Rick Perlstein – Is There a Republican War on History?

June 20, 2011

Recently, we’ve seen a spate of news stories—and news incidents—involving conservative politicians and activists getting details wrong about American history.

There was, most infamously, Sarah Palin saying that Paul Revere, on his famous midnight ride, rang bells and “warned the British.”

There was Michele Bachman, claiming that the founding fathers “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” Actually, the constitution explicitly treated slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning representatives to different states.

And then was David Barton, conservatives’ go-to guy on history, suggesting that Tom Paine was, basically, a supporter of creationism.

To try to figure out what’s going on lately with conservatives and history, we turn to a historian, Rick Perlstein. Perlstein is the author of several books including Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He’s also a regular contributor to a variety of publications including The American Prospect and Mother Jones.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, June 20th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of inquiry. I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. Recently, my radar has been picking up a growing number of news stories and news incidents involving conservative politicians and activists who are getting the details wrong about American history. There was most infamously Sarah Palin saying that Paul Revere, on his famous midnight ride, rang bells and warned the British there was Michele Bachmann claiming that the founding fathers, quote, worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. Of course, actually, the Constitution treated slaves as three fifths of a person for the purposes of apportioning representation to the states. Then there was David Barton. Conservatives go to Guy on history with this strange gloss on the evolution debate. 

Everybody thinks that’s a new debate in the 60s, because that’s what the court ruled. 68. Well, you go back to Darwin. That’s not a new debate because you go back. The founding fathers, as far as they were concerned, they’d already had the entire debate on creation, evolution. And you get Thomas Paine, who’s the least religious founding father, saying you’ve got to teach creation science in the public school classroom. Scientific method demands that. Now, we’re opposite today. 

So in other words, according to Barton, Tom Paine is parallel to today’s creationists to try to figure out what’s going on with conservatives in history, what’s behind all of this? I turned, of course, to a historian, Rick Perlstein. Rick is the author of several books, including Before the Storm, Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of American Consensus and Nixonland, The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. He’s also a regular contributor to a variety of publications, including The American Prospect and Mother Jones. Rick Perlstein, welcome to a point of inquiry. 

Thanks, Chris. It’s great to be here for this important conversation. 

I wanted to have you on, as you know, because we have all these incidents lately where it seems like coming from the political right in this country, there are these completely wrong or misleading retellings of history. 

The most infamous now is Sarah Palin saying that Paul Revere rode through town to warn the British about the colonists ringing bells. What’s interesting is this was also an ideological retelling because she stressed that they were exercising their right to bear arms, though they didn’t legally have it yet. What do you think of that one? 

Well, what can you say? It’s it’s not. I mean, it’s crazy. But, you know, I would get into this more. The most important thing about it is people are always making up ideological nonsense, especially from the right about history. What really makes this different is the amount of attention and respect she gets from the mainstream media and the organs of ordinary, respectable opinion, where suddenly it becomes a national, a nationally amplified notion. 

Yes, and even the her supporters were trying to edit Wikipedia to add her version to the historical account of Paul Revere. 

And it’s not just Sarah Palin. Mike Huckabee has a cartoonish history series for kids, and it’s called the Time Travel Academy. And it’s these videos where a group of kids go back in time and then they experience wrong and celebratory versions of U.S. history. And one of the videos I just want to read you this quote to comment on, there’s a little girl and she says the following. She says, What we see in here isn’t always the same as what we read in books or see on TV. 

So what we know the truth. And that’s good enough for us, right? 

Yeah. And part of the truth that they’re learning is that World War Two had nothing to do with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. 

Right. And also that there’s this there’s this one about Ronald Reagan as well that I guess you’ve seen where he sort of boy saves the world. 

Yeah, well, that’s that’s a huge part about it. You know, even respectable publishers are coming out with plenty of right wing barbs about Ronald Reagan that literally depict him as a providential figure whose whole life was kind of ordered by God for this final providential showdown with the evil empire. So you see, you know, books from imprints of companies like, you know, Random House in which Ronald Reagan, every sort of aspect of his life from his birth in 1911 to his, you know, shout up showdown with communists. And I suppose its showdown with communists in Hollywood in the 40s was all kind of aligned with this divine plan. And that’s kind of passed off as a serious biography. 

