We live in a time of heightened political passion and conflict. As populist tides are on the rise, our national political institutions have become increasingly dysfunctional. The federal government’s unwillingness to address our biggest challenges repeatedly reminds us of that. Politicians of both major parties are loath to accept responsibility; rather, the game is to blame others — Mexico, Iran and China, for example, even Canada and our long-time European allies.
This state of affairs has gone on for so long that books now regularly appear with titles such as: “I’ll Winds”; “Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone”; “How Democracies Die.” So too with articles: “How American Politics Went Insane”; “Why American Democracy is Broken”; “The End of Democracy in America.”
How to bring perspective to this? To begin with, surely we need a sense of history. Not as easy as it may sound, however. Reports disclose that few elementary school teachers place a high priority on teaching history, and that among high school students only 20 percent achieve proficiency in U.S. history. It’s discomforting to read that that at this time of political correctness, teachers fear offending anyone, especially in communities with vocal parents.
In higher education, according to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, of the 75 top American universities and liberal arts colleges, less than a third require students to take a class in American history. It’s difficult to fully appreciate the preciousness of our individual rights and privileges without knowing how rare and fragile they have been in the sweep of human history. Polls reveal that a third of American adults cannot name the three branches of government. In these circumstances, how effective can citizens be in evaluating the tasks before them?
It is not the fault of leading textbooks in U.S. history. I’ve used several, including “The American People: Creating a Nation and a Society,” by Gary Nash et al. They are excellent, with solid commentary. In addition to maps and diagraphics, they include passages from primary sources, such as founding documents and Supreme Court decisions.
One recent effective response to our lack of historical knowledge amid the presence of political dysfunction is a remarkable study of American history published just two months ago, “Land of Hope: An Interpretation to the Great American Story,” by Wilfred M. McClay. With “hope” and “great” in the title, one senses right off that inspiring moments in our history will be included and that the author will, whenever possible, avoid employing present standards to indict the past.
Today many are careful when touching on religion, but McClay gives full credit to the role it has played in shaping the American character. President Lincoln looked deep within to seek “God’s providential will” amidst the horror of civil war. Religion’s role among reformers and civil rights workers is duly noted. The lucid and intelligent pages on Ralph Waldo Emerson, Transcendentalism and Unitarianism exemplify McClay’s gift for brilliant synthesis.
His fair-mindedness is on display as he highlights two of the 20th century’s most consequential presidents, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, one a champion of liberalism, the other of conservatism. We watch as Dr. New Deal transforms himself into Dr. Win-the-War and as Reagan, the “Roosevelt of the Right,” surprises Democrats by becoming a “transforming” leader, a “purveyor of hope and a prophet of possibility.”
Readers seeking an appreciative account of American history will find it here as we cope with the challenge of order in the context of individual freedom. Asked at times whether I’m an optimist or a pessimist as we face the future, my response, buttressed by historical examples such as those offered in “Land of Hope,” is that I’m a cautious optimist. There is at minimum a 50 percent chance that we will resolve our problems. But first we must make disciplined choices.
Ron Lora is professor emeritus of history at the University of Toledo.