My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:
Environmental Protection Agency
Occupation Safety & Health Administration
National Transportation & Safety Board
Endangered Species Act
Clean Air Act
Aid to Families with Dependent Children
Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation
I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies. No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal. When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.
That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own. What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda. Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism. No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.
At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican. Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.
I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources. Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory. Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.
The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter. On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party. Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well. History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.
The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context. We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades. When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties. Perhaps we need it now more than ever.