Mm hmm. And he was a successful president. Maybe he was not divinely ordained to be so. Just one more example before we talk about. Well, this means that in Texas recently, the state board of Education changed all kinds of things about their social studies curriculum. But one of them was taking mentions of Thomas Jefferson out or downplaying them and and challenging the idea that there is a separation of church and state. Those two club obviously go closely together. 

Right. But also something that has been happening for a long time. In the 1950s, there was the same kind of dispute over textbooks in in Texas. And again, the big difference is the stuff gets a national platform in a way that it never did before. That’s the big change in my mind. 

Well, what does it all mean? What what’s the common theme behind this? I’ve thrown around casually on my blog the phrase, you know, is there a Republican war in history? How would you characterize it all? 

I think there there’s always been a conservative or liberal history. Right. And but the problem with conservatism and liberal is, you know, the way they’re treated in our discussions of political ideology, they talk about as if though, these kind of symmetrical notions. We talk about the political spectrum, you know, on the right hand and left hand this sort of metaphore that almost by its very nature suggest the idea of balance. But the fact is, they’re very different traditions and they’re very different ways of looking at the world. And, of course, liberalism is rooted in this notion of the Enlightenment. You know, the idea that we can use our reason and we can use empiricism and we can sort out facts and using something like the scientific method about, you know, history is not, you know, like nuclear physics to arrive at consensus views of the truth that have a much more solid standing and more logically than what the right wing view the truth is, which is much more mythic, which is much more based on kind of tribal identification, which is much more based on intuition and should and tradition. And, you know, there’s always been history writing in that mode, too. But, you know, within the academy and within sort of the canons of expertize I went in the cans of professionalism, that kind of history has been superseded by a much more sort of empirical enlightenment based history. And what we’re seeing now is a much more aggressive kind of pushback against a older and more right wing conception of how history, what history is and how history works. And we’re seeing a lot more sophistication in the aggressive pushing of this kind of, quote unquote, history, because the whole right wing has become more sophisticated, more aggressive, you know, say, since the ascension of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. 

But again, I’m going to keep coming back to this and coming back to this. The real change that you wouldn’t see in the nineteen fifties say is. Surrender of moral authority on the part of the kind of media and sort of professional gatekeepers. And what I’m talking about is that the right has been so successful since the era of Nixon and Spiro Agnew, in which he accused the sort of the people running the media of being biased liberal ideologues. The professional elites have become a lot more insecure about basically manning the battlements on behalf of the Enlightenment. 

So you see in all sorts of sophisticated media outlets from The New York Times to CNN to the newsmagazines, even some university context in which every side of every question has to be given equal weight and equal respect and wants the right kind of figure that out that they’re going to get equal respect no matter what they say. And no matter how aggressive they are in violating the canons of the enlightenment and objectivity, they just keep pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing. 

So that’s been this kind of infernal development, this kind of cut to like thing that, you know, we’re seeing our reach, its apotheosis in the kind of situations you’re talking about, such that it’s very easy to insinuate into the everyday mainstream discourse, notions that would have just been bedded down as extremism, as noise, as notions that are unworthy of serious consideration. 

You know, as early as, you know, 10 or 20 years ago, let me try to argue their side. 

I mean, I’m I’m not on their side, but this is a colorable argument. You know, they will say that academia is a very liberal place in general. And I note from my own research that if you break down the academic disciplines, yeah, they’re all they hold 10 liberals, some more conservative. But the historians are very liberal, even more than other disciplines. 

Yeah. And this gets to the the fallacy, the idea that somehow left and right are, you know, sort of these equal parts along a spectrum. The fact of the matter is the very notion of a university, the very notion that knowledge can grow more to more of the very notion that the job of a scholar is to produce new knowledge and new understanding. The world based on evidence is part and parcel of the historical development that produced liberalism. It’s part and parcel of the Enlightenment. So, of course, universities are liberal. You know that. Stephen Colbert here, you know, made a joke that reality has a well-known liberal bias. The whole model of the world in which we can use our reason to create mastery over the world instead of just, you know, going along with an unfolding divine plan. That’s what liberalism is. So if if the university stop ceased being liberal, they cease to be universities. Now, this is a complicated subject because conservatives have interesting things to say and they have an intellectual tradition, too, and they have a place in universities. But in the main, universities are liberal because liberalism is what made universities. And when universities became institutions that helped determine how we run the world. That was a triumph of a liberal vision of the world against the conservative vision of the world, a vision of the world in which the Vatican or feudal elites, the people who determine the reality for the rest of us. So, yeah, yeah, universities are liberal. So what if you like universities? That’s just the way it’s got to be. 

