Do Republicans Know History Better Than Democrats?

With the presidential election upon us, I thought it appropriate to look back on an op-ed piece written earlier this year in The Wall Street Journal by historian Edward J. Larson, author of “A Magnificent Catastrophe: The Tumultuous Election of 1800, American’s First Presidential Campaign.”

In his essay (See WSJ, February 6, page A18), Mr. Larson mused how, in his experience, prominent Republicans and conservatives seem much more interested in, and informed by, history than do their Democratic counterparts.

Larson explained this perceived phenomenon by noting that “Republicans look to the past for inspiration but often to the future with trepidation. Originalists at heart, they tend to see only the shining city on a hill of earlier times and not its darker neighborhoods.”

Liberals Democrats, in contrast, “have always looked to the future with hope and embraced marginalized groups. When they look back, even to the deeds of their own former leaders, they see a trail of tears like the one over which Andrew Jackson drove out the Cherokee.”

Liberals with impeccable credentials for championing American history–such as Bill Moyers, Dale Bumpers, Tom Hanks, Mario Cuomo, Richard Dreyfuss, and Steven Spielberg–did not make Larson’s list.

Could it be that liberals and conservatives simply cherish different “histories?”

Volumes have been written on progressive subjects such as the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, the New Deal, the abolitionist movement, and the Vietnam War protests. Few conservative authors seem drawn to these subjects. In contrast, conservatives have been particularly attracted to subjects such as Civil War military operations, Churchill, MacArthur, and Napoleon.

There are, of course, always exceptions to such broad generalizations. Former President Jimmy Carter and House Speaker Newt Gingrich, at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have both published Civil War novels.

Perhaps the fault, oh Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in our definitions of what constitutes history.

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