When political philosophy collides with historical reality

I’ve done quite a few posts on Glenn Beck’s crackpot historical forays, but I haven’t written many at all on the ways that folks on the other end of the political spectrum have misinterpreted or misappropriated the past.  The problem is simply that I’ve had a harder time finding examples of bad history coming from the Left.

I mentioned this to a friend of mine as we headed to lunch yesterday.  I noted that readers might start to suspect I’m a flaming liberal if I didn’t take the Left to task for some historical transgression or another.

“That’s the thing,” he said.  “Liberals don’t talk about history, so you’re stuck with bashing the other side.”

It was a very general remark, but he had a point.  I certainly don’t think that people on the Right are more interested in history than those on the Left.  Academic historians are famous for being predominantly liberal.  I do think, however, that the Right probably finds the past more useful than the Left does simply because of the differences in their respective rhetorical positions.  Conservative rhetoric invokes the past because conservatism often claims to be a restorative ideology.  We must get back to the Constitution, back to the principles of the Founding, back to the Puritans’ godly city on a hill.  Liberalism, by contrast, portrays itself as the political system of possibility.  Liberalism clamors to use whatever means are at our disposal to slay the social and economic dragons that have menaced us for so long.

Given these contrasting postures, it’s natural that conservatism would invoke the past with more frequency, or at least with more affection.  I have no desire to offer my own views here as to which vision is correct, but it’s worth asking if one or the other is more congenial to an understanding of the past.  Personally, I find both visions lacking when it comes to a sense of history, though for different reasons.

Part of the problem with the Right’s restorative use of history is that it neglects the past’s otherness.  When we identify with the past too readily, when we urge the nation to get back to the good old days (whenever those were), we can forget that those days weren’t ours, and that those people weren’t us.  They offer lessons and examples, but the analogy will never be exact.  This is particularly true when it comes to the Founding.  Those men and that era created the language we use to express our own ideals, so we can find them sounding remarkably like us.  Occasionally, though, they use that language and those ideals within a context that gives them a very different meaning, one we wouldn’t recognize.

But the Left’s vision of possibility has its problems, too.  I don’t think Gordon Wood had liberalism in mind when he wrote the introduction to The Purpose of the Past, but his remarks are applicable here.  He notes that having a real historical sense involves an appreciation of the complex array of factors that limit the range of possibilities when it comes to human activity.  “Realizing the extent to which people in the past struggled with circumstances that they scarcely understood is perhaps the most important insight flowing from historical study,” he writes.  “To understand the past in all its complexity is to acquire historical wisdom and humility and indeed a tragic sense of life.  A tragic sense does not mean a sad or pessimistic sense of life; it means a sense of the limitations of life.”  The study of history “tends to inculcate skepticism about our ability to manipulate and control purposefully our destinies” (p. 14).  The past teaches us that circumstances limit our ability to shape our future.  Indeed the past is probably the most powerful of those limiting circumstances.  This is not good news for modern liberalism’s promise to use the means at its disposal to shape circumstances for the better—the application of government and other institutions to achieve “positive liberty.”

Of course, in describing both positions, I’m committing a fallacy of my own—drastic over-simplification.  It’s hard to speak briefly about political philosophies without broad generalization, and the risk is that you’ll reduce these ideologies to caricatures.  I’ve probably done so here.  Still, I think the larger lesson here is valid.  The past proves difficult to shoehorn into any particular philosophy, because when we’re talking about the past, what we’re really talking about is reality in all its complexity and ambiguity.  The study of history should serve to regulate our abstractions and philosophies by reminding us all that our opinions about the way we think things are must come to terms with the way they have actually been.


Filed under History and Memory

7 responses to “When political philosophy collides with historical reality

  1. Olbermann brings up historical anecdotes all the time, usually relating back to Joe McCarthy. Yet, he rarely provides lengthy analysis on events like Beck.

  2. John Stoudt


    I think that you have raised several valid points here, even at the risk of oversimplifying them. I like your description of conservatism as a “restorative ideology.” Can you recommend any writings on that idea (just wondering)?

    Your comments about the liberal uses of history reminded me of Ed Ayers’ essay “Worrying About the Civil War” in his volume entitled _What Caused the Civil War: Reflections on the South and Southern History_.

