The Essential American History Lesson We Can't Afford to Forget in the Age of Trump
Listen closely. Listen closely to Thomas Paine’s argument in Common Sense that “[w]e have it in our power to begin the world over again;” to Thomas Jefferson’s phrases in the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness;” to the framers’ first three words of the preamble to the Constitution, “We the People.”
Listen well. Listen well to Abraham Lincoln speaking at Gettysburg in 1863: “[T]hat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth;” to Franklin Roosevelt calling on Americans in 1941 to secure “Freedom of speech and expression… Freedom of worship… Freedom from want… Freedom from fear;” and to Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963: “I have a dream today. I have a dream that one day…”
Those are not just great, moving and memorable words. They are revolutionary, radical and democratic words — words that at critical times have proclaimed, affirmed and articulated anew America’s historic purpose and promise.
And those words speak to you, don’t they?
They speak to us as Americans because — for all of our faults and failings, for all of the tragedies and ironies that have marked our history, and for all of the efforts by the powers that be to make you forget it — we are radicals at heart.
It is time we recognize it. It is time we embrace our radical history.
We were ready to make history anew in 2016. And in a most tragic way we did. We gave the Congress to reactionaries and the White House to an egomaniacal authoritarian. But it might have been otherwise. After more than 40 years of widening inequalities, intensifying insecurities and mounting injustices, we were coming to realize that our political and economic elites had trumped democracy with plutocracy and hijacked the American dream. We recognized the crisis we faced and we were rejecting the narratives of both the Republican and Democratic establishments — the narratives that had led us to repress our deepest democratic anxieties and longings.
The Wisconsin Rising and Occupy Wall Street movements of 2011 both ended in defeat, but the chants of “This is what democracy looks like!” continued to reverberate and the energies they excited soon came back to life in the Fight for $15, the anti-pipeline campaigns, the immigrant rights struggle, the Chicago Teachers’ strike, the North Carolina Moral Monday movement, Black Lives Matter and the enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren’s calls to corral the big banks. Finally, we shook up the two major parties when millions of us turned out to vote for either Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Political Revolution” or dealmaker Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again.”
After more than 40 years of acting like deer caught in headlights — the headlights of history — we were moving once again. We were moving because we wanted to reclaim American public life, redeem America’s democratic purpose and promise and revive the American dream. In fact, ever swelling numbers of us said we actually wanted “radical action” to address the crisis.
And yet — as the 2016 presidential tragically revealed — we remained sorely divided over what those actions should be. We were rejecting the narratives that had cloaked and enabled our inequalities, insecurities and injustices, but had yet to agree on the story we should tell.
We needed a story that would help us to transcend our divisions by reminding us that we are radicals at heart and to truly “make America great again” we must enhance freedom, equality and democracy, not diminish them.
But we didn’t get it.
To make sense of our anxieties and longings, to encourage our hopes and aspirations, and to empower our energies and agencies, we need to embrace and cultivate our radical history. We need to recall how Americans high and low turned their colonial rebellion into a revolutionary war for independence and a democratic republic and imbued American life with radical imperative and impulse. We need to recall how generations of Americans — evangelicals, freethinkers, workingmen’s advocates, abolitionists, suffragists, labor unionists, populists, socialists, progressives, liberals, and civil rights, feminist and environmental activists — served as the prophetic memory of America’s promise and how ordinary Americans — farmers, artisans, slaves, women, industrial workers and racial and ethnic minorities — have struggled to advance it. And most especially, we need to recall how our greatest generations and their greatest leaders — George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt — prevailed over and against the crises and enemies they confronted in the 1770s, 1860s and 1930s and 1940s, not to mention the 1960s, not by giving up or suspending America’s finest ideals, but by radically enhancing freedom, equality and democracy.