Well, let’s just let’s give their side, you know, another one of their arguments, which I think I mean, I think it is important to consider. I don’t know if you would agree that there are any cases where there is sort of left wing distortion of history. My sense of it would be that there’s probably some kind of identity politicking version. I wouldn’t say it’s distortion, but it’s certainly an attempt to hear the historical narratives of a lot of different cultures, lot of different ethnicities, lot of different disadvantaged groups that didn’t get their stories heard before rather than telling the mainstream white male history narrative. That certainly requires at least a different emphasis on what story? I’m not sure if it distorts anything. 

Right. But, you know you know, a lot of your listeners are aficionados of science and they understand the scientific method. You know, academia and the humanistic disciplines like history. Yeah, exactly. And the historical method. But the idea of a community of incourt inquiry is something that’s very important to every scholarly discipline. And one of the things communities of inquiry do is that they regulate themselves. They police themselves. So, you know, if there were abuses in the direction of identity politics that got in the way of our richer and more accurate understanding of history. One of the things that have happened since then, there’s been a course correction, you know, within the canons of the humanities such that people who push identity politics so hard that it makes it distorts history and a leftwing way. A lot of these people are not nearly as influential as they used to be. So the idea that, again, this whole idea of the Enlightenment is it’s a self-correcting enterprise at its best. You know, I mean, it’s sometimes honored and appreciative, sometimes abused as plenty of bad history. And there’s plenty of meretricious, oh, left wing nonsense that passes for history. But at least the model, when it’s working at its best, it allows for correction and improvement. The right wing model is very different. There can’t be a course correction because what is being revealed is this sort of divine truth, you know, the divine truth that God intended America as a city on a hill. You know, the divine truth that God gave us Ronald Reagan in order to defeat the evil empire. The divine truth that the Constitution is a sacredly inspired text, which is a big part of the history, thinking of people like them. David Barton and and Sarah Palin does that in a lot of ways, can be read much as fundamentalists read the Bible. So at least the liberals have on their side some way of correcting their own abuses. Conservative history, on the other hand, in a sense, is built upon its abuses and has no self-correcting mechanism. 

Mm hmm. It’s interesting that you transition to that. I mean, our listeners, if they’re one thing they’re interested in, it’s definitely preserving secularism, the separation of church and state. 

And a lot of the common theme here is that it’s a rewriting of the very early history, who the founding fathers were and how religious they were. And there’s this, an attempt to unseat the idea that we’re a Christian nation. 

Right. I mean, a lot of the public language at the time of the founding because, you know, it was just it was just a society was much more religious. There were much closer to a time when when secularism simply wasn’t part of the accepted discourse, allowed the public language, used the word God a lot more freely, allowed the public language shocked about things like Providence. But as it is a simple matter of fact, the people who form this country, the people who wrote the Constitution, the people who wrote the Declaration of Independence, were on the left wing side of all these questions when it came to public faith. You know, they used religious language and religious metaphors and religious conceptions, much less than the people they were fighting against. So what we have is this kind of systematic distortion in which the people who want to see America as not just a Christian nation, but an evangelical nation. They want this separate, sectarian, almost heretical vision of how the American founding happened. They’re almost just kind of creating a systematic distortion based on a misunderstanding of how words were used in the 18th century. 

And there’s one person I know you mentioned already who seems to be central in this is name’s David Barton. He’s a Republican activist and the head of an organization called Wall Builders. And I’ll just tell our listeners, this is a Texas based group and it calls itself Let says it’s presenting America’s Forgotten History. 

Heroes with an emphasis emphasis on our moral, religious and constitutional heritage. He was recently caught saying that the founding fathers had already had the evolution debate before Darwin. He’s had that. Yeah. I mean, in some sense, they probably did consider some early version of the concept. He said that Tom Paine was sort of a supporter of creationism and he’s he’s the one that gives conservatives a lot of the intellectual ammo, it seems. 

