Culture

Hit the History Books (and Movies), Americans!

President James Buchanan (Library of Congress)
Without knowledge of the past, we can’t hold our government to account. Plus, history is entertaining.

By and large, the two parties have very different performance routines they employ to build and sustain their voting coalitions. The GOP will tell you that the Democrats are a bunch of godless socialists who want to quash all individual initiative. Democrats will assure you that the GOP is a party of oligarchic theocrats who want to give all your money to the rich and make you go to church.

Sometimes, though, the two parties sing a similar tune — inadvertently, of course. You may have to listen closely to notice, but when you do, it can be revealing.

Consider, for instance, the recent grumblings from DNC chairman Tom Perez and former White House adviser Steve Bannon. Last Saturday, Bannon went after Tennessee senator Bob Corker for having “mocked and ridiculed a commander in chief” when we have “kids in the field.” This had never happened, he said, “in the history of our republic.” Then late last week, Perez said that Trump was an “existential threat” to American democracy, and the “most dangerous president in American history.”

Though these are opposite statements in terms of substance, they’re thematically similar. The upshot is that Trump represents something unprecedented in American history. The specifics of the arguments are totally wrong, by the way. Sitting senators criticize presidents all the time. And, as for dangerous, reckless, and existential threats, James Buchanan, the president immediately before the Civil War and usually ranked one of the worst presidents by historians, remains in a league all of his own — thank goodness!

Politicians of both parties engage in such stark rhetoric all the time. They know their audiences will be persuaded by it because, sadly, most voters do not know any better. It’s a consequence of public ignorance of our nation’s history, which is not good for republican government.

Historical ignorance makes for a very short collective memory. Think of it this way. Roughly 80 percent of today’s adult population is 64 or younger. This means that the age of adulthood for most Americans came sometime after 1971. Without a basic grounding in history, that date gets later and later every year, as the people at large simply — by virtue of each generation dying off — forget what has happened. At this point, memories of Reagan are fading, memories of Nixon have grown very dim, and memories of Eisenhower are soon to be gone for good.

This has substantial, albeit subtle implications for the body politic. To start, it is easy to wrongly think that things are a lot different now than they were then. Return to those above quotes from Bannon and Perez, both of which suggest some unprecedented degeneration in our politics. In their view, Trump is either a victim or perpetrator of the problem, depending on one’s partisan view. This obscures a truth that is easily overlooked if one has no knowledge of history: Politics has often been very messy. This country more or less invented mass-based politics in the early 19th century, and it has often led to hyperbole, coarseness, nasty partisanship, unfit characters in office, and all the sorts of things that people want to think are unprecedented.

Interestingly, historical ignorance also makes it easy to think that things were always the way they are now. Take, for instance, our presidential nomination process. During the 2016 GOP contest, the party establishment basically shrugged its shoulders at the rise of Trump. It effectively said, “The process is the process, and the voters have spoken.” But the current presidential nomination scheme is a relatively new feature of American politics — only about 43 years or so on the GOP side — and it has been constantly tweaked by party leaders over the years.

Take another example: the way in which politics is now financed. Campaign funds are now drawn typically from two sources of revenue: interest groups with a personal stake in an outcome, and ideological activists. Neither is reflective of the general sentiments of the population. The cash flow distorts the representative quality of the Congress, as members naturally play to those who provide funds. Given the limits of our collective memory, it is easy to think that it has always been so, but that is wrong. In fact, there were multiple struggles between the Civil War and the Great Depression regarding money in politics. Reformers from previous eras, I reckon, would be appalled by the current regime.

Notice the common thread among these examples: Historical ignorance facilitates those who are already in power. Bannon and Perez want to make everything about Trump, because they think they can score political points for themselves and their factions. The GOP party leadership did not want scrutiny of its broken nomination process. Politicians and campaign financiers like the way things are and do not want people thinking seriously about reform.

Now imagine the opposite, a country that is at least noddingly familiar with the main events of our history. Such a citizenry would have its own sense of how things are — and are not — supposed to work. They could make their own judgments without having to rely on political elites to tell them what to think. That would put them in a better position to hold the powerful to account.

Historical ignorance facilitates those who are already in power.

Republican government depends upon an engaged, informed, and active citizenry. Public officials in a republic hold their authority on behalf of the people, who retain the right to revoke it via regularly scheduled elections. If the people are not informed enough to evaluate these officials, they can’t remove bad or incompetent actors from government. In such a situation, the government retains a nominally republican character (we still have our regularly scheduled elections), but in practice it begins to look like a version of aristocracy, corrupt and self-dealing. I’d say that our government today has qualities of both oligarchy (rule by the rich) and gerontocracy (rule by the old), and that that is due — at least in part — to the fact that citizens do not know enough to do a good job.

Obviously, the problem of public ignorance is not limited to history. If voters do not know the basic contours of current public policy, they will struggle to hold politicians to account. But knowledge of our history is at least as important as policy. And, unlike public policy, it is pretty easy to learn history, at least the basics of. Plus, it is actually a lot of fun to discover the heroes and villains of America’s past.

If we want to do a better job as citizens of this great republic, we should recommit ourselves to learning our own past. It will really make a difference.

READ MORE:

American’s Need A History Lesson

The History of Race in America

Understanding American Conservatism

Jay Cost — Jay Cost is the author of The Price of Greatness: James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and the Creation of American Oligarchy.

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