We need to embrace our radical history not simply because the crisis we confront demands a radical response, but also because to do otherwise would be to deny who we are. Our political and economic elites have always understood that. Ever anxious about our democratic impulses, they have been ever eager to suppress histories that might encourage those energies and to promulgate those that would serve to dampen them — which is no easy task in a nation created in a revolution.
In the wake of the 1960s democratic surge that enacted civil rights acts, major immigration reform, Medicare and Medicaid, and laws to protect the environment, consumers and workers, corporate executives mobilized against what they called an “excess of democracy.” Targeting public-interest campaigns and the movements of labor, women, people of color and the poor, along with liberal columnists and academics, they paved the way for the conservative and neoliberal takeovers of the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively. And ever since, both the New Right Republicans and the Neoliberal Democrats have endeavored to wield the powers of [the] past to suppress, obscure or appropriate America’s radical story in favor of dampening, if not doing in, their fellow citizens’ democratic impulses.
In 1980, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan spoke directly to the fears and frustrations of Americans engendered by energy crises, defeat in Vietnam, Watergate, “stagflation” and the 1979 Iran hostage crisis. Promising to “make America great again,” he conjured up nostalgic images of a lost America — a virtuous and prosperous America undisturbed by assassinations, riots and protests, and uncorrupted by big government, high taxes, regulatory agencies, welfare programs, affirmative action and women’s liberation, and gathered together a coalition of CEOs, Main Street business owners, Christian evangelicals and groups such as the National Rifle Association.
Accepting the 1980 Republican nomination, he audaciously proclaimed the “Reagan Revolution” by quoting Paine’s “We have it in our power to begin the word over again,” Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom” and FDR’s “this generation has a rendezvous with destiny.” Even more vigorously, he hijacked the Founding Fathers, the “Stars and Stripes” and the idea of American exceptionalism to the right and — stripping them of their revolutionary lives, histories and meanings — refashioned them as the champions, symbols and vision of limited government, private enterprise and a faith-based nation.
Reagan zealously crafted a narrative of a divinely ordained nation in which Americans had rejected the “big government” of the British Crown and were now resisting those of not only Soviet communism and European socialism, but also New Deal and Great Society liberalism in favor of “political and economic liberty.” It was a wondrous narrative that utterly disregarded both the contradictions between the nation’s founding ideals and realities and the struggles then and since to make real those ideals.
Sadly, Democratic Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama offered no real challenge to the right-wing story. In fact, they echoed it. Carter actually pioneered the “Reagan Revolution.” After declaring that “government cannot solve our problems” — which Reagan himself would cleverly trump with the now-famous line “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem” — Carter abandoned his promises to the labor and consumer movements, turned his back on the Roosevelt tradition and pursued “national austerity” and corporate deregulation.
Twelve years later, Clinton followed suit. Betraying labor and environmentalists, he pushed the North American Free Trade Agreement through Congress and then — after declaring that “the era of big government is over” — signed off on deregulating the communications industry, ending Aid to Families with Dependent Children and killing the New Deal law prohibiting commercial banks from undertaking risky investment banking activities (which paved the way to the 2009 Great Recession). Moreover, he too told a story of America devoid of popular struggle.
Taking office in January 1993, William Jefferson Clinton made every effort to identify himself with Thomas Jefferson. After retracing Jefferson’s 1801 inaugural trek from Monticello to Washington, Clinton delivered an inaugural address replete with Jeffersonian references. Nonetheless, the way he presented Jefferson revealed his personal desire to keep “the people” passive and far from power. Calling on Americans to “be bold, embrace change and share the sacrifices needed for the nation to progress,” Clinton stated: “Thomas Jefferson believed that to preserve the very foundations of our nation, we would need dramatic change from time to time.” However, as every child of the ’60s such as Clinton knew, Jefferson did not say we needed “change” to sustain the Republic, but rather “I hold that a little rebellion now and then is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical.”
