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.
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) March 2, 2016
The above video is infuriating, disappointing, troubling, and largely inaccurate.
Mr. Jeffery Lord, a vocal Donald Trump supporter and pundit we’re supposed to take seriously because he’s on CNN, lectures Van Jones to “read your history” while making a rather sad argument about the historical legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, attributing all their wrongdoings to “progressive”Democrats. While it’s factually true that white supremacist elements within the Democratic party have historically had a troubling connection to the KKK, Lord’s interpretation of that fact stretches and breaks the boundaries of reality. Such terms like “leftist” and “progressive” would have been shocking to KKK members in 1870. This interpretation also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how history and political discourse work. Historical “facts” do not exist in a vacuum or constitute true historical knowledge. “Read your history” is not simply being ready for a trivia night. Historical thinking requires an interpretation of facts that places them within a proper context, taking account of how these bits of information fit within the broader picture of how a society functioned at the time. Facts gain their significance through the ways we interpret their meaning, and not all interpretations are equal (read historian Richard Evans’ discussion of the interplay between fact and interpretation here). To argue that the KKK is a violent, racist organization (fact) supported historically only by Democrats and “Progressives” (wild interpretation) is as silly as arguing that Steph Curry is a great three-point shooter (fact) but a terrible basketball player (wild interpretation). Why else would Lord assert that the KKK was a creation of leftist progressives unless he’s suggesting that the KKK has no association with the Republican party or conservatives more broadly? In that case, Mr. Lord may need to read some more history.
Anyone who actually bothers to explore the history of the KKK understands that there have been at least three different versions of the Klan in American history. The first version emerged in the 1860s and 1870s in opposition to enhanced civil rights for blacks, particularly the right to vote for black males through the 15th Amendment. The third version of the KKK emerged in the 1950s and 60s in response to racial desegregation, social change, and Civil Rights legislation. But the second version of the KKK that emerged in the 1910s and 1920s was slightly different. Their campaigns were anti-black but also included opposition to Jews, Catholics, immigrants, and strong support for prohibition. These appeals to the power of White Anglo Saxon Protestant society gained popularity throughout the entire country. The second KKK was particularly popular in the Midwest in places like Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio. The group gained such a stronghold in Indiana that, according to Leonard J. Moore and other scholars, election to public office in the state was impossible without the support of the KKK. And which party, you might ask, held a majority of the KKK-backed seats in the state legislature and supported a KKK-backed Governor in his successful 1924 election? The Republicans!
The point here is not to save the Democrats from their history. The point is that Lord’s argument is lazy and dishonest. The KKK has been a fabric of our culture for 150 years thanks to the support of white supremacists of all different political persuasions. Equally important, political coalitions and parties are not static entities that never change over time. That Donald Trump–the leading front-runner of what was once the party of Lincoln and Grant–cannot publicly condemn the support of KKK leader David Duke is a testament to the ever-changing nature of political platforms and party dynamics. But Trump can get away with his nonsense because partisans like Jeffery Lord will do the dirty work of manipulating the past to place their preferred candidate on the right side of history at any cost. I’m tired of partisans who dishonestly view the world with red- and blue-tinted glasses shaped by ideological dogmas rather than reasoned reflection and nuanced consideration of context and substance. Historians are often skeptical of the ways politicians abuse history to justify their own ends, but the same skepticism should be applied to the talking heads who spew nonsense on our radios and televisions 24 hours a day. Give me a break.