This Is Not The America We Imagined

History and Politics at Stanford in Trump’s Wake

One of the first articles published by The Onion in the wake of the presidential election bore the headline, “Area Liberal No Longer Recognizes Fanciful, Wildly Inaccurate Mental Picture Of Country He Lives In.” This is, of course, a wry spoof of the Facebook updates we all saw in the wake of Trump’s shocking victory: Stanford students professing surprise, terror, and feelings of alienation upon being forced to accept that half the country put its political voice behind a candidate abhorrent to them.

But the headline also raises deeper questions: How did this “Area Liberal” manage to get a “Fanciful, Wildly Inaccurate Mental Picture” of America into his head? Why does his mental picture of America differ so vastly from the reality?

Behind our inability to foresee the result of this year’s election—and our failure to understand it—is the insufficiency of our view of history. We’ve taken prevailing theories about our past and used them to draw lines in the political sand, and we’ve come to believe so deeply in them that we can’t understand anyone who doesn’t think along the same lines.

Through a number of interesting conversations I had with friends during last year’s contentious debate over the Western Civilization Requirement put forward by the Stanford Review, I was able to get some insight into the prevailing view of American history at elite institutions like Stanford. Something I heard consistently from the side that opposed the proposal was, “America only continues to be a product of the Western tradition so long as we imagine it to be so.”

Make no bones about it: this is a radical claim. It’s not unattractive, possessing a certain quality of beauty and justice. All this time we have been simply imagining that America was founded by a bunch of wig-sporting white men who read too much Locke and Rousseau and didn’t like tyrants or taxation without representation. We could alternately imagine it to be shaped in the most important sense, for example, by African men and women kidnapped from their homes to be brought to foreign shores, who labored under bleak conditions until they died and who fought a centuries-long struggle for the rights they deserved.

This argument has as its origins the social history movement that swept America in the 60s and 70s. This movement contributed immensely to the practice of history by reevaluating what we prioritize in our narratives on the past. However, since the 70s it has stiffened into orthodoxy at places like Stanford, where politics seems to have infiltrated history to a worrying degree.

The History department at Stanford is resolutely left-leaning, and this is no coincidence. Political movements, left and right, have been co-opting theories about history for as long as history has existed. Communists used Marxist histories; fascists used glorious myths about the national past. The American left has made use of revisionist history to further its political ends. The connection is logical: if the past is a struggle of marginalized groups for liberation, then present politics should be about finally guaranteeing fair and equal treatment for these groups. This is the American left’s narrative about itself.

This co-optation is inevitably fatal for the historical movement that has been co-opted. In America, historians have developed a coded language to see the history they study through the lens of a certain political value system. The things they do not like are called “problematic,” “patriarchal”; the things they like are called “progressive.” The project of passing judgment on the past overpowers the more difficult project of understanding the past. Historical ideas lose their explanatory and predictive power. Finally, we fail to understand the present, because we don’t understand the past.

A painfully clear example is our inability to understand the nearly 60 million people who voted for Donald Trump. Are they all bigots? Was bigotry not enough to dissuade them? The latter claim rings truer, but still misses the point. There are undoubtedly Trump voters who actively oppose fair and equal treatment for minorities, and this casts a pall over the movement. But what so many of us have failed to see is that some sixty million have cast their votes to say, “I reject your view of the world.” We may call them bigoted, wrong, retrograde, and indeed we may be right, but we cannot continue to ignore that there is no longer—if indeed there ever was—a popular consensus on our worldview. To continue to affirm this worldview by accusing half the country of bigotry is not likely to change anyone’s mind.

As far as history goes, I am convinced we should always feel free to challenge traditional views of the past and imagine new ones. But we should also be wary as to how politics are influencing our views of the past. At Stanford, the view that American history is a battle for rights and survival by certain marginalized groups has become a rigid political belief, in which all Americans are either for or against the people of these communities. Whether this belief is just is beside the point: it has become clear that it’s ceased to be useful either in allowing us to foresee the future or even understand the present.

The key to a healthier politics is for all of us to be able to understand the future as it happens, even if it’s not to our liking. I didn’t vote for Trump, but I’m currently doing my utmost to find out why half of the country did, and I want answers that go deeper than “racism” or “economics.”

In order to understand the present, we have to be boldly undogmatic in our approach to history. Never narrow your conception of the past. Always aim to understand it on its own terms, not yours. As the finest of the ancient Greek historians, Thucydides, put it at the outset of his History of the Peloponnesian War, the best inquirer pursues “an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it.”

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