Conservatives can't win the history wars

Nitpicking and political muscle won't prevail in the end

Part of the extremely confusing and confused debate about “critical race theory” (scare quotes very intentional) in American education is actually about something entirely different — the content of history curricula.

On the history front, the conservative backlash really started well before the “critical race theory” kick got going. It dates back to The New York Times’ publication of the 1619 Project and the announcement that the Pulitzer Center was developing school curriculum units based on the project. Conservatives immediately lost their shit over this, and progressives countermobilized. History is now, I would say, one front in a multi-front battle composed of things that are only loosely related.

And on the history front, I think that at times liberals protest too much, acting as if nobody had ever taught about slavery in a social studies class pre-1619 or as if all of public education was still stuck in Dunning School propaganda as of five years ago. The whole point of the 1619 Project was to be provocative and not just to repeat the most common, basically known facts about slavery in American history. There is nothing wrong with adopting a provocative framing conceit for a special issue of a magazine. Good journalism should aim, at times, to provoke. But a provocateur can’t then turn around and act outraged that an act of deliberate provocation was not met with immediate acclaim across the political system.

I thought that was really all I had to say about this until I read Ross Douthat’s column on the history wars which made me think that conservatives don’t even really understand what they’re mad about here. He thinks conservatives are trying to rescue the good name of The United States of America from leftists who want to drag it through the gutter. But I think the core issue here is a new line of historiography that says not that America is bad but that the American conservative movement is bad. And what’s threatening about that line isn’t its worst excesses, but the fact that large swathes of it are perfectly plausible.

Douthat’s view of the debate

Douthat conceptualized the new historiography as advancing three lines of argument:

  • One: It seeks to expurgate elements of the old, racist historiography. When my wife was a kid in Texas she was taught “the war of northern aggression.” That kind of stuff has been marginalized since then, but it’s not completely gone.

  • Two: It seeks to publicize things like the sheer brutality of slavery, the violence of redemption, and the scope of ongoing theft that was part and parcel of the Jim Crow system.

  • Three: Douthat refers to “a more radical narrative of U.S. history as a whole — one that casts a colder eye on the founders and Lincoln’s halting path to abolition, depicts slavery as the foundation of white American prosperity and portrays the Republic’s ideals as just prettying up systems of racist and settler-colonialist oppression.”

Douthat’s view is that the problematic thing here is argument three — the anti-patriotic element — and that “the biggest zone of controversy lies where the second project, the recovery of memory, blurs into the third one, the radical critique — where the impulse to memorialize Tulsa gives way to the impulse to take Lincoln’s name off a San Francisco school, where the indictment of slave owning gives way to an indictment of the American Revolution.”

I really do not think that this is correct.

The Lincoln-cancellers are being dumb, and conservatives like to talk about them because highlighting dumb left-wing people is instrumentally useful politics. By the same token, it is true that Nikole Hannah-Jones’ lead essay for the project contained a factually dubious assertion about slavery as a motivator for the American Revolution. That was an error on the part of the editors who should have been more careful about that line because when you say something sloppy in a controversial essay, your critics will seize on your weak point. But her critics didn’t criticize her because of that line — that line is not the point of the essay. The point of the essay is to center Black Americans as the hero of the fight for American freedom, and thus cast their political adversaries as the villains.

And the project as a whole ties together in popularized form a lot of strands of newer history that, broadly speaking, cast racial conflict as the central through-line of American history and does so in a way that’s devastating to conservatism.

The old progressive historiography

I think a useful way to think about this is in the context of a much more longstanding debate about how to understand American history. If you go back to the beginning of the twentieth century, the biggest names in history were the folks who Richard Hofstadter labeled “the progressive historians” — namely Charles and Mary Beard, Frederick Turner, and V.L. Parrington.

I cannot claim to be an expert on these guys, but I have read some of the Beards’ work, and I read Hofstadter’s critique of them.

These guys thought of themselves as being on the left. But it was a very old-fashioned kind of left, and the conclusion it led them to was very different from the conclusions of the contemporary left. Beard’s view, in particular, was that class conflict is the overriding theme in American history. The creation of the Constitution, on this view, is a kind of counterrevolution undertaken on behalf of rich bondholders. Then Thomas Jefferson puts forward an economic agenda on behalf of farmers to counter the finance/trade/manufacturing interests of Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists.

Beard remarks upon Jefferson’s slave-owning, but not in a particularly condemnatory way, and mostly with a view to casting him as an anti-capitalist.

This sets Beard up to put forward a kind of Marx-inspired view of the American Civil War. Much as the French bourgeoisie overthrew the feudal system in 1789 to usher in capitalist modernity, Lincoln and the Republicans overthrow the planter aristocracy, not in order to liberate enslaved people but to advance a capitalist development program centered on railroad construction and protective tariffs.

