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A look at how the myths of American history are being enhanced and weaponized for a partisan agenda.

Origin myths are deeply embedded in our media culture and shape everything from tech companies to public policy. 

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Julian Zelizer, a Princeton history professor and co-editor of Myth America, explains how these myths have been weaponized by some to advance their agendas. 

He details how layers of myth can obscure actual events, leading to a distorted understanding of history and, as a result, shaping bad policy going forward. 

Zelizer highlights a multitude of erroneous but widely held notions, including, for example, that Native Americans have not made significant contributions to American history, that the Southern border is a porous gateway for dangerous immigrants, that socialism is an imported ideology, that the New Deal and Great Society programs were unsuccessful, that voter fraud is a common occurrence, and that feminism seeks to dismantle the American family.

Zelizer emphasizes the importance of bringing a nuanced appreciation of history back into the public conversation about policy and values. He also underscores the critical role of historians  in dispelling misinformation and delineating the many layers of myths that complicate our understanding of history 

Today, historical myths are being perpetuated as part of a partisan project, compounding the problems we face.


The cartoon above was created by DonkeyHotey for WhoWhatWhy from these images: Sarah Ewart / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0), WallpapersWide.com / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0), Angelique Johnson / Pixabay, Joe Rosenthal / Wikimedia, Jackie Williamson / Pixabay, Richard Masters / Wikimedia,and Gs970 / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0).


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Full Text Transcript:

(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)

Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. We tend to think of misinformation and disinformation today as simply lies we are being fed. The reality is far different. In almost every aspect of our media culture today, we understand the idea of founding origin myths.

They drive every new thing in company coming from Silicon Valley, for example, and it drives all the comings and goings of today’s celebrity culture. It also drives nations, including ours. Most people’s idea of America is not built on a foundation of historical facts but on a collection of stories and myths that give shape to what we’ve come to accept by some group consensus as the American narrative.

Today’s purveyors of misinformation understand this only too well. They understand how to take the kernels of those narratives and myths that we already believe and weave them together with what they want us to believe and think.

Over time, layers and layers of myth build up until the real history vanishes far off into the distance.

It becomes clear that until that real history comes back into the foreground and comes into focus, we will never be able to tackle the real problems that we face as a nation and as a society. That’s why a new book Myth America co-edited by my guest, Julian Zelizer, is so important. It attempts to bring history back, hopefully to provide a common language to meet today’s challenges.

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton and the author and editor of numerous books, including Burning Down the House Fault Lines and An Examination of the Presidency of Jimmy Carter. It is my pleasure to welcome Julian Zelizer here to the WhoWhatWhy podcast to talk about Myth America: Historians’ Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. Julian, thanks so much for joining us.

Julian Zelizer: Thanks for having me. It’s great to be with you.

Jeff: Well, it’s great to have you here. Is not one of the underlying problems that we face today with respect to disinformation and so many of these myths that you talk about in the book and that some of these other historians point out that so much of the founding mythology of America has become what we take for real history?

Julian: No, I think that’s true. I think there’s a conflation both with founding myths but also myths about what happened since the founding. And you hear them so much: They’re repeated so much, often in the classroom, that people have trouble distinguishing between what we know about a very complicated history and how this nation actually evolves with what you hear — almost historical talking points. And they become problematic. They undermine our understanding of this country, and they also make it harder for us to deal and address the problems that still exist.

Jeff: And one of the things they do is they allow for weaponization by those that want to use them to put forth a different narrative.

Julian: Yes, that’s exactly right. And we’ve seen more of this in recent years, although it’s always been part of the history. During the early Cold War, for example, liberals were often attacked, and ideas about where liberalism stood in this country, where socialism stood in this country, were used as part of a cudgel. But it’s really intensified in recent years to the point that history itself is becoming such a contentious topic.

And you have many states trying to legislate what you can or can’t teach in the classroom. The former president had set up the 1776 Commission which was meant to promote “patriotic education.” Recently, Governor Huckabee of Arkansas has been talking about the same kind of issues. So it really can have pernicious effects.

Jeff: And one of the things that seems to happen is that these stories get layered on and layered on over time and as you say, more so lately, so that it’s almost impossible to bring into focus the real history that might be valuable to us in trying to solve problems.

Julian: No, it’s true. When we had all these recent debates about Confederate monuments, which became really heated, and they were at the center of the terrible events at Charlottesville, you would often hear so many claims about how these monuments were simply an effort to respect the history of the South as a region, that they came into place after the Civil War to commemorate just part of the country rather than commemorating racism or slavery.

