As the 2020 election approaches, we will inevitably encounter more commentary reminding us how the future of the US is at stake. That is clearly true, because if Donald Trump is reelected the pace of democratic rollback will be accelerated, perhaps irrevocably, while a Democratic victory may just reverse that rollback and make it possible to rebuild a cohesive and democratic country. However, despite the future being at stake, the election itself will largely be a debate about the past.
At the heart of Donald Trump’s political appeal is a deep commitment to understand America’s past through a red white and blue colored lens in which racism, slavery, slaughter of Native Americans and other historical injustices are minimized and seen as quaint footnotes to an otherwise glorious history. It remains true that the key word in Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again,” is “Again.” That slogan is not a call to return to a past, but a call to return to an imaginary one. As long as America lives in that imaginary past, or at the very least, believes in that imaginary past, then Trump and his supporters can wallow in their sense of victimhood while indulging their bigotry towards those whose lots are a lot worse precisely because of the reality of America’s past.
A major part of the Democratic Party narrative today is something substantially different. Many of the Democratic candidates for President, for example, argue implicitly that America’s past is complicated and characterized by slavery, racism and other evils, as well as by a substantial degree of democracy and opportunity. This has led several of the candidates for President, notably Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Cory Booker and Andrew Yang to explore programs that seek not to ignore America’s profound history of inequality, but to address, and perhaps even reverse, it. These programs, proposals and candidacies only make sense if one understands American history with some sense of nuance.
The Republican Party has countered this by branding Democrats as socialists. While this is a laughable tactic on many levels, it also makes some sense if you believe the Republican version of American history-one that you might have learned in middle school a half century ago if you weren’t paying attention. If you hew to the position that America’s past is simply a collection of great men, doing great things and of the country being democratic and a beacon to the rest of the world, than it is not hard to believe that those suggesting real change to the economy, health care or criminal justice systems are radical and dangerous.
The Democratic Party is not entirely immune to the need to misrepresent America’s past. One of the ways we have seen this during the current campaign occurred when Joseph Biden spoke so proudly of his ability to do business with segregationist senators during the 1970s. Biden, despite the criticism he got for this from some of his opponents, is not alone among America’s political elite in holding this view. Celebrating this ability to get along overlooks how much less diverse, with regards to almost every demographic measure, congress was in those days. Of course, it is easier for people to get along across party lines when almost everybody is a straight white man. Uncritically harkening back to that era is to perpetuate the notion that the US has a glorious past and has somehow gotten off course, rather than confront the reality that the US is a troubled country with a troubled past.
The problem with the Republican view of the past, in addition to it being ahistorical, is that it is extremely difficult to solve problems if no rigorous effort is made to determine their causes. The essential view reflected by Republican Party policy, despite occasional bursts of populist rhetoric, is that those who are not wealthy simply are not trying enough. This is, in general, a bizarre assertion, but one that is particularly repugnant when applied to non-white Americans who, in many cases, have endured centuries of slavery and apartheid and, in more recent decades, the deep legacies of those evils.
Electing a President who has a different understanding of American history, something that we did in 2008 and 2012, makes it possible to craft policies that reflect historical realities. However, those policies will always encounter resistance from those who want to believe a different set of stories. Perhaps more importantly, this dispute is not just about what policies are crafted, but go to the core of American identity. The notion that American identity should be centered not around what Ronald Reagan referred to as a “shining city on a hill,” but around an understanding that the US has centuries of historical injustices with which it must wrestle is simply too disturbing for many white voter who will do anything, including vote for Donald Trump, to protect the history they want to believe.