The Battle Over America’s Past

Picture by Hilary Stone Ginsberg

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is running scared, so scared that he is vying to lead far-right crazies in the Republican Party as they engage in endless culture wars.

Last week, the Kentucky Republican sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona — signed by 36 of McConnell’s colleagues — accusing the Biden administration of pushing a divisive and revisionist interpretation of U.S. history after the Department of Education asked for public comments on programs to improve the quality of American history teaching and instruct students in “both the consequences of slavery and the significant contributions of Black Americans to our society.”

Two things are going on here. First, Republicans raise so-called cultural issues because they are a party bereft of policies that either help citizens or appeal to them. Knowing that President Joe Biden’s programs share widespread public support — including from a significant percentage of Republicans — GOP leaders are left with little other than raising bogus issues from “cancel culture” to allegations the president intends to steal July 4 hamburgers. 

Second, McConnell put himself in the forefront of the criticism of the Education Department because he fears for his job. Last week, former president Donald Trump called on Republicans to dump McConnell as minority leader if the party hopes to reclaim a Senate majority in 2022. “We need good leadership. Mitch McConnell has not done a great job. I think they should change Mitch McConnell,” Trump said. McConnell’s sin? He had the temerity to acknowledge that Biden fairly won the presidency and subsequently blame Trump for the January 6 attack on the nation’s Capitol — though McConnell refused to vote to convict Trump for inciting the riot. 

In Trump world, you are either for him one-thousand percent, or you are the enemy. So, McConnell is now the enemy, and the senator has concluded that to keep his post as leader of the Republican senatorial caucus he must prove his bona fides as a culture warrior. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy has made the same calculation. After first blaming Trump for the riot, McCarthy virtually crawled to Mar-a-Lago — Trump’s private club in Florida — to kiss the emperor’s ring as penance for his sin. The GOP congressional leadership has redefined political cravenness. 

It is difficult to predict what absurdities Republican political leaders — and their propaganda arms at Fox, Newsmax, and One America News Network — will cite or concoct in the future as they try to deflect attention from their inability to attract voters with their dearth of policy positions. But, for now, McConnell has grasped the teaching of American history as his vehicle to keep the Trumpistas at bay. 

In his letter, McConnell accused the Education Department of “doubl[ing] down on divisive, radical, and historically-dubious [sic] buzzwords and propaganda.” McConnell attacked The New York Times’ much-praised “1619 Project” for allegedly “putting advocacy ahead of historical accuracy.” McConnell said, “Families did not ask for this divisive nonsense, [and] voters did not vote for it.”

McConnell’s letter is disingenuous. He suggests that teaching students about America’s diverse past explains the sorry state of history education and the fact that, according to him, “American pride has plummeted to its lowest level in 20 years.” Even if that statement were true, there is no apparent nor logical connection between the teaching of diversity as part of a school’s curriculum and the lack of historical knowledge and pride in America’s achievements. 

But, tenuous connections have not prevented the Republican right from attacking “The 1619 Project” for stressing the role of slavery in colonial and national development. Trump Republicans — with whom McConnell is trying to ingratiate himself — linked “The 1619 Project” with so-called “Critical Race Theory,” an academic concept that maintains American racism is not the result of merely some bad actors, but is part of the legal system and other powerful institutions in American society. This concept is not new. Students of native American history have pointed out for decades that discrimination against indigenous people has been written into law. 

Last November, Trump established a hand-picked commission aimed at promoting “patriotic education.” The commission released “The 1776 Report” (dates are important in this argument: 1619 when the first Blacks arrived in Virginia; 1776 for independence) on Martin Luther King Day, just two days before Trump left office. The report, written in haste not by historians but by right-wing activists, called America “an exemplary nation, one that protects the safety and promotes the happiness of its people, as an example to be admired and emulated by nations of the world.”

No one doubts the historical significance of the American Revolution as a landmark in the development of human liberty. The words promulgated by the Framers remain an inspiration to freedom-seekers everywhere. But to stop there, as the authors of “The 1776 Report” do, is to miss the epic tale of America’s struggle to live up to its ideals. The report’s discussion of slavery reveals its rather limited view of American history. The authors are dismissive of the importance and significance of slavery in the nation’s history. Slavery, they write, was not “a uniquely American evil.” That is both true and meaningless. Yes, slavery had been practiced for millennia and was widespread at the time of the American Revolution. But, to say that is to ignore the contradiction between the stated goals of the Framers — “All Men are created equal” — and their practice as well as to give short shrift to the significance of slavery in understanding racial divisions in contemporary American society. 

In any event, “The 1776 Report” is propaganda, not history. (President Biden dissolved the commission and took its report off the government website). McConnell does not mention it in his letter — no doubt because he is aware of its dubious credibility — but his complaints against the Education Department proposals reveal that he shares similar crimped views of the American past. The letter also demonstrates that there is little McConnell will not do to pacify the hard right of the Republican Party in order to keep his post as senate minority leader — including willfully distorting American history.

Posted May 4, 2021

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