How The American Political Debate Uses (And Abuses) History

Every era has its historical debates. Yet divergent views of the past — from both the left and the right — seem to be colliding at a rapid clip in the age of Obama. Given the inevitable confusion this causes among Americans, here is a modest proposal: both progressives and conservatives should agree to a set of informal standards for fairly and accurately employing historical interpretations in our contemporary ideological debates.

Nietzche’s famous essay on the subject, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life,” (in his Untimely Meditations), put forth the idea of a “trinity of methods for history” — what he labeled monumental, antiquarian and critical history. Nietzche writes:

If a man who wants to create greatness uses the past, then he will empower himself through monumental history. On the other hand, the man who wishes to emphasize the customary and traditionally valued cultivates the past as an antiquarian historian. Only the man whose breast is oppressed by a present need and who wants to cast off his load at any price has a need for critical history, that is, history which sits in judgment and passes judgment.

Nietzche believed there were good uses and poor uses of history to help shape and guide “the living.” For example, holding up strong models of leadership from the past can easily degenerate into “mythical fiction” (like the rising nationalism of the late nineteenth century) while proper reverence for past values and ideas can lead us to make old customs and political beliefs “immortal.” In both cases, the misuse of historical memory inhibits people in the present from making necessary adjustments to balance old ideas with new ones. Similarly, with critical history, Nietzche writes, “A person must have the power and from time to time use it to break a past and to dissolve it, in order to be able to live. He manages to do this by dragging the past before the court of justice, investigating it meticulously, and finally condemning it.” This is a useful and necessary process. But it can also be “dangerous” in that we risk denying the past and replacing it with “weaker” ideas in the present.


The left’s focus under Obama has mostly been on versions of monumental history. There were many debates among progressives during the first term about whether Obama was living up to the boldness of the New Deal and the Great Society in addressing the nation’s economic challenges, advancing civil rights, fighting climate change, and dismantling Bush-era war policies. Michael Tomasky summarized and critiqued these arguments quite well in his 2010 Democracy article, “Against Despair”:

Too often, when progressives think of American history, we think only of the snapshots: those glorious moments when a historic bill is signed into law, or when the great progressive leader thunderingly confronts the forces of reaction. It’s good to remember those; they are our lodestars. But they are moments. Actual history is slower, more tedious, and certainly less uplifting. It’s not for Obama’s sake, but for liberalism’s over the long haul that we need to consider this reality and proceed in full awareness of it. It’s only by seeing this fuller picture that we can know how history actually unfolds in real time and place our present experience within that context. We don’t do nearly enough of that.

In Tomasky’s view, progressives were guilty of turning our past successes into myths that failed to acknowledge the limits of progressive power, the structural deficiencies of our constitutional system, and the limits of Barack Obama himself, thus leading to unwarranted despair and apathy.

In an example of a more critical historical method on the left, Sean Wilentz and Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick have been duking it out in The New York Review of Books over the latter’s book and ten-part Showtime series, The Untold History of the United States. Wilentz argues that Stone and Kuznick are purposefully “cherry-picking” history to make a case against the policies of United States from Truman and the Cold War to Bush and Obama in Iraq and Afghanistan. Stone and Kuznick, in turn, claim that Wilentz is misusing history himself in order to justify the hawkish and imperialist views of politicians he supports like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

It’s all a bit confusing and flush with details that require lots of fact checking but the debate raises important questions about the direction of U.S. foreign policy and the current stands of the Obama administration on Bush-era policies like torture and drones.


On the right, the uses and abuses of history have focused more on antiquarian and critical methods. The most obvious example of the antiquarian method is the Tea Party. Jill Lepore’s, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, (reviewed here by Gordon Wood) explains how the Tea Party turned the founding into a quasi-religious like moment that is “sacred” while documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution “are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments.”

Since the first election of Obama we’ve also seen a drumbeat of conservative academic and lay historians using the critical method to attack the legacy of FDR and progressivism, and by extension, the policies of Obama who is cut from the same ideological cloth. Amity Shlaes’ attempted takedown of the New Deal and subsequent promotion of the wonders of Coolidge-nomics is one strand of this type of history. Glenn Beck and others have promoted another strand that argues the original Progressive movement — and its contemporary manifestation — is a subversion of the Constitution and an aberration from historical norms. Progressives tend to view these critical uses of history as over-the-line and “factually challenged” (as Newt Gingrich famously labeled Michele Bachmann during the presidential primaries), but it is certainly necessary and important for conservatives to put forth their version of the nation’s past for Americans to evaluate.

Both ideological sides use history for their own purposes often in legitimate and honest ways. But can we objectively determine who is doing better and worse when it comes to abusing history? Probably not. Progressives and conservatives could, however, agree to some criteria for evaluating the use of historical claims in our contemporary discourse. One, are these claims factually correct ? Two, are these claims fair interpretations of both past and current events and do they adequately account for competing evidence? Three, is the aim of these claims primarily to advance our understanding of the past and present or to advance an ideological agenda?

Based on these proposed standards, when the left says Obama hasn’t been bold enough or is too imperialist is history being used or abused? When the right says Obama is undermining our founding values and pursuing federal actions that failed in the past are they using or abusing history?