What we don't know about history hurts our politics

  • 3 March 2017
  • NormanL
What we don't know about history hurts our politics

You might have seen the videos on late night TV of interviews with average folks who are asked about current events or famous people. The bits that get aired, more often than not, show people have little idea what's going on in the wider world. And it's worse if they are asked about historical events, concepts, or people. We laugh, and move on. But this historical illiteracy is no laughing matter -- it is one of the things fueling our ever worsening political discource:

To make sense of contemporary policy debates, you need a certain amount of perspective. If you lack that perspective, you can be more susceptible to overreaction and partisan hysteria.

Take the issue of executive power and national security. If you don’t know what Lincoln did during the Civil War (suspend habeas corpus), what Woodrow Wilson did during World War I (severely restrict civil liberties), or what Franklin Roosevelt did during World War II (put Japanese Americans in internment camps), it’s hard to have any real perspective on the actions that George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and now Donald Trump have taken in the war against Islamic terrorism.

Likewise, if you don’t know the history of federal immigration law, and if you aren’t aware of what Jimmy Carter did during the Iranian hostage crisis (“invalidate all visas issued to Iranian citizens for future entry into the United States”), it’s hard to have any real perspective on Trump’s push for a temporary travel ban from several countries in the Greater Middle East.

Similarly, if you don’t know just how much America’s violent-crime rate skyrocketed between the early 1960s and the early 1990s (the increase from 1961 to 1991 was a staggering 380 %), and if you don’t know just how devastating the crack-cocaine epidemic was to inner-city communities, it’s hard to have any real perspective on “mass incarceration.”

Finally, if you don’t know the full history of race and race relations in our society, and if you don’t know how that history compares with the experiences of other countries around the world, it’s hard to have any real perspective on the progress America has made in reducing racial inequality.

Response Action Network readers are a more historically-minded bunch. You read, you discuss, you learn, and you engage. Those habits help strengthen the fabric of our civic life. But too many people have no time, or no inclination, to do what you do.

That's a big problem. There's no easy fix, but we urge you to keep up the good work you're already doing, because it might convince someone you know to put down the TV remote, and pick up a book (we have reviewed several here).

And in the weeks ahead, be on the lookout for our next series of quizes -- on the Bill of Rights, and on American political history. Start studying now!

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