Can Conservatives Write Good U.S. History?

Can Conservatives Write Good U.S. History?

By not giving the battle against racism and for equality its due, Wilfred McClay’s Land of Hope fails to explain how and for whom power was and continues to be wielded in America.

Historian Wilfred McClay’s favorite U.S. president, Calvin Coolidge, about to milk a cow (Library of Congress)

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Conservative scholars who try to make sense of U.S. history face two daunting challenges. The first is their marginality in the profession itself. They want to persuade readers that the nation’s past supports their convictions about the present. But liberal and left-wing scholars have dominated the field for decades; they write nearly all the respected monographs, while the late Howard Zinn’s ardently damning A People’s History of the United States has sold well over 2 million copies since it was first published in 1980.

Then there is the Trump factor. The racist would-be tyrant with the adoring right-wing base clearly knows little and cares less about what actually happened in the America he imagines was so great. Meanwhile, the hard-right, pro-Trump writers of history who attract a mass audience peddle crude propaganda riddled with falsehoods. Take David Barton, who believes the framers of the Constitution were Christian zealots just like him who sought to establish a theocracy, or Newt Gingrich, who insists the welfare state “is incompatible with human nature because it does not view American citizens as individuals with inherent dignity and rights,” or Dinesh D’Souza, who alleges that “the cultural left” was “responsible” for the attacks of 9/11 and calls the Democrats a “fascist” party.

Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful. In a new survey of the nation’s past, McClay, who sports a hefty title as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, seeks to impart an uplifting message while still telling the story straight. His book bears the title Land of Hope, with a subtitle that appears pitched to acolytes of Trump: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Serious scholars on the right rarely write such sweeping national narratives, and McClay’s conservative publisher has made quite a production out of this one. It’s printed on expensive glossy stock, the images are numerous and mostly in color, and a handsome brochure with a lengthy author Q&A is included in every review copy.

McClay has clearly written the book with its enormously popular competitor on the left in mind. In the promotional interview, he asserts that Howard Zinn’s famous book is “simplistic melodrama” that appeals to “many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our natural flaws.” He’s not wrong about that. A People’s History does reduce the past to a conflict between a tiny elite animated by nothing but power and greed and a vast majority who always seem to get shafted; he never asks why so many Americans were taken in by what he called “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” Still, Zinn at least made a powerful argument in arresting prose: he condemned the enduring exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent and provided readers with a surfeit of quotes from such eloquent voices as Eugene Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Adrienne Rich who resisted the powerful, albeit with more courage than success.

But McClay has entirely failed to create an appealing alternative to his radical rival. He sheds praise on the nation and its people without explaining why and how they accomplished the deeds he finds so worthy of tribute. Unwilling to parrot the conspiracy-mongering of hacks like D’Souza but still determined to present a past brimming with “hope,” he ends up with a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.

McClay briskly narrates most of the big events and eras that shaped American politics—from Revolution through Civil War to Progressivism, New Deal, and Cold War—with a conventional focus on presidents and a variety of tycoons and generals. Along the way, unlike Newt and his emulators, he doesn’t shirk from describing elements of the past that undercut his sunny title. He mentions the suffering of the Cherokees on the Trail of Tears, acknowledges that slavery was “a cruel social system that inflicted horrors” on millions of black people, and notes that 25,000 factory workers died on the job in 1913.

The lesson McClay draws from these nods to the dark side is that Americans made sure never to repeat them. The nation, while imperfect, mustered “searching self-criticism as part of its foundational makeup.” Again and again, a “basic consensus” and “sense of patriotic membership and national unity” triumphed. A virtuous citizenry stayed strong in its love of an America that could fix its problems and remain a vessel of hope for the world.

But who first proposed and fought hardest and most effectively to end the evils of slavery and the routine carnage of workplace accidents (among other outrages) eludes the holder of a chair in “liberty.” McClay ignores most social movements and shows little understanding of those whose existence he does acknowledge. He says almost nothing about feminist and LGBTQ activism, the Knights of Labor, or the CIO. Environmentalism makes an appearance in the text only when Teddy Roosevelt, as president, created national parks and forests.