And so we have an essay by a historian, Karen Cox, who just shows that the myth of the lost cause, which is interwoven in popular culture, film, history classes, even novels, is just not true. These were monuments that were put into place largely in the 1910s and ’20s, part of the Jim Crow era, at an effort to push back against civil rights. And we don’t disentangle these; we basically just go around saying things that are not true and legitimate decisions today that really are not moving us in the right direction.

Jeff: And it’s interesting because an example of how these get layered on is what you’re talking about with respect to these statues. And then you just move that forward a little further to Nixon’s Southern strategy, which is one of the things that are talked about in the book. And you see how layer after layer gets built up in this.

Julian: Yes, that’s a really… It’s an odd, surprising myth to be honest. And my co-editor wrote about this in his chapter, Kevin Cruz, and the Southern strategy is something that’s very well documented. Many people who were involved in the Southern strategy talked about it either at the time or in retrospect. And it was basically, as Democrats moved toward a stance on civil rights, more positive stance, embracing legislation in the 1960s, Republicans who had not been part of the South and really were absent force there, started to try to appeal to Southern white voters by playing on opposition to civil rights.

And this was at the heart of the Southern strategy. Richard Nixon deployed this. Conservatives really, since that period, have repeatedly talked about this. Lee Atwater, who was a campaign adviser who famously used this to help win votes for the GOP, he talked about this in an interview. But recently there’s been this, primarily in the media, effort to say never happened; that Republicans never did, that Democrats were the only party embedded in racism. And that’s just not true. The record doesn’t match that.

And most historians would tell you that instinctively, it wouldn’t take much because it’s been studied so much. And so we have this chapter by Cruz that really demonstrates the Southern strategy was very real. It was very extensive, and it was at the heart of how the GOP was remade since the ’60s.

Jeff: Talk about the frustration that historians feel with respect to this because it’s not a question of unraveling history and getting to the finer points of what history may tell us, but first, it requires peeling away so many layers of falsehoods.

Julian: That’s right. It’s one thing to have debates about how do you interpret a period, how do you interpret the facts that we have. We do that all the time. That is what historians do. That’s what we teach our students to do. There’s no one final version; you debate the versions. But that’s very different than contending with a world where things that are just not connected to what we know are gaining as much currency as the best historical research out there. And that really was the basis of a lot of the book.

Including, right now, the way in which some legislatures in the states are trying to force students and force teachers to have a vision or understanding of the US, which, again, isn’t something that we can be debating but just wiping out key parts of the history that we understand, and it’s enormously frustrating. And really, in the book, that’s what we’re trying to do. We gathered historians who put together scholarship in short, fun essays but put together scholarship that has been building for decades. Many historians have worked through these issues in presenting what we actually know. So it’s a great source of frustration.

Jeff: And it’s not just distant history, it’s even contemporary history. You talk about the Reagan mythology, and that’s something that we all existed in all of our lifetime, and still there’s so much falsehood that surrounds it.

Julian: No, it’s true. In my essay, I try to take this idea of a Reagan revolution, meaning that in 1981, the nation is just totally remade. Reagan is loved by the whole country. Conservatism sweeps through the nation and liberalism is gone. It’s banished. And that myth is powerful because it says a lot about where we are today. But many people living through the 1980s, and certainly those of us also studying it, remember [unintelligible 00:10:08] The Reagan revolution was actually an idea that Reagan officials used to try to create the sense of a mandate. Liberalism was also important in the 1980 [unintelligible 00:10:22] social security concerns about nuclear war were very much part of the national fabric. And Reagan was an incredibly controversial and divisive president.

There were many people in the country who just didn’t like him, many members of Congress who fought tooth and nail against what he was doing. Governor Mario Cuomo, for everyone living through that period, made a powerful speech in 1984 really attacking how Reagan envisioned this country. So to use the Reagan revolution, pretty contemporary history doesn’t actually capture the decade or the decade that follows.

Jeff: Talk about what you see with respect to how that happens. That was an era before social media, even before 24/7 news cycles. What was it that made that mythology around Reagan so effective that so many people still buy into it today?

Julian: Part of it was the administration was very good at promoting it, including the president, who was one of our most charismatic leaders and an actor. And selling the myth was very important in his presidency. And I think not only did they do a good job, but conservatives have latched onto that. Even though, ironically, many conservatives were also furious with Reagan by the end of his presidency for negotiating with the Soviet Union and backing away from a lot of the domestic cuts he already promised.