The whole view just doesn’t really take racial conflict seriously. It doesn’t endorse the pro-slavery politics of Jefferson and Andrew Jackson but doesn’t condemn them either. And because it doesn’t take racial issues seriously, it doesn’t even really see them as “pro-slavery politics” — these are the politics of agrarian interests counterposed to financial and industrial interests. Reconstruction is an effort to impose a kind of northern colonial rule on the South, and Redemption is the inevitable pushback against that. Abolitionists, Radical Republicans, and Black people themselves are just not seen as major actors.

And the point of all this — and the reason they got the label Progressive Historians — was to provide ammunition to the Progressive political faction in the then-present. The Progressives wanted to overthrow Gilded Age Classical Liberalism and impose a kind of technocratic reform program on politics and economics. The Progressives were often very racist (like Woodrow Wilson) but most of all were not interested in waging a big fight about racial justice, so the Progressive historiography insisted that past fights about racial justice were basically fake.

Consensus and collapse

After World War II, I think people were feeling less cynical about things and the Cold War context made this Marx-esque view of history that centered class conflict pretty dicey stuff.

Enter Hofstadter himself was feeling this way, along with guys like Louis Hartz and Daniel J. Boorstin, whose adversaries eventually labeled them the “consensus school” of American history. The big idea here is that American politics is mostly not that ideological. You have a lot of picayune fights about stuff like tariff schedules that are driven by idiosyncratic interests, and you have various reform efforts, but mostly you have a national ideology and a national project. Americans are individualistic, they believe in liberalism, they are skeptical of the state, and they are into conquering western lands and expanding the scope of opportunities.

The Consensus School would note that America stands out in not having a mass socialist political party, so while obviously class conflict has occurred, it’s an odd theme to emphasize in American history when it seems like we have less of it than other countries.

This is a worldview well-suited to the disorganized and non-ideological partisan politics of the 1950s, and it also kind of fits with the very American tradition of generically celebrating “founding fathers” rather than paying attention to the fact that the founders argued viciously with each other.

Consensus history ends up getting challenged by the New Left across many dimensions, but the one that’s had the most influence in mass culture is the critiques stemming pretty directly from the Civil Rights Movement. Eric Foner argues that we should take abolitionists, Reconstruction, and free soil ideology seriously. Du Bois’ old book “Black Reconstruction in America” enjoys a revival of interest. You start getting books like “What Hath God Wrought” that cast the Whig Party as heroes and Jackson as the villain. Jonathan Chait makes the subtext text here with a 2014 article casting Barack Obama as a kind of modern-day Henry Clay fighting Jacksonian tea partiers. And then Trump becomes president and starts explicitly affiliating with Jackson!

This contemporary progressive view in which we make musicals celebrating Alexander Hamilton, read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ meditations on Ulysses Grant, and take Woodrow Wilson’s name off the policy school at Princeton is in some ways the complete opposite of the old Progressive School. But I do think it’s important to understand that the Old Progressive History was supposed to be left-wing! It’s just that we pirouetted between a left view that centered class conflict arguing with a more conservative view that centered consensus, to an argument between consensus and a left view that centers race. But from an actual conservative viewpoint, neither conflict-oriented interpretation of American history is viable because they are both saying that conservatives are bad.

What matters in the 1619 Project

The most important 1619 essays, really, are the ones conservatives don’t even want to talk about.

Jamelle Bouie argued, for example, that we should see America’s idiosyncratic political institutions as a legacy of slavery and especially of slaveholders’ interests. Matthew Desmond’s article arguing that we should see America’s relatively libertarian approach to capitalism as a legacy of slavery is less persuasive in my view, largely because Bouie’s argument is so correct. Once you understand that American political institutions are designed to protect the interests of property owners, you don’t really need to reach for further explanations. Jeneen Interlandi argues that racial conflict is important to understanding why America doesn’t have universal healthcare. Kevin Kruse writes about how segregation influenced American urban planning for the worse.

The point of all these pieces is more forceful than Douthat’s “recovery of memory” but less stupid than canceling Lincoln — it’s to argue that the conservative movement in America is heir to the political legacy of America’s bad guys.

And this is not a matter of hazy reconstructions either. Bouie traces contemporary conservative enthusiasm for undemocratic political institutions to John C. Calhoun’s pro-slavery advocacy. But conservatives themselves hail William F. Buckley Jr. as a key intellectual architect of their movement and Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign as a major breakthrough for their movement in electoral politics. But Buckley straightforwardly opposed enfranchising Black people, and Goldwater ran in ‘64 as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act.

