Rewrite, Sugarcoat, Ignore: 8 Ways Conservatives Misremember American History—for Partisan Gain

Rewrite, Sugarcoat, Ignore: 8 Ways Conservatives Misremember American History—for Partisan Gain

Rewrite, Sugarcoat, Ignore: 8 Ways Conservatives Misremember American History—for Partisan Gain

From Michele Bachmann on the founding fathers to Rick Perry on secession and more, right-wing pundits, politicians and pseudo-historians are nibbling away at objective historical truths to rewrite history for present-day purposes.


The mortgage crisis began in 2006 and it’s all President Obama’s fault—at least according to Fox News host Sean Hannity. Hannity recently blamed Obama—“his policies, his economic plan, his fault”—for the mortgage crisis, ignoring who was actually president (that would be George W. Bush) as the housing market slipped.

Hannity’s is just one example of the selective memory and historical revision frequently on display in the conservative movement. Right-wing pundits, politicians and pseudo-historians are nibbling away at objective historical truths to rewrite history for present-day purposes, and hardly any topic is off-limits: glorifying the “Reagan Revolution” to children, sugarcoating the Jim Crow South and revising textbooks to offer a favorable view on Phyllis Schlafly—among many others.

Below, read about eight ways in which conservatives try to rewrite, sugarcoat or ignore aspects of American history.

1. Michele Bachmann on the founding fathers and slavery. Propelled to the front of the Republican field after her victory in the Iowa straw poll, Minnesota Representative Michele Bachmann’s historical views are notoriously error-prone. In one her infamous gaffes, she said the founding fathers “work[ed] tirelessly to end slavery” (in fact, George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves) and that John Quincy Adams was a founding father—he was born in 1767.

Bachmann was a research assistant to John Eidsmoe for his 1987 book Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of our Founding Fathers, in which Eidsmoe wrote, “The church and the state have separate spheres of authority, but both derive authority from God. In that sense America, like [Old Testament] Israel, is a theocracy.” And at a conference, Eidsmoe outlined his belief in church/state separation: “The church’s responsibility is to teach biblical principles of government and to drive sinners to the cross…. The function of the state is to follow those godly principles and preserve a system of order.” Bachmann has praised Eidsmoe as “absolutely brilliant. He taught me about so many aspects about our godly heritage.”

2. Secession was fine, dandy and legal. Texas Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry is fond of pro-secession comments; in 2009, he joked that “we can leave anytime we want. So we’re kind of thinking about that again.”

In his dreams. In fact, these attempts at humor sidestep what secession actually leads to: a nullification crisis, a Civil War, hundreds of thousands of casualties and the federal government as the victor anyway. And secession is illegal. In 1866 the Supreme Court ruled in Texas v. White that Texas’s ordinance of secession was “absolutely null.”

Perry isn’t the only Republican to make such comments. Congressman Zach Wamp alluded to secession and Georgia’s Senate passed a secession-related bill in 2009.

3. Forgetting September 11? Conservatives have an uncanny ability to misremember when the September 11 attacks occurred. In July, Fox News host Eric Bolling said “we were certainly safe between 2000 and 2008 — I don’t remember any terrorist attacks on American soil during that period of time.” (In his “apology,” he accepted no blame: “Yesterday, I misspoke when saying that there were no US terror attacks during the Bush years. Obviously, I meant in the aftermath of 9/11, but that is when the radical liberal left pounced on us…. thank you liberals for reminding me how petty you can be.”)

A surprising slip came from ex–New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In January 2010 he claimed that “we had no domestic attacks under Bush.” In December 2009 Mary Matalin made the outrageous claim that Bush inherited the attacks from Bill Clinton. In November 2009 Bush’s ex–Press Secretary Dana Perino said “we did not have a terrorist attack on our country during President Bush’s term.”

