It is said that history is written by the victors. Maybe so, but in the United States over the last century, history has largely been written by the liberals. This inevitably leads to bias, which inevitably operates on even the most impartial of minds. While most historians try to be fair and judicious, the fact that the overwhelming majority of them are on the left generates an inexorable tilt to the American historical narrative.
It is often subtle, but it is there -- for instance in the different ways that presidents are remembered, depending on their politics. Richard Nixon is roundly and regularly assailed for the appearance of impropriety in the Checkers Scandal. Meanwhile, LBJ has basically been forgiven for potentially cheating on his taxes. And virtually nobody remembers that FDR probably called off the IRS to protect Johnson, his loyal protégé. The same FDR vigorously pursued a tax fraud case against Andrew Mellon, whose only ostensible misdeed was serving as treasury secretary for the preceding, Republican administrations.
This tilt is similarly evident in rankings of American presidents. Take this 2010 poll of historians by Siena College. If FDR, Truman, and Wilson had been conservative or Republican, a lot of their sins -- on corruption, on race, on violating property and civil rights -- would weigh much more heavily upon them. By the same token, William McKinley, Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, and Gerald Ford are underestimated -- likely because they refused to grow the national leviathan at the “appropriate” pace.
In other words, bias often gets down to which facts are emphasized and which are downplayed, or ignored altogether.
And bias is not exclusive to presidential history. As I point out in my new book, A Republic No More: Big Government and the Rise of American Political Corruption, the expansion of the state is largely celebrated by (mostly liberal) historians, yet its vices tend to be ignored.
Most mainstream historians celebrate myriad government expansions as good, right, and utterly necessary. The more power that is centralized in Washington, D.C., especially in the office of the president, the better. What I have found, however, is that those “wondrous” moments of state expansion are often followed … several years down the road, of course … by a phenomenon that gets left out of the mainstream story: political corruption.
It is the liberal cocoon that is wrapped around American history. And it is not spun through intentional deceit, nor are facts distorted. It is the inevitable bias of human beings to value certain facts over other facts. That is how we all work; liberals are no exception.
A recent example of this tendency is found in an essay in the New Yorker by Princeton historian Julian Zelizer, describing the passage of Medicare. In writing my book, I had occasion to study Medicare in some detail, and I can aver that each of Zelizer’s points is factually correct. It is his frame with which I disagree, because certain facts are excluded in service of that narrative.
Zelizer’s telling of Medicare’s enactment is fairly conventional. If you’ve read anything about the history of the program, you’ll know the story, which often reads like one of the fairy tales I read to my little boy. In the 1940s, good liberals were acutely concerned about providing health care through the federal government. Yet time and again they were thwarted by bad conservatives and selfish interest groups like the American Medical Association (AMA). Poor Harry Truman and John Kennedy wanted to make it happen, but they just couldn’t pull it off. Enter LBJ. With loads of grit and plenty of determination -- leavened by just the right amount of Southern folksiness! -- LBJ finally moved the wheel of history a little closer to its final destination. Huzzah!
Two important points are often left out of the story.