No serious historian could get away with giving the same silent treatment to the long struggle for black freedom, the pivot on which the Civil War and other critical events in the nation’s past have turned. But McClay overlooks the vital role abolitionists played in building opposition in the North to the “Slave Power” of Dixie. And he barely acknowledges the fact that a number of prominent abolitionists were black people who had once been held in bondage themselves. He refers to Harriet Tubman twice briefly—once in the middle of a sentence—Frederick Douglass gets three quick name-checks (one of which is incorrect), and Sojourner Truth is absent altogether.

McClay’s treatment of the post-emancipation black movement is even more careless. W. E. B. Du Bois gets a single mention—not as one of the most influential activists and thinkers in twentieth-century America but as someone who briefly endorsed eugenics. Meanwhile, in the pages of Land of Hope, Ida B. Wells, Marcus Garvey, and A. Philip Randolph never existed. McClay does grace Martin Luther King Jr. with a whole paragraph about his life plus a long quote from his iconic speech at the massive civil rights march in the summer of 1963. But then you really cannot ignore someone with a national holiday to his name and a memorial a few blocks from the Mall.

The most egregious flaw in such slights and omissions is not the absence of uplifting carriers of “hope” who aren’t white men with lofty status and power. McClay’s failure to give the battle against racism and for equality its due flunks the basic requirement for good history: it fails to explain how and for whom power was and continues to be wielded in America’s politics, its economy, and the wider culture. Without such an analysis, one cannot understand the demographic transformation of the bases of the major parties since the 1960s, to mention just one critical subject McClay neglects. In his epilogue, the author writes that he sought “to tell the story of the American past . . . in as objective a manner as I could, while being fair and generous to all legitimate positions.” It’s a shame he never names the illegitimate ones. That would have exposed how absurd McClay’s claim to anything approaching balance, much less the impossible dream of objectivity, really is.

Fortunately, he does reveal his true ideological colors in the glossy interview packaged with the book. It turns out that McClay reveres one unalloyed, if unappreciated, hero: the spotless, taciturn Calvin Coolidge. More generally, the author protests “how unfair historians are to the Republican presidents of the 1920s.” McClay skates past the blatant corruption during Harding’s term and Hoover’s failure to stop the Great Depression from getting much greater. But he regards Silent Cal as probably the most effective chief executive in U.S. history. Coolidge was, gushes McClay, “a man of remarkable gifts, learning, and wisdom, an admirably modest man of unimpeachable moral character, and a highly successful president whose name became synonymous with national prosperity.” Of course, there’s no mention in the interview or the book itself of the explicitly racist Johnson–Reed Act of 1924, signed by Coolidge, which reduced immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe to a trickle and completely barred Asians from settling in the land of hope.

McClay goes on to slam the New Deal’s “incoherence and ineffectiveness” and gripes that historians have allegedly paid “little attention” to the Democrats’ long record of backing racial segregation. No one familiar with political history written over the past fifty years could seriously make the latter charge. By doing so, McClay lowers himself, albeit briefly, to the level of a shill like D’Souza.

For the most part, though, the Oklahoma professor refrains from polemics. In a way, that indicates a cardinal weakness of his book. McClay has an attitude rather than an argument. On occasion, he reminds readers about the national knack for problem-solving his title seeks to evoke. But Land of Hope includes few details one cannot find on Wikipedia, and its prose lacks the drama and pathos intrinsic to a compelling narrative.

