreement with Nick’s outlook. The only addition I would make is to point out politicians have deployed historical arguments to make their case for as long as there have been politicians. Our Founding Fathers made use of historical references in their arguments for the US Constitution, referring to Ancient Rome and Greece. The Ancient Romans used historical arguments to persuade people to follow what they wanted done as well.

    I know Nick has this perspective as well, and it wasn’t part of his critique so he didn’t mention it, but my critique of journalists includes the fact that their historical understanding is, to be charitable, limited. They think things that happen in their lifetime have happened for the first time, or are the most significant instances of those events. Civil War historian Gary Gallagher of the University of Virginia likes to say their historical outlook goes all the way to last Tuesday. That’s a bit hyperbolic, but it’s also emblematic of the poor historical knowledge and understanding American journalists possess. Fortunately, journalists can also luck out by interviewing outstanding historians and thus getting pointed in the right direction. We just need to be careful

    As longtime readers of this blog will recall, two groups hard to trust when it comes to getting an in-depth and accurate view of history [with a few notable exceptions] are politicians and journalists. That comes out loud and clear in this terrific post Nick gave us.

    Nick’s argument that our study of history needs to take into account such things as change over time [one of the “Five C’s of Historical Thinking”] is well taken and something that needs to be said, especially in light of Senator Ted Cruz’s claim regarding the KKK and the Democratic Party. See an excellent takedown of Cruz’s claim by historian Carol Emberton in this story: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2017/02/08/ted-cruz-the-democrats-are-the-party-of-the-ku-klux-klan/?postshare=2001486661601862&tid=ss_tw&utm_term=.d70a53276288

    Check out another reason Cruz was wrong here: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/

    Expect more politicians’ misuse of history, especially with the current administration. See: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/165099

  4. I recently asked a friend how he got through all of his daily news in 20 minutes, whilst it took me about 2 hours. He happily replied that he read the headlines and the first paragraph of each article. Essentially, he was taking in his daily dose of propaganda with a little PR on the side. It is my contention that we are training ourselves to rely more and more on 140 character sound bites, and at the same time availing ourselves to those who are master manipulators of this sort of fast-food-news-cum-history-cum-current-events. Indeed, many of us have become ‘lazy thinkers” in general. I asked the same friend when was the last time he read a book, and he replied “that he was done with that”. Knowledge is our most powerful weapon, books are the tools, and intelligence allows us to pull it all together, and defend ourselves against those who would beguile the less than armed. History is rife with the consequences of those who believed what they wanted to hear, or heard what they wanted to believe as it was being delivered by those who possessed an agenda perpendicular to the truth.

    Both blog posts on this topic of manipulating history for the cause of an agenda are well written and timely. It would be nice if someone other than those in the know were enlightened by their content, and inspired to go forth and READ.

    1. I love this comment. Thanks, Shoshana. I couldn’t agree more.

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