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History has its claims but is subject to political abuse

David Adler
March 21, 2013
Idaho Statesman

The widespread practice among America's - and Idaho's - politicians of invoking history to galvanize support for their positions reflects an old, familiar and time-honored practice. But it is a double-edged sword and can lead to ridicule and embarrassment if history is misrepresented or abused. Consider, for example, the recent missteps of two members of the Idaho Legislature, Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll and Rep. Brent Crane.

Sen. Nuxoll was rightly criticized early in the legislative session for her ill-conceived comparison of what she perceived to be insurance companies' subjugation to the federal government under the Affordable Health Care Act to the horrific treatment and deportment of Jews to concentration camps during the Holocaust. A week ago, in the context of legislative debate over the proposed state health care exchange, Rep. Crane sought to win support by invoking the courage of Rosa Parks, for what he mistakenly claimed was her opposition to federal oppression and denial of civil rights. As he subsequently learned, Ms. Parks was confronting state segregation laws - enacted in the name of states' rights - which relegated African-Americans to second-class citizenship.

The remarks of our legislators represent a disservice to the historical importance of the Holocaust and the civil rights movement. They represent, as well, a disservice to the cause of historically informed debate and illustrate the critical need to enhance and promote civic education.

These episodes reflect the perils of politically motivated references to history. Sen. Nuxoll's error was one of proportionality, context and integrity. Rep. Crane's mistake reflected a shallow, fleeting memory of the efforts of a heroic figure and the problem of exaggeration. Both misrepresentations are reminders, moreover, of the responsibility incumbent upon elected officials to engage in discussion and debate on grounds of facts, evidence and knowledge - the cornerstones of Republican decision-making.

Misleading statements and distortions can border on demagoguery, which undercuts the premise of government based on the consent of the people. Genuine consent can hardly be obtained through falsehoods posing as persuasion.

History, of course, has its claims. Since Aristotle, writers and political activists have viewed history as a vast treasure trove of knowledge, a repository of wisdom and guidance in all realms of decision-making. Historical perspective, as Lincoln and Churchill were acutely aware, distinguishes leadership, provides context, informs action and marshals the past onto the battlefield of politics. Invocation of history has been a commonplace for Americans since the dawn of the republic.

American colonists perceived in the corrupt practices and laws of England the specter of the decline and fall of the Roman republic - the loss of ancient liberties and the rise of an imperious executive - and rallied their countrymen in the cause of revolution. The collapse of Roman republicanism, in fact, haunted Americans and animated discussions about civic engagement, public scrutiny of governmental actions and the maintenance of liberty.

The well-heeled belief that we can learn from history is inspired by the fact that issues of government, law and politics are perennial. Since our first stirrings as a nation, citizens have argued endlessly about the role and purpose of government and the parameters of liberty and authority. Contestants in these debates seek to ground their positions in historical events, axioms and declarations, and they draw upon the magic of names like Washington, Jefferson and King.

Invocation of a hallowed name or historical event of great magnitude and long-lasting importance parallel to one's cause is a political practice that is virtually irresistible and universal. On occasion, it may be conclusive. But the reckless and irresponsible use of history, particularly distortion that borders on demagoguery, undermines the civic dialogue on which the health and vitality of the republic depends. Let us gently suggest to our representatives - both Democrats and Republicans - that knowledge of history is only a phone call away, housed in the universities that they fund.

David Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus professor of public affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy. He has lectured nationally and internationally on the Constitution and the presidency.

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