Thursday, February 07, 2008

Larson: "The Politics of History"

This column by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson is pretty much in the Spinning Clio wheelhouse. In it, Larson attempts to answer the question, "Why do conservatives like history more than liberals?":
Liberal Democrats have always looked to the future with hope and embraced marginalized groups. When they look back, even to the deeds of their own former leaders, they see trails of tears like the one over which Andrew Jackson drove out the Cherokee. Blemishes on past presidents, even those who pointed the way toward future progress, tend to stain them wholly for at least some key elements within the Democratic coalition.

In contrast, conservative Republicans look to the past for inspiration but often to the future with trepidation. Originalists at heart, they tend to see only the shining city on a hill of earlier times and not its darker neighborhoods. George Washington's slaves are forgotten along with Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. For some Republicans, both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee become models of Christian virtue as if they never ordered millions of men into battle against the other.

I'd say that, generally, that's about right. Conservatives believe in preserving the good things from the past and liberals believe in creating good things in the future. Then what happens is too many liberals throw the baby out with the bathwater in the name of "progress" while conservatives don't realize that changing the bath water every now and then is a healthy thing to do.


Tim Lacy said...


I might be simplistically reading your post, but there seem to be equal parts of liberals and conservatives in the field of history. That would mean that both look to the past equally, but with different questions and intentions. And I think we can generalize from the professional experience to the general public. Liberals and conservatives in general read all kinds of histories (i.e. Zinn and McCullough).

In sum, I think Edward Larson is full of it. Conservatives don't like it when we remember Hoover, right? - TL

Marc said...

Tim, I understand what you're saying, but I think Larson is talking more about how politicians "use" history than what in particular they read. For instance, they may read Zinn, but not use anything from him in their political rhetoric. He certainly doesn't present the type of history generally associated with the generally originalist, pro-Founding Father conservatives of today! Whereas a progressive person may such Zinn right up. Perhaps it's all a long way of saying we tend to embrace the history that confirms our biases or ideology.