Yeah. If you want to call it intellectual ammo, what he’s providing is a systematic and kind of holistic kind of mythos. Yeah. And wish you know, the founding was written in a divine evangelical plan. He makes up all kinds of stuff that seem not supported by the evidence. But again, the fact of the matter is, Republicans, Republican activists, Republican politicians who might have preferred to historical expertize in the past, embrace guys like this because there’s very little opposition and there’s very few people in the public culture in positions of media influence who are willing to say this guy is simply an extremist. 

One thing one other thing about Barton, you know, and it’s not just him, but it’s sort of across the board on some parts of the right in terms of reinterpreting the origins of the country. 

He’ll cite, you know, Patrick Henry. In other words, he’ll cite somebody who opposed the Constitution and then they’ll say they’ll use that to interpret the Constitution, which I find really mind boggling. 

You know, this sort of worshiping of the anti federalists. 

Yeah. I mean, like I say, once, once, once you license yourself for a mythological conception of history eras, kind of like an anything goes relativism. It’s pretty ironic because, you know, supposedly relativism of the voice of the left. But, you know, I mean, you could just go on and on and on and on. I mean, Tom Paine was this foul mouthed, rabble rousing, rabble rousing radical who believed in a guaranteed minimum income. You know, he was a he was he was what we would now call a socialist. And notice the trope I use, what we would now call, you know, that’s historical thinking and action. When you realize that that, you know, ideas evolve in historical context and a notion that’s available to us now, I eat, quote unquote, socialism. The idea that the government should have a role in maintaining a minimum standard of living for everyone might have not even existed. It might have been literally unimaginable in past centuries. But that sort of kind of transit between ideas that didn’t even exist at the time in which they’re evoking them is, you know, always kind of the soul of this kind of abuse of history, unless you can grasp that certain ideas didn’t exist in the 18th century. And one of them, by the way, is the kind of. Reading of scripture that that interpreted the newspaper according to books like Revelation, The Book of Daniel. Always thinking about scripture wasn’t invented until the late 19th century. So, you know, I wish Sally Thomas Paine, who is, you know, bordering on ageism as by the way and as you say, well, Abraham Lincoln was not. You know, it’s not possible. 

So, you know, if you want to interpret history according to the canons of Aryan evidence and logic, these guys are going to give you a giant headache if you want to interpret it in terms of this mythological system, which creates almost kind of tribal identity politics for American nationalism and American jingoism. Yes. It’s gonna be it’s going to make perfect sense. It’s thinking with your gut is that George W. Bush used to say and the people again, who should be manning the battlements and discipling these people are the kind of people who are running The New York Times who give people like David Barton perfectly respectable consideration. That’s kind of one side of a quote unquote, fair and balanced debate. That’s tragic. 

Well, if we talk about, you know, what we could do about this, I mean, what’s so difficult is you gave a great explanation now of how historians understand context and how it was different. Some ideas that we have now didn’t even exist then. So you can’t pin them on the people who turn around to think in that terms that we think things like that. But there’s other use of history that you’re talking about is is much more simple. And it’s just a couple of phrases and capturing a moment, capturing an idea with winners and losers, which is probably how most people think about things most of the time. So it’s got a much more inherent appeal because of its simplicity. 

