Historical Ignorance Warps American Politics: Jonathan Alter

June 17 (Bloomberg) -- In Woody Allen’s charming new movie, “Midnight in Paris,” Owen Wilson’s character, a modern-day novelist, travels through time to the 1920s. He wishes he could stay, so he could keep hanging out with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. His love interest from the ‘20s wishes she were living in La Belle Epoque. Both discover when they travel back to the 1880s that Degas and Gauguin wish they were living in the Renaissance.

Most of us occasionally experience Era Envy, a wistful feeling, captured in Edwin Arlington Robinson’s poem “Miniver Cheevy,” that we were born too late. Cheevy “wept that he was ever born.”

Politicians, being more practical, wield such themes to win favor with nostalgic voters. Nowadays we’re past the point where Democrats invoke the 1960s and Republicans the 1980s. On the right, in particular, the time horizons are getting longer. Conservatives openly yearn for a pre-New Deal social contract under which Americans would largely fend for themselves as they did in the 19th century. (Glenn Beck went so far as to call Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Era a “cancer.”) And the Tea Party folks, of course, want to go even further back in time and restore the spirit of the founders.

The problem is that spreading a romantic gauze over history distorts our sense of the present. It makes our politics treacly, trivial and unaccountable to historical truth. It doesn’t help that test results released this week from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show that students in fourth, eighth and 12th grades do worse in American history than in any other subject. This will leave them unarmed against distortion.

History Left Behind

One explanation for this poor showing is that the No Child Left Behind Act has pushed schools to be so focused on reading and math that subjects like history are left behind. Another is that a growing preference on the part of teachers for teaching social studies (which can double as civics) has meant that only about 60 percent of history teachers majored in history while in college. Imagine teaching physics if you majored in biology.

A bigger obstacle to understanding history is the instant gratification offered by the 24/7 social-media culture, where a Twitter posting that’s more than a few hours old might as well have not been posted at all. In this world, a story like the BP oil spill, which soiled everything in its path a mere year ago, leaves almost no media residue. This culture is increasingly non-linear, and thus divorced from narrative, which is a killer for a discipline that depends on great story-telling.

Hackneyed Fairy Tale

I study history and write history, and it pains me to see it taught in a boring way that turns students off. But I worry even more about it being transformed into a hackneyed fairy tale that warps our political debate.

The Disneyfied history invoked by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann is more about marketing than genuine Era Envy. Palin drew hoots recently for claiming that Paul Revere was warning the British as well as the colonists on his famous midnight ride (then she angrily refused to admit she made a mistake). Bachmann thought the battle of Concord took place in New Hampshire. These are the forgivable errors of the uninformed.

But Bachmann, a newly minted presidential candidate who says she changed parties after reading Gore Vidal’s novel “Burr” and finding herself repulsed by his critical treatment of the founders, is playing a more destructive game with history. She isn’t conjuring the past; she’s wielding it as a weapon.

Natural Dog Whistler

Bachmann, like Palin, is a natural dog whistler. In politics, a dog whistle refers to a coded message meant to appeal to certain constituencies while flying right past the general public. A classic recent example was George W. Bush’s saying in a 2004 debate that he wouldn’t appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who supported the Dred Scott decision. This peculiar reference to an 1857 slavery case was meant to signal right-to-lifers that opposition to Roe v. Wade was a litmus test for Bush.

Bachmann is dog whistling when she pledges to “take back America.” The question this raises is: from whom? From a “socialist” president?

Let’s give Bachmann the benefit of the doubt and stipulate that no racial message was intended. A subliminal racial message, among others, will still likely be received. “Take back America” is also a dog whistle for “Take America back” -- back to a better time before a man like Barack Obama was president. Before, say, the number of Hispanics taking the national history assessment test in eighth-grade more than doubled in a mere five years.

John Wayne Era

In some ways, things were indeed better in what Bachmann calls the John Wayne era. Prosperity was more broadly shared when we had a vibrant middle class. People knew their neighbors and shared more common values.

But in many ways, it was worse -- more racism (in the ‘50s under Eisenhower), more threat of nuclear annihilation (in the ’60s under Kennedy), more economic pain (in the ‘70s under Carter), more crime (in the ‘80s under Reagan), more pollution.

Who will stand up for the historical record? When Bachmann said during the Republican debate this week that she would eliminate the “job-killing EPA,” none of the candidates disagreed. This is a perfect illustration of how the ignorance that sometimes lies behind Era Envy can be exploited politically. Contrary to predictions when it was established by President Richard Nixon in 1971, the Environmental Protection Agency killed no jobs. It did clean our air and water. Would Bachmann prefer that Americans hunt and fish in filth?

Hemingway wouldn’t. Neither would John Wayne.

(Jonathan Alter is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this column: Jonathan Alter at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Timothy Lavin at

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.