Of late, the ahistoricism of the liberals and leftists in the US has driven me regularly to consternation. I want to participate in the efforts to block abuse of power, corruption, and anti-democratic government action; however, I am unable to find cause with so much of the opposition because its positions are not historically-informed and remain — as liberal thinking often is in this country — limited by its coastal parochialism. The conservatives have long abused history for their purposes, but, now, the liberals have ceded ownership of our past understanding altogether. They think they can play politics by being ignorant of the past. At least the conservatives know you have to have a mythology.
As an example, this week at Slate, Yascha Mounk, a political scientist, offered his advice on how to respond to the Trump administration. His suggestions were standard fare, entirely lacking in historical awareness. “Don’t normalize Trump’s actions,” he mandates first, but to do so requires entirely forgetting Operation Wetback in the 50’s and FDR’s “repatriation” program of the 30’s — and all the ways the government has enticed and later expelled foreign labor (particularly from south of the border) throughout our history. Really, we have had the same motivations to welcome and then force out immigrant workers as the Spanish and Mexicans had when developing Texas (with the aid of the filibusteros). Immigration battles are essential to our history — the very essence of normal here.
Similarly, the conflicts of interest from Trump business ties so bemoaned by liberals are also in keeping with much of our history. Those in politics — with their short memories and ahistorical thinking — forget the financial and commercial connections of so many government leaders before. In what way are Trump ties (literally, the neckwear) a greater conflict than the Attorney General of the United States prosecuting railroad strikers while on retainer to one of those companies? I even saw a claim on Twitter that Trump’s conflicts are of the worst sort ever, including slavery! For privileged white persons, this may appear true on its face (though not in substance), but it just demonstrates how ignorant white liberals can be. Historical perspective is lost these days in the frenzy of opposing the current administration.
“Offer hope of a brighter future” too, Mounk suggests. Yes, focus on the future and do not argue with the past promoted by the Right…as if this is possible — as if we could stop history and start with a blank slate. The best future we can make is built with understanding of our past: a true reckoning of our failures and inspirational moments. If you want to sway people who want to Make America Great Again, you have to engage history. Abandoning it to your opponents is an ideological retreat.
In essence, the problem is that conservatives have been engaged in a cultural campaign for some time. They have slowly gained ground since the 70’s with their agenda. They have succeeded at convincing the public of the veracity and righteousness of many of their positions. This has been possible, in large part, because they have catered to the vanity of the majority — promoting a mythology that is so compelling that even liberals buy into it (see Hamilton, musical, for example). So, here we are: afraid of radical bogeymen, embracing irrationality and indecency, and longing to be our racist, sexist, and cruel past once again. There is no political answer to this dilemma. It is an ideological, spiritual, and moral crisis, and the solution lies in our cultural values, narratives, and themes.
The answer is not to return to a mythical time when we were great. The answer is to keep working towards greatness (as an ongoing sense of value rather than a summit), celebrating our achievements along the way. Confidence and hope are not created by voter registrations, homeownership, and job-creation. Rather, those things come from the former. And, that means, liberals have failed to truly undermine the conservative’s efforts and successfully inspire a culture of generosity, openness, and diversity. As long as we focus on political efforts, we will persist in the failure to create a culture of greatness — which is most assuredly not mean tweets, political gamesmanship, cronyism, mockery and disrespect, denial of past wrongs, parasitical economic agendas, indifference to want, discrimination and tribalism, or ancestor worship of slave-owners and racists.
The Founders gave us an ideal. Despite their intents and limitations, it offers us a path to greatness. Plot that. Encourage that. Celebrate that. Stand for that. They’ve gone low. Let’s go highbrow.