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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:
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.
Just a thought.
Well, we are getting down to the final few weeks in my AP American History course. It’s always a mad rush in the last few weeks as I have to make sure that I’ve covered most of the major events into the 1990s. Over the past few days we’ve been talking in detail about the rise of the modern conservative movement and given my recent posts [see here and here] on the supposed left-wing conspiracy in our college and high school classrooms I thought I might share a few thoughts about what we specifically look at. According to some I am playing my own small part in this conspiracy as I spew my hatred for America and my denials of American Exceptionalism in front of my students. I guess one need look no further for evidence of this than my use of Eric Foner’s book, Give Me Liberty!: An American History (Norton)
As I was reviewing the chapter it dawned on me that Foner offers a very rich overview of modern conservatism. The title of the chapter in question is “The Triumph of Conservatism” and covers the period from 1969 to 1988. Sub-chapter headings include “The Rebirth of Conservatism,” “The New Conservatism,” “The Conservative Sixties,” “The Rising Tide of Conservatism,” “The Religious Right,” “The Tax Revolt,” “Reagan and American Freedom.” The chapter covers a number of concepts and movements associated with conservatism, such as Libertarianism the Religious Right and includes references to Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, William F. Buckley, “Young Americans For Freedom,” “neo-Conservatives,” Jerry Falwell, Phyllis Schlafly, Jeane Kirpatrick. Court cases that favor a conservative reading of the Constitution include Milliken v. Bradley, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Bowers v. Hardwick, among others. The chapter includes a full-page reprint of “The Sharon Statement” (1960)
Consider Foner’s own interpretation of the “New Conservatives” for yourself:
The “new conservatives” understood freedom as first and foremost a moral condition. It required a decision by independent men and women to lead virtuous lives, or government action to force them to do so. Although they wanted government expelled from the economy, new conservatives trusted it to regulate personal behavior, to restore a Christian morality they saw as growing weaker and weaker in American society.
Her lay the origins of a division in conservative ranks that would persist to the end of the twentieth century. Unrestrained individual choice and moral virtue are radically different starting points from which to discuss freedom. Was the purpose of conservatism, one writer wondered, to create the “free man” or the “good man?” Libertarian conservatives spoke the language of progress and personal autonomy; the “new conservatives emphasized tradition, community, and moral commitment. The former believed that too many barriers existed to the pursuit of individual liberty. The latter condemned and excess of individualism and a breakdown of common values. (p. 1026)
That seems to me to be an incredibly thoughtful, albeit brief, description of the modern conservative movement that gives students a framework for understanding a great deal of recent political and cultural history. It led to a very interesting class discussion today that I hope to continue tomorrow as we move further into the 1980s.
On the rise of the Religious Right, Foner has this to say:
The rise of religious fundamentalism during the 1970s expanded conservatism’s popular base. Even as membership in mainstream denominations like Episcopalianism and Presbyterianism declined, evangelical Protestantism flourished. Some observers spoke of a Third Great Awakening (like those of the 1740s and early nineteenth century)…. Evangelical Christians had become more and more alienated from a culture that seemed to them to trivialize religion and promote immorality. They demanded the reversal of Supreme Court decisions banning prayer in public schools, protecting pornography as free speech and legalizing abortion. (p. 1050)
As I said above, the chapter’s focus on conservatism is incredibly rich and benefits immensely from Foner’s commitment to looking beyond the major figures and most prominent organizations in the movement.
Now, of course, there is room to disagree even with the brief excerpts that I’ve provided here, but can we agree that there is nothing that is blatantly anti-American or biased in favor of a liberal/Democratic view of American history? Actually, if you gave me this book without the author’s name I’m not sure I could nail down the political identity of the author. Than again I don’t spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about the political affiliation of historians. I tend to judge the quality of their work based on the principles of good history.
Anyway, I hope this alleviates the concerns among some of you that I am feeding my students anti-American ideology.
By now many of you have seen the short video featuring Doris Kearns Goodwin and her introduction to an upcoming Lincoln exhibit titled, “Team of Rivals.” The exhibit will open in October at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The goal of the exhibit looks interesting:
This exhibition takes you inside the highest levels of the United States government as Abraham Lincoln and his cabinet struggle with the momentous issue of war. Restricted to the information they possessed at the time, you will confront the perplexities and options they faced during the first weeks of Lincoln’s presidency — and decide for yourself if they made the right choices…
Following the approach so skillfully employed by Doris Kearns Goodwin in her critically acclaimed book Team of Rivals, the exhibition uses the experiences of Lincoln’s closest advisors to illuminate Lincoln’s leadership. A combination of compelling artifacts, images, and audio/visual presentations introduces you to the powerful personalities who advised the President and brings to life those fateful days when a divided nation teetered on the brink… then toppled into the dark abyss of civil war… [emphasis in the original]
My question or concern has more to do with the explicit connection with Goodwin and the title of her book. I should point out that I have very little understanding of how exhibitions are put together beyond my brief work with the staff at Monticello.
It’s not surprising to me that Goodwin would be involved in an exhibit that features the decisions made by Lincoln and his cabinet on the eve of war and given the popularity of her book it seems appropriate that she would serve as a “personal guide” through the exhibit. That said, for some reason I have trouble with the title of the exhibit; it smacks of crass commericialism and leaves the visitor with the impression that the exhibit is the result of one individual. More troubling is that the visitor is likely to believe that the exhibit is based on Goodwin’s interpretation and conclusions. Of course, I have no way of answering such questions. I must assume that the exhibit is the result of a collaboration between historians, curators, and archivists. Did Goodwin have overarching control and influence that would justify such a title? Again, I have no way of knowing. I would be very interested to know the extent of Goodwin’s involvement in the development of this exhibit.
Is there any precedent for this? Does anyone else have similar concerns or are my worries completely off base? What do you think?