Barack Obama’s victory in 2008 actually seemed to promise a new New Deal to combat the Great Recession and address American inequalities. And yet — after enacting massive economic stimulus bills and securing passage of a major national health care act (notably, a mostly corporate friendly one) — he too would abandon his promises to working people and move in a neoliberal direction. Preaching the need “to live within our means” and hoping to cut a deal on reducing the deficit with the now-Republican-dominated Congress, Obama announced his readiness in 2011 to “put everything on the table” — including Social Security and Medicare.
Americans might also have imagined Obama was ready to muster us for a fight against the forces that had led us into the Great Recession. After all, he rallied voters with the words “Yes We Can!” And yet, he not only did nothing to mobilize the energies and enthusiasms he had encouraged. He actually drained human agencies from his history telling. Delivering his first inaugural address, he made no reference to the plutocrats’ war on the middle class and what it had wrought, but instead held all Americans accountable. “Our economy is badly weakened,” he said, “a consequence of greed and irresponsibility on the part of some, but also our collective failure to make hard choices and prepare the nation for a new age.” And when he was finally compelled to address the nation’s ever-widening inequalities, he repeatedly cited technological change and globalization as the culprits — not corporate decision making and union busting.
For all of its originality — in certain ways, perverse originality — the 2016 presidential race actually mimicked the recent past in critical ways. The candidates of the party of conservatism and reaction promulgated a nostalgic past intended to exploit and exacerbate our divisions and fears. And those of the party of liberalism and progressivism offered no historical narrative whatsoever.
The time has come to embrace our radical history.
We need to remember how a generation of Americans — believing they had it in their power to begin the world anew — launched a grand experiment in freedom, equality and democracy; how ensuing generations of Americans struggled to make real the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and to expand both the “we” in “we the people” and the people’s powers; and how generations of Americans truly made America great, if not exceptional, in the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression, World War II and the 1960s by making the United States radically freer, more equal and more democratic than ever before.
We need to embrace our radical history to attack the evils of our own time. And not just past generations call on us to do so. Even more so, Americans yet to come do so. As the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd put it just over a century ago: “The price of liberty is something more than eternal vigilance. There must also be eternal advance. We can save the rights we have inherited from our fathers only by winning new ones to bequeath our children.”
In fact, we not only need to embrace our radical history. We also apparently want to. Take it from the kids…
In September 2014, just months after Colorado’s school board elections, the now-conservative-dominated Jefferson County School Board took up a motion to revise the teaching of Advanced Placement US History — a desire evidently instigated by a Republican National Committee resolution that branded the AP curriculum “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects.”
In the words of the conservative board member who first proposed the revision: “[US history] should promote citizenship, patriotism, the benefits of the free enterprise system, respect for authority and respect for individual rights. [It] should not encourage civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.” And as far as she and her fellow right-wing board members were concerned, the AP curriculum was not just liberal, it was downright subversive. As their own words testified, the Jefferson County conservatives were not really looking to create a curriculum that promoted American ideals of citizenship and patriotism. They were looking to institute one that would inculcate conservative understandings of them.
Liberals responded to the attacks by insisting that historical textbooks should convey both the positive and the negative of America’s past. And any good historian would surely agree. But those who would be most affected by the Jefferson County conservatives’ motion took more direct action. Hoping to deter the board’s actions, Jefferson County high schoolers not only organized an online petition drive that garnered 40,000 signatures. They also came to school dressed as radical figures from American history — and then walked out of their classes in protest.
Nevertheless, the board’s conservative majority — no doubt all the more convinced that they were doing the right thing — pushed through the “review and revise” policy.
The kids lost the battle. But embracing America’s radical history, they signaled to us how we might yet win the wider struggle. As the essayist Wilson Carey McWilliams observed back in that ominous sounding year of 1984: “As Orwell knew, a people’s memory sets the measure of its political freedom.”
History may seem an extravagance in the face of our immediate crises and confrontations. But the history we make on our own matters — powerfully so. Political scientist Benjamin Barber once put it this way: “The story we tell about ourselves defines not just us but our possibilities.”