🎧 Why Americans Fight Over History

Matthew Karp and Yascha Mounk discuss competing stories about the triumphs—and horrors—of American history.

  
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Matthew Karp is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and associate professor of history at Princeton University. An expert on the Civil War era and slavery, his writing poses a challenge to a right too sanguine about the darkest corners of America’s past, and a left too eager to embrace despair about the arc of history.

In this week’s conversation, Matthew Karp and Yascha Mounk discuss the "1619 Project,” the politics of history from Juneteenth to the Confederacy, and why an accurate conception of the past is key to shaping a better future.

This transcript has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.


Yascha Mounk: How have Americans traditionally thought about their history? 

Matthew Karp: There’s a Gore Vidal zinger about this, right? “We learn nothing, because we remember nothing.” That's a common theme in a certain kind of liberal discourse—self-flagellation about America's ignorance of the past. I feel like every country has its own version of that. Historians are certainly interested in telling everybody else that they don't know their history. That's a move that our profession likes to engage in and it sometimes seeps into the public sphere.

I think there have been two broad transformations on the right and on the left in the way that the politics of history shows up today: on the right, there's been a shift from a traditionalist, patriarchal, or even filial pietistic worship of America's traditional leaders, which for a long time included the Lost Cause of the Confederacy, too. I think the dominant mood now is still nationalistic, but in the Trump era has turned away, in some ways, from the substance of history and towards a trolling, even nihilistic escape from history, which is a transformation worth noting: both the retreat from the Lost Cause [concept of the Confederacy] and this embrace of the MAGA theory, or non-theory, of history.

Mounk: When you say it's gone into “trolling” mode today, I take it you mean things like Dinesh D'Souza pointing out that it was actually the Democrats in the 19th century who defended slavery and Republicans who attacked it. It is actually distancing itself, even if not very loudly or not in a very obvious way, from the negative parts of American history that 20 or 40 years ago some conservatives might have tried to downplay or defend.

Karp: Right. I think what I'm most interested in is the more recent shift from—even as recently as the Bush administration—several cabinet members like John Ashcroft, and Gale Norton in the Interior Department, who basically openly praised the Confederacy and lamented the defeat of the South in the Civil War and what we'd lost in terms of states’ rights and so on. Obviously, there are other ways to measure this: when Martin Luther King Day came up for a vote for the first time in Congress in the late 70s, a majority of Republicans opposed it, and only gradually across the 80s did they relent. Whereas now you have a significant retreat from some of those specific symbols associated with the Lost Cause, Southern resistance, and states’ rights. The Juneteenth vote that just came up, another national holiday explicitly affirming and celebrating emancipation, was passed almost unanimously with co-sponsor John Cornyn of Texas. 

Clearly, an element of Confederate sympathy remains in the South and elsewhere. And you do see the Confederate flag, as on January 6th, but the Trump administration itself was not invested in Lost Cause memorabilia. They are, if anything, inclined to embrace the macho-nationalism of Lincoln and of the Union. It’s not that they've actually developed a new and persuasive formula for thinking about American history, but that in some ways, they've accepted the basic chronology developed by liberal and left-leaning historians, with slavery and emancipation at the heart of what 19th century US history is about, and just switching the colors on the jerseys and saying, “the good guys were Republicans and conservatives.” The new formulation isn't really invested in developing its own theory of history; it's accepting the one that's out there and taking opportunistic moments to dunk on the opposition.

Mounk: There are interesting ways in which the Trump era has accepted a lot of social developments. One of the dogs that really hasn't barked for five or perhaps ten years is gay marriage, which is something that conservatives had opposed very passionately for a very long time. But there was no attempt whatsoever, while Republicans had unified control of government from 2016 to 2018, to roll that back, or to even make it part of a political debate. I think it's important when you're trying to understand the political moment to look at these things that are not very visible—precisely because both sides have actually accepted them—as the moments of real change.