    According to Ayers, “The interpretation of the Civil War that appeals to so many Americans today weaves antislavery, war, economic progress, and nationalism into an inseperable whole. Freedom, it seems, was driven by the machinery of modern life, acheived through cathartic violence, and embodied in a government that valued freedom above all else.”

    A friend recommended that essay to me, and he added that if one modifies the description to “Liberal nationalism,” then it could seem that the human cost of the Civil War was necessary to acheive the freedoms which we enjoy today. These are not Ayers’ words, but I think that this is a possible critique of the James McPherson – Eric Foner school which places a great emphasis on the benefits of modernity.

    Thanks again for the thoughtful posts. Your “little soldiers” post hit the nail on the head.

  3. Michael Lynch

    I appreciate your kind words. “Restorative” just seemed like the best term to sum up what I was trying to say. I’m not sure if any authors have approached conservatism specifically from this angle or not.

    I think Lincoln defined conservatism as “adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried,” in his Cooper Union speech, but of course he was speaking at a time when the modern conservative movement we know was still in the future. It hadn’t, to my knowledge, acquired the modern meaning it has in America of a desire to limit government interference in people’s lives. This is the basic attitude of modern American conservatism, but it often invokes a desire to return to the past, it seems to me. I notice that sort of thing in popular rhetoric and especially in statements from spokesmen of the “Religious Right,” although many conservative intellectuals take a purely philosophical approach that is less prone to invoke what our forefathers would or wouldn’t have done.

    The Ayers piece sounds interesting–I’ve read some of his stuff, but not that one. I’ve enjoyed some of McPherson’s work on the relationship between the war and the role of the national government.


  4. Steve Peck

    Excellent post. I would also include the “revisionist” historians of the last half century as responsible in part for the reactionary right’s interest in of U. S. history. I personally feel they long for the pre-1960 world view of many white Americans that simply wanted the past fit the image they had of themselves: democratic, exceptional as a nation, blessed by God , generous to friend and foe and leader of the “Free World”. There is dogma and theology involved in their thinking about our nation’s past.

    This seems particularly true if one considers the reactionary rights look at the Founding Fathers of the revolutionary generation but also extends to the issues of treatment of Native Americans and slavery. It is important to remember that only with the civil rights era of the 1960s did white Americans (and most of our historians) begin to come to grips with the unseemly heritage of our country in dealing with its non-white population.

    Beck and others seem determined to find some other evil forces to blame for the injustices of the past. Beck appears to desire to exonerate the Founding Fathers for slavery, destruction of native populations and the Civil War. The “Gods” of our nation’s founding cannot be fallible and exceptional human beings capable of great rights and wrongs at our nation’s beginnings.

  5. Pingback: Kirk Cameron has found the “secret sauce” that made America great | Past in the Present

  6. Tony Pashigian

    I agree that the topic of “revisionist” historians must be discussed in the context of this posting. How is it that the farther you get away from an event, as a moment in time, the more the definition of the essence of that event get’s changed – even though these supposedly wonderful minds of the 1960’s, 1970’s and 1980’s could have no personal experience to base their contrived “conclusions” on?

    As a favorite historian of America’s liberal establishment, Mr. Wood starts off with a slant to bash American individualism and capitalism and to support a constantly growing administrative state. To all thinking Americans that accept, at face value, how clearing away the power of the government and freeing people to go where their ambitions took them, both good and bad, is the precise recipe for the success that the United States has created. And that is a success that is unrivaled in the history of the world. It is not an accident, but a direct result. The “original intent” argument is nothing more than a revisionist attempt to justify the modern bureaucratic state in spite of the failure of every such example throughout history. I am logically incapable of ignoring reality. The farther we get from the start of this great country the more statist academics attempt to blur historical clarity and truth and perform a criminal disservice to those that they claim to educate. Mr. Woods is only an important author in the field of Liberal history, which is a fantastic revision of American history.

    • Michael Lynch

      Why do you think Wood’s work is based on some premise that’s opposed to American individualism and capitalism? In his book on the radicalism of the American Revolution he deals extensively with the emergence of a less organic, more individualist and democratic American society. In fact, if I recall correctly, he’s said that those on the Left as well as on the Right were uncomfortable with some of the conclusions in his first book.

      I’m not sure I understand your point original intent as an attempt to justify the modern bureaucratic state, either. Conservatives frequently invoke “originalism” in an attempt to criticize efforts to broaden the power of the federal government, and in popular usage the distinction between originalism and original intent is often blurred.

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