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Good Old-Fashioned New Social History and the Twentieth-Century American Right

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 24, Number 4, December 1996
pp. 555-573 | 10.1353/rah.1996.0084

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Reviews in American History 24.4 (1996) 555-573

American historians and the American Right have rediscovered each other. In a number of review articles over the last several years historians have pointed to the need for a deeper understanding of conservative and right-wing movements, leaders, and ideas in the twentieth century. A growing body of new scholarship on a wide variety of subjects has helped stimulate an expanding interest. Conferences have been organized and an increasing number of graduate students have begun gravitating to the field. Little of this historiographical shift can be tied to any new-found admiration for conservative causes or ideas. Clearly, it is more a case of historians finally realizing that after more than thirty years of expanding support for social, cultural, and political conservatism in American life, they must begin to see the Right as something more than a pathological fringe element in society.

Nothing has reinforced this reality more powerfully than the critical attention conservative forces have been paying recently to historians and their ideas. The Enola Gay, Disney, NEH, National History Standards, and other controversies have delivered the Whiggish historical views of conservatives directly into the hallways of history departments, museums, and other institutions, placing historians on the defensive and forcing them to confront directly the antipathies for the nation's liberal-left intellectuals that have helped power right-wing causes for more than a generation. Historians accustomed to conservatives ignoring them while they ignored conservatives are now asking, with a combination of anger, shock, and bewilderment: "Who owns history?"

The question of who owns history is both a political and intellectual one. The political question is by far the more challenging. The ability of conservative forces to mobilize political support, make use of popular media, and generally influence public opinion far outweighs that of historians who, quite naturally, are inclined toward a more parochial, highly specialized vision. Suggestions that historians get more involved in public debates about the past -- write more letters to the editor, lobby political institutions more aggressively, connect more frequently to the public through radio and television, and find new ways to make historical research more accessible and exciting, for example -- may help. Then again, they may not. The differences between historians and their conservative critics represent much more than a public relations problem and conflict over public representations of the American past are likely to continue until the larger political climate changes. Historians certainly should do everything they can to defend themselves in the political arena. But any serious challenge to conservative political power will have to come ultimately from the voters.

In the meantime, historians should make sure they win the intellectual side of the "who owns history" debate. This is something historians ought to be able to do easily. Conservative political leaders, whatever their other gifts, tend to be terrible historians. Their Whiggish views of American history, no matter how many times they are repeated in high school history textbooks, collapse under the weight of a vast amount of historical evidence. The central historical vision of current conservative populists -- that American civilization was in constant ascent from the colonial era until the 1960s, when liberals and radicals undermined traditional values and ruined everything -- is so full of holes that it is difficult to see how any professionally trained historian (House Speaker Newt Gingrich or Christian Coalition executive director Ralph Reed, for example) could actually believe it. This is a highly romantic view based almost exclusively on an ideological perspective rather than evidence. As long as we have universities, libraries, and intellectual freedom, those with the most powerful claim to "owning" history will be those who offer the best evidence to support their views. History that is excessively ideological, relativistic, or romantic -- or which is tied in any way to attempts to purge opposing or unpopular historical views through coercive force rather than argument alone -- is, and is likely to remain, bad history.

It is precisely because American historians are facing so many challenges from outside the academy that we need to do now what we do best: explore the American past in all of its complexity; ask the most important questions and try to...

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