Karp: “Dogs that don't bark” are just as significant in trying to assess what historical change really is happening and what transformations have been established and which haven't. I do think that even in the post-George Floyd moment, when you did have a lot of people on the right getting hot and bothered about the tearing down of statues, it was notable that Tucker Carlson never once defended the Confederacy or any of the Confederate statues. It was clearly a conscious decision to cut the Confederacy loose, and that showed up in all of the various statue gardens and absurd nationalistic pageant ideas that Trump was shooting out at the end of his term. In his late arrival in the history wars, none of it involved celebrating the Confederacy. I think it's important to note, from the historian’s perspective, that this is very different from how a right-wing radio news host would have been talking in the 90s. 

Mounk: So today's right, at least in certain ways, has accepted the liberal narrative of American history that was prevalent in history departments until 10 or 20 years ago. But at the same time, it seems as though there's been a similar transformation on the left-liberal part of the political space, in which that old liberal narrative has itself been jettisoned for a really new narrative.

Karp: I agree. There's been a realignment that is, in some ways, interlocking. There's been a shift away from the buoyant, often optimistic, occasionally complacent, liberal belief in American progress, and in progressive change as the root of American history.

Every Democratic president, certainly from John F. Kennedy through to Obama, depicted US history as this long march of progress: the American Revolution, the struggle against slavery, the struggle for women's suffrage—sometimes the struggle for the labor movement, depending on the moment that we're talking about—the struggle for civil rights, the struggle for gay rights. In an Obama speech, all of these would often converge as this general narrative of progress. And sometimes this did lean towards a deep complacency: Bill Clinton's line about how there's nothing wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America. Critics have often accused liberal history of celebrating this inevitable march of progress, almost as if we didn't need to do anything, because progress was sort of mechanically working itself out.

Clearly, there's a new narrative that has challenged this sense of America as a vehicle for progress. I think “The 1619 Project” most dramatically develops a narrative of US history that is centered on the role of oppression, specifically racial oppression, in America's origins. Explicitly, the project is focused on refounding America not in 1776, but in 1619, and also on the continuity of that oppression through the long sweep of American history. Instead of highlighting moments of progressive change from the Civil War to the civil rights movement, the narrative that unfurls under the aegis of “1619” is both linear in the sense that it is a flat line from the antebellum plantation complex to the prison industrial complex today, etc., and also circular: it's clearly making an argument that is much more invested in continuity and these cyclical struggles, rather than marking progressive victories or noting the importance of change.

Mounk: Obviously, Trump prompted the examination of everything that's worst about America; but why do you think that that seems like an appealing way to talk about American history, and why is that, in your mind, actually a mistake?

Karp: I think part of the motivation for this new narrative of history comes from a sense that the old narrative was so deeply complacent, that it ignored the persistence of deep inequalities across all of these supposedly progressive changes. Under the leadership of liberal presidents like Clinton and Obama, I think there was a sense on the left, and maybe even among so-called liberals, that this Whiggish account of America's change was really failing to address these deep inequalities; that actually, the last 50 years since the civil rights movement have done very little to challenge the racial wealth gap (or, frankly, the class wealth gap, which encompasses most of the racial wealth gap, since the racial wealth gap owes itself largely to differences in the top 10%, and really the top 5% and 1%); and that these really persistent inequalities under capitalism were not even getting airtime under this liberal narrative. 

Now, where I think the mistake is—or where I'm much more critical of this movement—is its effort to replace that sense of inevitable progress, this sort of moral elevator of history, with the sense of paralyzed, doomed, endless continuity owing to original sin or a genetic code or some tragic arc that is inescapable. 

I think some of that comes from a sense of hopelessness about the possibility of political change in our current environment, but I don't think that the proper political or intellectual response to hopelessness is to instantiate it at the core of our historiography.

Mounk: It's an odd thing that “white supremacy is the DNA of America” is supposed to be the preamble for radical political action. There seems to be a mismatch there, but I haven't quite put my finger on it.

Karp: Yes. For me, that's legible through the big political [and] economic changes of the last 50 years. And this is where my own, if you want to say, leftism comes in. With Thomas Piketty and others, I think the dominant fact of world history since the 1970s—the history of the North Atlantic industrial and post-industrial world—is the devolution of the labor movement, the weakening of the institutional power of the working class, and the collapse of class politics itself. 