Well, you know, just as we get into a very interesting question, which is that, you know, history as an enterprise kind of rests on two legs. One is the kind of science like empirical professional understanding I’m talking about, but another is this sort of mythic sense of narratives by which we constitute ourselves as a community, as a nation. And I’m gonna argue and I will argue and I would strenuously maintain that that leg of history is something that liberals should be attending to at the same time, and that it’s not an abuse of a responsible, serious historical inquiry based on the professional canons of fairness and objective objectivity as best we can understand them, to also create accurate and fair minded narratives that also can build communities and build a sense of common purpose. And they have a moral purpose. So, you know, we can as liberals and I speak as a liberal personally, craft out of the story of the founding and the Enlightenment, a story that’s very easily communicable to ordinary people and can be turned into things like movies and mini series and, you know, even cartoons, for God’s sake. I mean, you remember Schoolhouse Rock. And, you know, to me, the struggle of religious liberty against, you know, clerical feudalism and darkness is a very inspiring story. It happens to be a true and b, one that people can be proud of. And telling those kinds of stories in ways that are compelling, you know, the way that Steven Spielberg tells a story or the way that even, you know, David McCullough tells a story or, you know, God willing, Rick Perlstein tells a story is also part of the historical enterprise. So it’s not a question of deciding between accessible stories that have a moral content or objective history. The two can, at their best, complement each other. And this is where I give the right. A lot of credit. They’ve been very successful at creating a morally compelling and spiritually and psychologically satisfying story about the American founding and the American Prospect. And liberals haven’t been as good as doing at doing that, but it’s certainly there to be told. I mean, I happen to believe that what Franklin Roosevelt did to rearm America during the 1930s in the face of widespread mass isolationism in order to defeat fascism, the greatest evil the world has ever known is inspiring story that children can understand. And it should be told. 

Yeah, you’re making a really great point here. I mean, in terms of storytelling, this just reminds me of the Mike Huckabee videos again. And people people can Google them or we’ll provide a link on the Web site, but they’re really fast. 

And these are shorter versions, I guess, of what they’re actually going to be presenting. But they’re really fast, really short. They show a couple of images and but it’s all it’s all stories. So the kids go back in time to the 80s and there’s like crime in the streets. And then, you know, Reagan, this white knight appears and he says, Mr. Gross or whoever it is, tear down this wall. And that’s the whole story. 

Yes. And we all have seen cartoons, you know, at school that tell a accurate liberal version of similar stories. You know, say, you know, the one about Miss Jane Pittman. Right. That the story about the woman who was the one hundred and five year old woman who was born during slavery and got to see the civil rights movement. Right. That’s a that’s that’s that’s a liberal story that, you know, a, you know, honors the truth. And B is just as compelling to a casual nonintellectual viewer as these silly Mike Huckabee videos. 

Well, I guess then that that is the answer then is sort of telling better stories, remaining accurate, but never forgetting. I mean, this is a lesson that we learn in journalism, too. Never forgetting that you’re still a storyteller. 

Yeah. And also and also, you know, carving out a role to preserve, you know, the very difficult and sometimes painful and sometimes, you know, completely inaccessible world of professional and expert history as well. 

Well, on that note, I guess, you know, I think we’ll wrap up here. Is there any other thoughts that you just like to let to leave in terms of how to how to do history better while, you know, appreciating what works about psychologically and inspirationally about about the conservative version? 

Well, I mean, my takeaway from this is that, you know, when The New York Times runs profiles from like David Barden in which they treat him like a serious figure, you know, they deserve to be shamed. You know, these are the people like I say, people have always been telling these kinds of historical stories, these kind of right wing, reductionist, inaccurate, hateful, often stories about about how the world works. I mean, in the 1950s, during our coffee era, the refrain of McCarthy, I was 30 years of treason. And the idea was that the Roosevelt and Truman and Wilson eras were literally treasonous. Right. So this stuff has always been going on. What is different and what is shifted in our own time is the kind of currency these stories get in the mainstream media. So this is this is this is the vulnerability. This is this is this is this is the harness that, you know, as citizens we can work on. We’re not going to we’re not going to stop the daily burdens of the world from telling an accurate meretricious stories. But we can’t we can shame the elites into not taking them seriously, not treating them with the respect that they don’t deserve. 

Well, on that note, Rick, Procyon, want to thank you for being with us on point of inquiry. 

Thanks, Chris. Take care. 

So in case you have not heard, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry is holding a conference Psychon on October 27 through the 30th in New Orleans. That’s Halloween weekend. It’s going to feature an amazing speaker list. Bill Nye, Harriet Hall, Lawrence Krauss, Paul Offit, James Randi, Phil Plait, Rebecca Watson, Barbara Forrest, some guy called Chris Mooney, as well as some really fantastic events, including a Mardi Gras parade and costume party and a Whodini salons. All of that and more on the boundary of the bayou. It will be a conference like no other. So go to the Web site Sci. Conference dot org, that CSI conference dot org and secure your spot today. 

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Chris Mooney