Today’s conservatives often like to quote Martin Luther King Jr. as an apostle of “colorblind” policy as an aspirational goal. But King was a socialist who argued for a radical redistribution of material resources. Goldwater not only opposed that, but he also opposed the simple non-discrimination provisions of the Civil Rights Act as philosophically incompatible with the overall conservative view of how regulation of the economy should work (or more precisely, not work). Because of course the same people who don’t like minimum wage rules or mandatory parental leave also don’t like mandatory non-discrimination rules.

Conservatives don’t agree with anti-patriotic radicalism, but they have no reason to fear it — it’s just a political millstone. But Hannah-Jones wasn’t making a case against patriotism, she was lighting a path for herself to find her way back to her father’s patriotism. What’s left out of the 1619 narrative isn’t ra-ra-ra-Americana, it’s conservatives and their view that their movement is good rather than bad.

Public schools are public

My basic view is that all tellings of history reflect contemporary concerns, and it’s a little bit reductive and naive to think we can really debate which of these perspectives is “true.”

The old progressive historiography captures something real about America, but at the cost of completely leaving out Black people and proferring a nonsensical account of the origins of the Civil War. The race-centric historiography is much more inclusive and handles key episodes of our history much more reasonably. But the Progressive Era itself was actually a really important time in American political history, and the newer historiography struggles to make sense of it. All the bad things people say about Woodrow Wilson are true, but there’s also a reason that all the New Dealers and postwar liberals saw him as their progenitor.

And the thing about the Consensus School is that it’s well-suited to the task of being assigned in public schools in a large and diverse electoral democracy.

If you’re writing a book, you can absolutely just say that the lesson of American history is that conservatives are bad. You can say that on your Substack, you can Tweet it, and you can write it in a special issue of a magazine. But you can’t teach it in public schools in Indiana because Indiana is full of conservatives.

If your passion in life is to deploy bracing truths that are rejected by a majority of the population, then teaching eighth grade is probably not the right career for you.

Some people, of course, think we shouldn’t have public schools at all. They think all families should get a voucher and go do whatever, maybe backstopped by some kind of state assessments. Progressives could send their kids to progressive schools and conservatives to conservative schools. But since most teachers are progressive and most parents probably just aren’t super-political, the balance of market forces would favor schools with a progressive slant.

But if you do have a public school system then, by definition, you need a curriculum that’s acceptable to the state legislature. Truth is important. But public schools are public. And public institutions are subject to politics. And even though the new race-centric historiography says many important truths, it’s hardly the only set of true things you could teach to kids. Ron DeSantis is striking back with a requirement that Florida schools teach more about communism, a subject that makes the conservative movement’s track-record look better and the progressive movement’s look worse. But you could probably comply with the letter of the mandate and work in stuff about how as real as the sins of communism were, anti-communism was also routinely used as a pretext to attack the Civil Rights Movement and to bolster apartheid in South Africa. History!

1776 is good enough

I think the 1619 Project was a tremendous magazine issue. The Desmond article I have some serious problems with (a story for another day), but one bad article in a whole issue of a magazine is a good hit rate. The sheer volume of criticism that’s heaped just on a couple of lines from Hannah-Jones’ essay shows the extent to which conservatives are mad about the project (because they rightly perceive it as bad for the right) but don’t really have the goods to debunk it.

But I think teach the 1619 Project in public schools is just an overreach. I don’t expect they’ll teach Slow Boring posts in many schools either. That’s life.

What I do think is noteworthy is the extent to which being mad at the 1619 Project has induced conservatives to pound the table in favor of 1776 as America’s true founding, because historically that has always been the argument specifically of the anti-racist faction in American politics.

Lincoln, dating the founding of the country to 1776 rather than 1790, famously describes it as “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” That idea doesn’t appear in the U.S. Constitution, which not only endorses slavery but entrenched a profoundly undemocratic political system that we still have today. This is precisely the struggle that Buckley was on the wrong side of and that is being pressed today when progressives argue for creating new states and instituting tough curbs on gerrymandering.

This is why it’s Joe Biden who likes to say “America is an idea” because the good idea behind America is a progressive egalitarian one. Rich Lowry, Buckley’s successor at National Review, knows that the spirit of 1776 isn’t actually workable for the conservative project — that they need to insist that America is somehow a blood-and-soil nation out of German Romanticism.

But that’s dumb. Words are just words, but again, it’s Lincoln who says we’re not just “a nation” but rather a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal — i.e., an idea. Portugal isn’t dedicated to anything. It’s the Iberian kingdom that didn’t get amalgamated with Castille and Leon, and so its local dialect entered the era of mass education and mass media with the legal status of an official language, and so now they’re a “nation.” America’s not like that.