And I think in this moment—where labor and workers are weaker and less cognizant of any political power of any kind—you have, on the one hand, the increasing appeal of the right-populist temptation. On the other hand, I think you have what Piketty calls the “Brahmin left,” that has emerged largely in academia, media, and other professional class cadres that retain some sense of this commitment to egalitarianism, but is totally divorced from labor and from class politics itself. So, what ideas about the past or about political change it does have, are centered on a moral catharsis and a reckoning that—whether it's through diversity training or a new account of American history—can right various wrongs without actually being connected to political mass movements and grounded in material conditions. And I think that flight from materialism, if you will, does explain the impulse to locate these historical wrongs not in our present conditions, but in the past itself. Various Trotskyists online have made this critique very eloquently, but this new historical cosmology of “1619” does not threaten the powers that be, does not threaten Silicon Valley or JP Morgan or any of the new paladins of our economy because it is so idealistic and so grounded in this place of abstract reckoning that it does not present a material threat to the power of capital today. And I think it's therefore been much easier for it to be embraced by various establishment figures. I think the pure materialist, which I’m not, would say this demonstrates how unthreatening these ideas are.

Mounk: What I find striking about the last 10 or 20 years is that history seems to have a much larger prominence among the general public than it did 20 years ago. But a lot of it does seem to take a genealogical form: “Hey, actually, the origins of current policing methods, of capitalism, of our discourse about human rights, are problematic, and therefore those things themselves are problematic.” What do you think about this genealogical mode of argument and the role it plays in our discourse today?

Karp: I'm not totally unsympathetic to the importance of understanding lineages, history, and continuity in the relationship between past crimes and present-day realities. But in its reductive insistence on conceiving of all history as this closed chamber, this “mark of the beast” [thinking] almost precludes the reality of enormous changes. If you just look at the narrative of the past that it unspools, leaving aside the future for a minute, it's amazing how the Civil War itself is almost absent in that chronology. And I do understand that they, for specific, understandable reasons, didn't want to do a greatest hits album of, you know, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman and the heroes of the civil rights movement. They wanted to tell a different story. So I do understand that as a corrective; but to wipe out the anti-slavery movement, the Civil War, and radical Reconstruction as mass political struggles, as part of the center of both African American and US history, is to craft a narrative in which there isn't really a difference between 1850 and 1900.

And I think even on those terms, it really is a huge misapprehension of what materially did change between a regime of chattel slavery, and the very different social and racial order under Jim Crow. There were huge gains made by that struggle that were not rolled back, if you look at, say, black literacy rates, or the autonomy provided over marriage and family life. Economists have calculated the share of earnings that black workers in the South got to own themselves under Jim Crow, as opposed to under slavery, and it goes up remarkably. The amount of hours that they spent working decreased—just a huge material change. Not to mention, the entire order of society is different under that sharecropping regime. I hope it's not pedantic to say these things are different. You don't have to have a particular political disposition to feel the importance of that.

Mounk: You're a historian in the academy, also somebody who writes for a broader audience. How is it that we should think about the relationship between a true and accurate and unflinching understanding of the nature of American history, and a narrative about our own country that maybe does help us to draw on what's best about America, in order to fix the things that are evidently wrong with America?

Karp: I wish I had a better answer for this, and actually, I'm going to start working on a book about how to understand the politics of history today. But I think I would begin where I ended the last answer, on the omnipresence of change in U.S. history, and how, in some ways, that more than any of these continuity or meta-narratives is something that I think would be useful for students both politically and pedagogically. I would use two key words: change and struggle. And I think the advocates of “1619” will say, “No, ‘1619’ is a story of struggle. It's all about black struggle against the oppressive forces of white supremacy, and that struggle is ongoing.” And they would claim that that's the narrative. But I do think that it's a very different conception of historical struggle and contestation than say, Frederick Douglass, who contained in his worldview the belief that struggle would lead to progress.

But I don't think that adopting that negative image of American exceptionalism—America, the exceptional evil—is politically powerful or intellectually persuasive. I much prefer a narrative that centers both struggle and transformation on all sides, and that, as you said, leaves room for future struggles and future possibilities–because I think they are out there. And if we deny them, then we're not going to be in a position to influence them when they do happen.


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