So part of it was them and part of it is these myths have a power, and some of them can really stick. And it goes beyond our own memories; it goes beyond what we’re reading about. And they can almost outflank all that knowledge. And this one, in particular, is very enduring because it’s been connected to a partisan project.

Conservative movement activists have very much wanted to use Reagan, not just as a founding person in terms of the movement, but as someone who redefined what the country was about and what the country was believing in. And if you don’t think that’s actually true, then you start to question some of conservatism, then you start to appreciate a much more robust political world that existed.

Jeff: Has partisan mythology in this regard always existed, or is it just worse today?

Julian: It’s always existed. For example, after Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War where there was a great effort to reverse what slavery had done and create a more equitable country, there was a whole body of scholars for years who wrote about Reconstruction as a total disaster and about how northerners just came into the South and basically were undermining the country. And that it was really about white Northerners imposing their view not only on white Southerners but on Black Southerners. And gradually, starting with W.E.B. DuBois going through a historian who teaches at Columbia, Eric Foner, that was rebutted.

And we saw all the things Reconstruction accomplished; we understood better how it was undermined, not because it was a failure but because of Southern white resistance. And those kinds of debates always happen. I think part of what’s going on now is it’s just easier to get the disinformation or misinformation out there because of social media or a lot of television media. And part of it is there is a concerted effort by the Republicans right now to use the academy, to use the classroom as a foil, as an enemy rather than something that most parties should just be focused on nurturing.

Jeff: Although it reeks of cliché, how much of the blame lies with the way we teach history today and what people come out of school knowing about history?

Julian: It differs. Meaning, I think there’s a lot of teachers who’ve done a good job. Certainly, there’s areas we need to work on; I think there’s enough surveys showing kids don’t know basic civics and basic historical markers — they believe abolition came after the Civil War, for example — that we need to do a better job. Some of that is the investments that states are making or not making in the humanities in fields like this. It’s not simply the teachers are doing a bad job — often this isn’t supported, and we’re seeing that a lot. But there’s other ways in which I think teachers have done a great job.

They’ve taken all the things we’ve learned about race in this country and how it has been integral and interwoven into our national fabric. And if you look at a lot of textbooks and curricula, they’re talking about it. So they connect that to who’s president or who controls Congress. And so I’m still very positive on what a lot of teachers are doing. What I fear is the funding cuts will have their effect. And these politicized efforts to really purge the classroom of certain ideas are going to scare teachers away from doing a good job and actually push them into teaching a kind of history which doesn’t fit the reality.

Jeff: When you look at the totality of all of the essays and all of particularly the more contemporary ones — what is it about conservatism or about the right that seems to do a better job in terms of weaving their desired narrative into the mythology of history that already exists?

Julian: That’s a good question. Part of it, I do believe, is connected to the media, meaning I think the conservative movement has developed a much more sophisticated and powerful media infrastructure from television to social media that liberals have never achieved. And I think that puts them at an advantage at promoting these kinds of ideas. There is something about modern conservatism though, and we saw this with the former president, where there’s a greater willingness, I think, to just spread disinformation.

There’s a member of Congress who fabricated his entire life story in the Republican Party, and at this point, the fallout seems to be to grant him committee seats. And so there’s very different kinds of parties, and I do think the modern conservative movement/Republican party has decided to make education a real hotspot and to make the classroom a point of division and to pit themselves against the university, where I think a lot of liberals and democrats are comfortable still with what universities are doing, and see that information building as something that’s good for society as a whole.

Jeff: How much of it, though, is conservatism by its fundamental nature? And certainly, this has been stretched and twisted in so many ways but by its fundamental nature is looking backwards — that it relies upon a historical narrative to put forward its agenda and that liberalism and progressivism on the other side is more forward-looking. And that seems to be a fulcrum in this debate.

Julian: No, I think that’s a good point. And obviously, with things like originalism, this legal theory that’s been at the heart of the conservative legal movement that law should be based on some imagined understanding of how the founders understood the law with no change since the founding period, has been really important.

The way in which progressives and liberals do use history is they do talk about the challenges and problems that have faced the country. There’s a lot of knowledge and understanding of racial divisions, for example, or of problematic foreign policy, where I think conservatives have moved into not only emphasizing the founding in the past because conservatism is about conserving but about this idea that there’s only certain narratives that fit as patriotic, and they’re not willing to divert from those.

Jeff: What role does the Camelot myth and the Kennedy myth play in all of this?

Julian: That’s a good one, and it’s not one we really have in our book, but that’s a good example of something that is held very high. Both that’s a bipartisan myth, both the glamor and centrality of John F. Kennedy, even though in many ways he paled compared to Lyndon Johnson in terms of what actually happened. We have an essay on the Great Society.

