U.S. Intellectual History Blog

More on the Tea Party and the Founders

Thomas Frank has a great short piece on the Tea Party in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s. It is behind a paywall, so if you don’t subscribe you can probably find the back issue at the library. Frank spends a bit of space in the article showing the historical inaccuracy and general absurdity of the Tea Partiers’ quotations of the Founders. Many of the quotes are made up. A few could not have possibly been said by the Founders, because they contain vocabulary and concepts that were not yet in circulation during the Founders’ lifetimes. His article is, as these exercises usually are, pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, though still entertaining.

Frank’s article reminded me of another by Paul Harvey. Writing in the aftermath of David Barton’s media blitz and the extensive criticism of Barton’s history by historians (see for example here), Harvey claims that such criticisms are a necessary but not really sufficient response. “That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one,” he explains, which means that “historians’ take down of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much.”
Harvey may be right, but I’m not willing to give up the battle. To that end, I was free-writing the other day, listing some of the most memorable invocations of the Founders in recent political history. But as I searched for the best howlers, I ran up against a problem. Almost all of the really egregious examples–actually, no, all of the really egregious examples–came from the political Right. I puzzled about this, I assumed that I had not been looking hard enough for historical malapropisms from liberals, I scrutinized my own political bias, and then I read Frank’s article in Harper’s. He noticed the same phenomenon, but offered this explanation for the persistent tendency of the Right to fabricate history:
Painstaking faithfulness to primary documents is one of the shibboleths of academic professionalism. The modern populist right, by contrast, holds academic professionalism in broad contempt; theirs is a sacred mission to rescue history-as-legend from the corrosive influence of liberal college professors and the cynics employed by the mainstream media. It’s a species of reverence that lends itself to error as a matter of course.
And this, alas, leads me back to Harvey’s point that historical correction cannot contend with the deeper misunderstandings and political faiths that motivate this kind of pseudo-history. So, I wonder, what is the best response from historians in the face of rampant historical inaccuracy that is often combined with fervent worship of a false past? Is our task to keep pointing out error, knowing that we will not be headed? I’m afraid that it might be.
But I am still not ready to give up the effort.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. It seems like the logical thrust of your argument leads not to historians endlessly noting factual misconceptions about the past, but to them endlessly pointing out that these beliefs are not fundamentally historical.

    In a similar vein, the argument that creation science is wrong is not nearly as compelling as the argument that it is not really science. Engaging in the tit-for-tat cedes the most important issue: that the competing ideas are on some sort of level epistemological playing field. Once that has been (implicitly) established, in the battle between Frank’s member of the “populist right” and his “liberal college professor,” the liberal has already lost. As much as they like to see themselves otherwise, the liberal who is not a professional scientist has about as much well-founded, empirically verifiable, personal knowledge of climate change, natural selection or the age of the earth as does the Biblical literalist.

    But the real issue here, with climate change or Franklin’s quote, is not who is right about the particular fact at issue. Those who challenge scientists by saying that they disagree among themselves and that “evolution is only a theory,” are, of course, correct. What’s really important is that such flat-earthers do not subject their claims to falsifiability; peer-review; or the tests of predictive accuracy. Scientists themselves, using these procedures, have achieved a strong consensus that evolution does in fact occur, and that the world was created before 4004 B.C.E. By claiming that they believe in science and the expertise of scientists themselves, rather than that they themselves possess knowledge that conservatives don’t, liberals are making a claim that they can support: that their understanding of the scientific method and their belief in the integrity of its practitioners leads them to accept its results. These are much more tangible, defensible concepts, but they also leave the experts, rather than the politically-engaged citizenry, to debate the merits of the actual evidence.