McClay’s rather hopeless text provides a telling piece of evidence about the crisis facing right-wing intellectuals today. Figures like Michael Gerson and William Kristol, who still believe in the meld of neoliberal economics and messianic globalism they once espoused inside or close to the White House under Reagan and Bushes I and II, abhor Trump’s racist nationalism but speak for no one in the GOP but themselves. Such libertarian, originalist writers as George Will are even more isolated, lacking even the small comfort of being part of a cohort of NeverTrumpers who can lodge their futile protests together. Early in his presidency, George W. Bush appointed McClay to the National Council for the Humanities, the group that oversees the operations of the National Endowment for the Humanities. But the historian is silent about the takeover of the conservative movement by a man for whom ideas only matter if he can sharpen them into rage-tipped stilettos to hurl at his critics or immigrants of color.

As if to underline his futility, McClay’s spare remarks about the current president avoid the flaming divisions that helped produce Trump’s victory in 2016 and that he has continuously stoked since taking office. McClay allows that Trump is “unconventional,” then praises him for a prosperous economy while regretting he has done nothing to unite the country. He does bewail the “huge number of difficult problems . . . exacerbated by the dysfunctional conditions of Washington.” But he chooses to discuss just one of them. Is it economic inequality, immigration, festering racism, the decline of American power? No, it’s the growing national debt.

That the copious red ink on federal ledgers alarms McClay more than any other national malady demonstrates why his book will never gain the broad audience he and his publisher crave. The expanding debt, which is now greater than the U.S. GDP, does present a potential risk for economic growth and the health of entitlement programs—absent a big rise in taxes on the wealthy. But few partisans in either major party are bothered by it, and no grassroots movement clamors to reduce it.

The banality of McClay’s book and the moralistic dualism of Zinn’s should not dissuade American historians, especially those who identify with liberalism or the left, from writing their own surveys of the nation’s past. For well over a decade, “transnational” approaches have been in fashion among progressive academics. While they helpfully debunk exceptionalist myths, the only response they have to offer those who seek to comprehend the larger meaning of the evolution of the American state and society is to change the question. There is no reason why a grand narrative can’t do justice to the lives and thoughts of ordinary people of all races and genders—as hundreds of excellent monographs do now. The nearly single-minded attention to great men of pale color in Land of Hope is one of the things that makes the book such an anachronistic slog.

Last year, Jill Lepore came out with a thick volume that made a passionately liberal attempt to tell the American story whole. These Truths: A History of the United States avoided Zinn’s wholesale condemnation of political elites yet also spurned the celebratory patriotism of McClay’s book. And the quality of Lepore’s prose—vivid, ironic, and stuffed with original detail—puts both men’s writing to shame.

Yet her book will probably disappoint those who want their history to offer a big idea, either to anger or inspire. In an earlier book, Lepore asserted, “To write history is to make an argument by telling a story.” The argument she tells in These Truths is one of ironies and contradictions; cruel ambiguities get built into every institution founded on the ideals of freedom and equality. Yet most powerful and power-little Americans, despite their many and enduring differences, keep struggling to realize those ideals, according, of course, to their own needs and desires. “Between reverence and worship, on the one side, and irreverence and contempt, on the other,” writes Lepore, “lies an uneasy path.”

Caution and ambiguity are not themes to either thrill or mobilize. But an honest grappling with the past of the United States, or of any other large and powerful nation, does not and should not submit itself to the exigencies of a social movement or of conservatives who want to promote flag-waving citizenship. Yet Lepore is more successful at evoking her theme than presenting a sustained argument for it.

So what’s a progressive historian who wants to write a persuasive survey of U.S. history to do? Perhaps they should strive to describe, as colorfully as possible, the limits and potential that existed in the past to create a more decent, more egalitarian America. Then they should go on to explain how and why partial victories occurred, while the larger goals remained out of reach yet were never abandoned.

A late-life reflection by the most popular Marxist historian of all time might help. “It is not the task of the historian,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm, whose four-volume survey of the world since 1789 has sold more copies in more languages than any similar work ever written, “to discover or devise legitimations of our hopes—or fears for human destiny.” Seek to tell the truth about the past in all its intertwinings of exhilaration and pain, hope and misery. Then let your readers decide how to use that knowledge to forge a better future.

Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.