4. Mike Huckabee’s “Learn Our History.” Mike Huckabee’s cartoon history series is whitewashing American history. While claiming to engage children in an easy-to-digest format without “misrepresentations…historical inaccuracies, personal biases and political correctness,” personal biases somehow make an appearance. Each video is produced with consultation from Learn Our History’s “Council of Masters;” one “Master,” Larry Schweikart, is the author of 48 Liberal Lies About American History, including “Lie #45: LBJ’s Great Society Had a Positive Impact on the Poor.”

In a DVD on the “Reagan Revolution,” viewers are invited to “journey to a time when America suffered from financial, international and moral crisis:” Washington, DC, 1977. A knife-wielding African-American man demands “gimme yo’ money!” Ronald Reagan’s arrival—against triumphant music playing and a caption reading “one man transformed the nation…and the world”—changed all that for the better, the DVD suggests.

5. The New Deal did harm. Anti–New Deal views have long reverberated among Republicans. Bachmann blamed FDR for turning a recession into a depression by passing “Hoot-Smalley Tariff” (never mind that it’s Smoot-Hawley and it was passed three years prior to Roosevelt’s inauguration). And a barrage of recent books, including FDR’s Folly, by Jim Powell of the Cato Institute, and Amity Shlaes’s The Forgotten Man, blame FDR and the New Deal for prolonging the Depression. Newt Gingrich has praised The Forgotten Man, with its anti-stimulus message, as a blueprint for a return to “Whig-style free-market liberalism.”

6. David Barton. An amateur-turned-“historian,” Barton is the founder of WallBuilders, a pseudo-historical organization “with an emphasis on the moral, religious, and constitutional foundation on which America was built,” says its website. One of his revisions insists that John Adams claimed that government cannot exist without the Holy Ghost. In his presentations of the subject, Barton misunderstands Adams’s mocking statement about fervent believers in the Holy Ghost as historical truth, omitting succeeding sentences wherein Adams describes those beliefs to be “Artifice and Cunning.”

Barton’s claims about the religious roots of the country have been debunked from academics, even from Christian colleges. John Fea, chair of the history department at Messiah College, wrote, “Barton claims to be a historian. He is not. He has just enough historical knowledge, and just enough charisma, to be very dangerous.”

7. Texas Textbook Revisions. Last year the Texas Board of Education revised public school textbooks, expanding discussion of Ronald Reagan at the expense of public figures like Justice Sonia Sotomayor, omitting reference to Thomas Jefferson as an Enlightenment thinker in favor of Protestant leader John Calvin, and offering favorable views on Senator Joseph McCarthy, women’s rights opponent Phyllis Schlafly and the Heritage Foundation.

Many historians opposed the changes—but the board voted along party lines to approve of the revisions. Nearly 5 million Texas students live with the result.

8. Jim Crow wasn’t that bad. Last December, Governor Haley Barbour of Mississippi sugarcoated Jim Crow–era Mississippi, saying of his native Yazoo County, “I just don’t remember it as being that bad,” and, “You heard of the Citizens Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders.”

In reality, 1960s Mississippi was 42 percent black, of which only 2 percent were registered to vote, according to the nonprofit African-American Registry. Civil rights activists were murdered and students rioted against integration. “Not bad” indeed!

* * *

Conservatives’ view of history is either a warm, patriotic tale of American exceptionalism or a tale of Big Government oppression. It glides over or misrepresents progressive triumphs like the New Deal or Great Society and ignores unpleasant episodes like the Jim Crow era. Only studying the United States’ “best hits” ignores the contributions of minorities, labor and other groups.

“Historians constantly challenge each other, and understandings of the past evolve (for whatever reason),” William Link, a professor of history at the University of Florida, told The Nation. “But these people are different in that they aren’t really reality-based and don’t have much standing or credibility among scholars.”

For American youth—particularly those subjected to revised textbooks in Texas—the political revision of history may have important consequences. Imagine a future when children know about the contributions of Phyllis Schlafly but not César Chávez, have heard of the “Reagan Revolution” but not the Bush recession. “It can pollute the educational process,” Link said. “A good education involves a search for truth and understanding. To an extraordinary degree you have to validate what you say with evidence…. that’s the accepted professional standard.”

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