    In this conception of the debate, the role of the real-live scientists is to buttress this understanding of science and, if people seriously want the evidence (which most don’t), to point them to their actual work. By way of parallel, historians would do better to educate the public about the nature of history itself. Any literate person knows that most people have issued quotes that might contradict the main thrust of their thought. So pointing out that Benjamin Franklin never really said “The Constitution only gives people the right to pursue happiness. You have to catch it yourself.” (or that, in one of my least favorite examples, Franklin, and not the Bible, did say “God helps those who help themselves.”) doesn’t really convince anyone who already knows that the Founders’ views support their own. After all, if Franklin didn’t say that, but believed something very similar, wouldn’t pointing out that the quote was wrong be nothing more than petty antiquarianism? (I’ve read Frank’s article and still don’t know what Franklin actually thought about this issue. In my view, this is a failure on Frank’s part.) Historians should do something different than contest the accuracy of the quote: they can discuss why it is important that quotes be accurate, contextualize the issue that the quote (or its non-existence) represents, ask what influence the Founders’ views should have on today’s public discourse, and educate the public about the true nature of responsible historical inquiry.

  2. This is a thought-provoking post, and I have to say that Mike’s response is quite possibly the best comment I have ever read on any thread on this blog. I think he is exactly right. Rather than enter into an unwinnable dispute over facts with people who are prone to manufacturing them — or with people who don’t realize that the facts they’re getting from “trustworthy sources” are manufactured — it would be wise for historians to address the larger questions Mike raises here. What is history anyway? What does it mean to think historically? What does such thinking require of us when we are dealing with original sources?

    In short, it’s a good post, and a great response. Lots to think about.

  3. David’s post, Mike’s comment, and LD’s affirmation reinforce, for me, that we historians need to relentlessly discuss, expand upon, and review the themes present in David Lowenthal’s *The Past is a Foreign Country*. Per Mike’s point, the book avoids focusing on how people get the details of the past wrong, whether for malicious or benign reasons. Rather, Lowenthal discusses why people ~want~, ~know~, and ~alter~ the past. Getting to the point of David’s post, we need to break down why political interrogations of the past are thought to be relevant to the here and now (and show how the circumstances of the past challenge the inquiry at the start). To quote from Rodgers, we need to show how purposed “wrinkles in time” cheat both the present and the past. – TL

  4. A fascinating post and discussion! Not to beat a dead horse (though, in fact, this horse is far from dead, which is why it’s worth beating), but this conversation reminds me yet again of Gordon Wood’s attack on Jill Lepore about which David blogged several months ago.

    Wood, you’ll recall, argues that Lepore’s central error in dealing with the Tea Partiers’ view of the past is to write as if they were doing history, when in fact (quoting Wood here)…

    Popular memory is not history, and that important distinction seems to be the source of the problem with Lepore’s book. Although she has spent much of her career mulling over the difference between critical history and popular memory, she doesn’t have any sympathy for the way in which some advocates of the Tea Party movement have remembered the Revolution.

    As Lepore knows very well, there has always been a tension between critical history and popular memory, between what historians write and what society chooses to remember. But that tension has become much more conspicuous in recent years.

    There’s some truth in what Wood writes here. These tensions have increased and are an important front in the ongoing culture wars. And, as Mike points out above, to the extent that historians treat popular memory as if it were merely bad history (in the academic sense) in need of factual correction, we’re likely to be ineffective interlocutors. Popular memory is not history.

    But acknowledging public memory’s differences from academic history should not be a kind of Get Out of Jail Free card for public memory. Wood’s mistake is to demand that we sympathize with public memory, rather than understand it (and on this issue I largely agree with Tim’s comments above).

    (To be continued….)

  5. Of course Wood actually also disagrees with Mike about the ineffectiveness of historians’ debunking of public memory. Rather against the very evidence of the Tea Party itself, Wood seems to think that historians’ debunking has been enormously effective…and socially destructive. Wood seems to occupy what I think of as a kind of right postmodernist position that public memory is a kind of necessary fiction that we would all be better off simply respecting or even celebrating, regardless of its relationship to what actually happened in the past.

    But in fact, the status of the Tea Party view of the past is more complicated than that. To begin with, the notion that the Tea Party needs to be either a grassroots movement or a top-down organization posing as a mass movement (what’s sometimes called “AstroTurf”) is a totally false dichotomy in my opinion (one of the few things that Wood praises about Lepore’s book is her treatment of the Tea Party as the former). In fact, like most political movements in modern, industrial democracies it’s a bit of both. And its view of the American founding is conditioned both by public memory proper and by the very top-down promotion of people like David Barton and their ideas.