It’s also a myth we have about presidents. I do think this country tends to see presidents as so powerful that they define an era; they define the four years in which they’re in office. They have unlimited ability to do what they want. And I think those of us who study Washington know that’s just not the case. Not only are they checked in many ways from Capitol Hill to the courts, but they also don’t necessarily define an era. The Camelot that we think of with Kennedy was very different than what was going on in the streets of Birmingham or the Delta of Mississippi. And I think that’s how that myth sometimes can skew us away from really getting a grasp of a period.

Jeff: What seems worse today, and maybe the Kennedy era was the beginning of this, is that because of the way we elect presidents today, because of the media, because the sheer force of personality and charisma becomes so important in this celebrity-driven, personality-driven culture that we live in, that personality and the narrative that a candidate creates becomes so much bigger than it did back in an early immediate era.

Julian: No, it’s true. It’s very pronounced, and we see that in most presidential elections, where they seem to turn not on the issues of the day but all of a sudden: Who do you want to have a beer with?

One of the issues that seemed important in 2000 with George W. Bush or everything that unfolded in 2016, and obviously, personality matters, the character of our leaders matter, but politics is so much more than that. 1960 wasn’t simply about a nation enamored with a glorious president and a glorious first lady, but it was also about all these tensions that were unfolding in the early Cold War about what this country should be and what its character was. And we miss it when all we do is talk about Camelot and talk about the incredible elegance and almost royal element of the Kennedy family.

Jeff: You mentioned Linda Johnson a moment ago. One of the myths, one of the things you talk about in the book is this perception that both the New Deal and the Great Society were giant failures.

Julian: Those are two really important essays. And those are myths that the New Deal did not really do anything to alleviate the problems of the Great Depression in the ’30s, and the Great Society in the ’60s was just one bad program after another that never had its intended effects. Those have become part of political conversations, meaning for a lot of conservatives, both are examples of why government programs should not be called on today to deal with different issues.

And the New Deal essay by a historian, Eric Rauchway, is pretty strong and powerful in that he has the numbers that show in the 1930s, except for one moment when we went into a temporary recession, the New Deal was lowering unemployment, exactly what it intended to do. The numbers are quite clear and not lowering it a little in dramatic ways, meaning the New Deal programs were having, in effect, public works gave jobs, and that’s how you stop unemployment.

And similarly with the Great Society, sure, there were problems, there were failed programs, but there was also an incredible plate of successful initiatives: voting rights, civil rights, Medicare and Medicaid more that not only were achieving their goals back then but continue to achieve their goals through this day. And so those are great examples of how you can take a myth about failed government in different periods, see that’s not true. And the point isn’t to say everyone has to be enamored with government today, but the point is: If you’re going to have a debate, understand when government worked, understand when it didn’t, and then start the debate rather than imagining the past where it always was failing.

Jeff: Well, one of the things you talk about is this idea that there can be consensus on what the historical reality was but still division about how that gets interpreted.

Julian: That’s exactly right. And again, that grows out of what we do as historians. We don’t expect consensus. In fact, the whole profession is built around debates and ongoing debates to try to improve our knowledge. But we always do two things, always. One is our work grows out of archival material: We go, we look at what letters, we look at statistical material, we look at memoranda, whatever we can find, oral history to really have data evidence like economists do with numbers to build our case, and then we read extensively, so we understand what other historians have found already, where are the weaknesses in their findings, what are the strengths, and then we start to have the debate.

But a lot of the debates today, neither of those are part of it, and the historians who do that work, which should be helpful rather than something people are running away from, are just not included in the conversation. And that’s what Myth America is about: bringing it back into the conversation and saying, “This book doesn’t end the debate, but let’s have a real debate, a serious one based on what we actually know.”

Jeff: And given the divisions today, given how everything we’ve talked about is so much worse today, imagine how much harder it might be for historians in the future to make sense of this period today.

Julian: There will be. I think it’s going to be incredibly difficult. There’s certain things, back to the example of Congressman Santos, which are going to be hard to explain exactly or an effort to overturn the election. But look, our job as historians, and we deal with these difficulties, we deal with the Senator McCarthys and the Cold War. We deal with the Civil War and the breakdown of our government; our job is to just keep moving forward and working hard to make sense of things that at the time, not just in retrospect, even possible to understand. And that makes the work very rewarding, not just challenging.

Jeff: Julian Zelizer, the book is Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. Julian, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us.

Julian: Thanks for having me.

Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate


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