History as a Political Tool

NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts talks with Steve Inskeep about how the Republican and Democratic parties use history to define themselves and the political landscape.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week on MORNING EDITION we've been looking at the history behind our political debates. We've also learned how the past seems to change over time.

ROBERT HARRIS (Author, “Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome”): It's like looking at a range of mountains. And the first time you see them, they look one way. But then time changes, the pattern of light shifts, maybe you've moved slightly - your perspective has changed. The mountains are the same, but they look very different. And that, it seems to me, is history.

INSKEEP: That's a novelist who told us this week about parallels between today's America and the Roman Empire. This week we've also found out about the way that schoolbooks from different eras gave different explanations for the same war. And we've traced what the founding fathers really believed about religion and public life.

That brings us to our final conversation. NPR's Cokie Roberts joins us to explain American history as portrayed by the political parties. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve. What a good concept.

INSKEEP: Oh, well, thank you very much. I should mention, for those who aren't familiar, that your family is from the South; that both your parents served as Democrats in Congress from Louisiana. And I wonder, what are the stories that you learned about the Democratic Party growing up in the south?

ROBERTS: Well, of course, in the olden days, the Democratic Party, I'm sorry to say, was the segregationist party. That was not true of either of my parents, who were very brave on the subject of civil rights. But the fact is that the Republican Party, when I was a little girl, was the party of Lincoln. And when you looked at Republican conventions on TV, when they started being televised when I was about four, you saw black faces representing the Southern delegations.

That all changed with the civil rights bills of the ‘60s, and the Democratic Party then became the party of inclusion and integration. Before that, its main storyline was really the party of populism - Roosevelt's party. It was the party that was trying to get people jobs and expand the government into the welfare state.

INSKEEP: So you had this party in the South that portrayed itself as looking after the little guy - at least the little white guy - and that had defended the South, or been seen as defending the South, ever since the civil war. How did Republicans then, in recent decades, begin to construct a different history that could supersede that, because Republicans dominate in the South now?

ROBERTS: Essentially, it's all about race. The Republican Party quite consciously in the period after the civil rights bills of the ‘60s said, okay, there are going to be a lot of disaffected whites in the South who are mad at the Democratic Party. Let's get them. Then the Democrats played into those hands by seeming to be the party that was against religion, supporting the Supreme Court in its rulings about school prayer and then abortion, of course; and appearing to be the party of the universities; of the odd people in Hollywood - from the perspective of a lot of down home people in the South -and lost a lot of its roots.

INSKEEP: In addition to that issue of race, did Republicans then construct their own history, basically saying this was a fundamentally conservative, religious country and it's been Democrats who've been trying to tack away from that history?

ROBERTS: Absolutely. And Democrats gave them plenty of ammunition. I remember being at the 1972 Democratic Convention. It was the convention that nominated George McGovern in Miami. And the delegates were dressed in such a way that my mother turned to me and said, why would somebody wear shorts that short? My father-in-law, looking at it and saying, I don't recognize anybody who looks like me - even though he was a liberal Democrat. So people who were conservatives looking at the Democratic Party said, that's not me.

And then, with Ronald Reagan, the Republicans really moved into the area of saying, we are the party of prosperity. That the Democrats stopped being the party of the little people as Republicans said, we're going to get the government off your backs and get your tax dollars back into your pocket.

INSKEEP: I think of occasions where Republican leaders have reached back and said, American history was going great up to a certain point and is now moving off track. Ronald Reagan indicated that he wished he could go back to the 1920s when Calvin Coolidge was president. Newt Gingrich spoke about how everything went wrong in the 1960s.

ROBERTS: The truth is that in the 1960s, a lot of people who had not been included in American democracy became included. And that was true for African Americans and it was true for women. At the same time that there's a certain nostalgia for the way things were, the way things were was under a power structure that left out a whole lot of people.

INSKEEP: It sounds like you're telling me, there, the basic Democratic storyline of the last couple of generations - that things have generally been moving in the right direction, and if only things could move a little further in that direction.

ROBERTS: But they have to be careful about that storyline, because change is hard and people don't appreciate change at the time that it's happening, for the most part. And so, you can't denigrate the old while trying to push for and embrace the new. And that has been a problem that the Democrats have failed to understand over the recent decades.

INSKEEP: Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, and still very prominent, liked to compare his beliefs with Thomas Jefferson. What are some other founding fathers that prominent politicians have identified themselves with?

ROBERTS: Thomas Jefferson is the one that most people identify with, because he wrote so much and he is so ambiguous that you really can find almost anything to support your view. Bob Byrd, the great historian of the Senate and the longest-serving member of the Senate, always goes back to - is Jefferson's view that you shouldn't pass debt on to the next generation. Now, of course, he did it with the Louisiana Purchase, but the fact is that that's the best thing for current lawmakers to cite when they are trying to deal with relevant legislation.

INSKEEP: How much do politicians rely on history to back up their ideas for the present?

ROBERTS: History is very useful to politicians, and they try to use it to tell people what they're doing comes from the mainstream of American folklore and American idealism. There's a reason for that, which is that our country doesn't have another storyline. We're not all one religion, we're not all one race, we didn't all come from the same place. The only thing we have that really binds us together as a nation is the Constitution and the institutions that it created. So when the politicians want to talk about what it is to be an American, they hark back to our beginnings of history, because that is the thing that created us and continues to bind us together.

INSKEEP: NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good to talk with you again.

ROBERTS: Good to be with you, Steve.

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