    And part of the trick in arguing with this vision of history is that is both implicitly criticizing the very practice of history while at the same time claiming to practice history better (you see similar argumentation among creationists and climate denialists).

    Thus while Gordon Wood might look at the Tea Party and see something organic and pre-academic called “popular memory” that is potentially socially destabilizing for academics to question or debunk, Tea Partiers appear to believe that they are rescuing the American past from a group of dishonest, socialistic elitists (see all the USIH posts on the “New Class”). In response, Tea Partiers believe they are recovering the way things really were (writing about the past, as Ben Franklin once put it, wie es eigentlich gewesen 😉 ). We may understand that the Tea Party isn’t doing history, but I don’t think the Tea Party would agree. Indeed, they cultivate a different series of elites who promote a vision of the American past to match their own intuitions (and this is very important: they celebrate self-described historians like Barton who claim to have special knowledge of the past, just as we claim to).

  6. Ben’s comment raises another issue that is at play here: the decline of the authority or prestige of the historian him/herself. In the abstract, one might think that, in a dispute about the past between a professional historian and someone who is not that, that the historian would at least be the presumptive winner. But that is not the case.

    The view that those who have devoted their lives and careers to a subject might not, for that reason alone, necessarily know a lot about it, requires some sort of conspiracy theory even to maintain intellectual consistency. (If all the experts disagree with me, maybe they’re not really “experts.”) Yet too often, the “liberal” side of this argument becomes exasperated by this dynamic and consequently falls back on the worst possible tactic: some sort of slightly veiled argument from authority–“who cares what you think, compared to Stephen Jay Gould/Richard Dawkins/Jill Lepore?”

    Everyone agrees that this is a fallacy. But outside of logic textbooks, the person making an argument and the person hearing it might have a very different perspective on whether it employs an argument from authority. I wonder if the Tea Partiers are more aware of, or sensitive to, this particular approach. As a response to the Tea Parties’ approach to the discipline, for example, Jill Lepore’s talk about “antihistory” is so abstract that I can easily imagine an actual Tea Partier wondering what exactly her objection is. Such a person might feel as though Lepore were simply asserting a subjective political opinion, using her credentials to discredit her opponent. To someone with that perspective, this would look like little more than bullying.

    What, then, could historians do differently? Ben says that “[w]e may understand that the Tea Party isn’t doing history, but I don’t think the Tea Party would agree.” Similarly, college students don’t understand why wikipedia is not a reliable source for a paper. In both cases, I suspect, these parties believe that they are being discredited for another person’s subjective judgment or, even worse, for failing to genuflect appropriately to an imposed symbol of authority.

    But this is quite simply not the case. Historical conclusions are subject to a process of review and correction. Like all such processes, sometimes this one works better than others. (Make no mistake about it, academic historians do harbor consistent prejudices against historians without Ph.D.s., or who try to write for an audience comprised of non-specialists.) But historical standards are much more than asserting the authority of the writer, his/her position, credentials, publisher, etc. I don’t think that many non-historians believe this. If so, the it would return me to my original point about historians bringing information about the practice of history, rather than specific results of that inquiry, into the public square.

    As a side note, the most effective place to increase the awareness of historical methodology is not the op-ed pages, but the the classroom. But in my own introductory courses (truly the most important classes in this regard), I make no attempt whatsoever to expose students to the norms of historical inquiry and the special challenges that these standards raise. The reasons: in my view, the students’ awareness of even the most basic facts of U.S. history is so lacking that I believe the time is better spent on that, and I have far too many students each semester to engage in the kind of textual analysis and discussion that raising this point would require. I wonder if the perceived lack of historical literacy under discussion has less to do with the politicization of history (as represented in this discussion by the Tea Party) than with a problem in history education. I refer to, of course, the same old issues: too many students in the classroom, an over-reliance on the part of the university on lecturers and adjuncts, insufficient pay, and underprepared students.

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