America / Politics / Presidential Race 2012

When Politicians Talk About History

Historians rightfully get a bit leery when they hear politicians talk about history. All too often, history becomes a convenient rhetorical device for promoting a political agenda. Both parties maintain an arsenal of historical narratives which they enjoy reciting to the public.

Here are some common fallacies…

  1. Notion of Progress: “We are enlightened and our opponents are barbaric. Get on the right side of history!”
  2. Tribalism: “America is . . . [insert superlative, like ‘exceptional,’ and follow it with a non sequitur].”
  3. Black and White: “The U.S. has been a force for good (or bad). We can do no wrong (or right).”
  4. Anachronism: “The Founding Fathers believed . . . [insert a modern ideology].”
  5. Subjectivity: “Our [infallible] Constitution says (or means) . . . ”

One particular line from Tuesday’s debate offers an excellent jumping point to examine this bias. It comes from President Obama:

“But Governor, when it comes to our foreign policy, you seem to want to import the foreign policies of the 1980s, just like the social policies of the 1950s and the economic policies of the 1920s.”

Here is the underlying narrative:

America was a bully during the 1980s. Reagan’s expansion of the military unnecessarily escalated global antagonism and contributed to a bloated military. Arms sales to the Iranians put weapons in the hands of the wrong people. Secret funding of revolutionaries in Nicaragua and outright invasions of Grenada and Panama interfered with democratic processes overseas and damaged American credibility. The Gulf War was driven by U.S. oil interests.

The 1950s represents the heyday of social repression and conformity in America. McCarthyism suppressed intellectual freedom and created a culture of fear. Traditional values were so entrenched that censorship was often unnecessary, but the government wasn’t afraid to use it if required. Conformity was the buzzword, and the new suburbs growing around American cities reinforced this homogenization. This conformity concealed a deep-rooted sense of imprisonment with tradition and the nuclear family.

The economic policies of the 1920s were responsible for the Great Depression. Of course, this parallels the economic mess that President Obama inherited as a result of the policies during the Bush years. The “hands-off” attitude toward business which was adopted by three conservative presidencies resulted in a business environment of deception, exploitation, and over-speculation. Conservatives didn’t take the active role they should have in preventing and remedying the 1929 crash, and the problem was not remedied until Roosevelt took office in 1933.

But the president glosses over a number of important facts. Who wouldn’t want to invoke the spirit of these times in their national policy?

During the 1980s, Reagan successfully projected American power, which put pressure on the Soviet Union and contributed to the fall of communism. His invasion of Grenada prevented communism from gaining any more headway into the Western Hemisphere. Sanctions and military action in Panama helped the Panamanians remove a hated dictator and protected American citizens in the U.S. administered Canal Zone. And when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, the U.S. stepped up and stood with its ally.

The 1950s was an era of rapid social advancement. The 1954 landmark Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education reversed the long-standing segregationist policy of “separate but equal,” and President Eisenhower sent members of the Army to enforce the ruling when the governor of Arkansas attempted to obstruct it. In 1957, the first Civil Rights Act since the Civil War passed in the Congress and was signed into law. The literary output of the Beat Generation set the stage for the social revolutions of the 1950s. Nabokov’s Lolita and the film adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire pushed the bounds of propriety in the arts. Simone de Beauvoir’s recent book The Second Sex was first translated into English and would become a foundational document for modern feminism. Conformity and tradition reigned supreme in much of mainstream society, but it was not necessarily a bad thing–rates of depression and violent crime were much lower. The education system was undoubtedly the finest in the world.

America experienced one of its longest periods of economic growth during the 1920s. The U.S. economy entered the decade in the midst of a deep recession inherited from President Wilson. The policies of three successive conservative presidents brought lower tax rates and debt reduction. Deregulation helped American businesses grow. All this economic growth expanded access to transformative technologies including the radio, telephone, and automobile. Infrastructure improvements including new roads, electrical grids, and telephone lines were introduced to support this new economic environment. That consumer confidence in these developments resulted in over-speculation is actually a testament to the success of these economic policies.

See how easy it is?