Lauren Winner

Book Notes

A critique of the Tea Party's version of American history.

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"The past haunts us all," writes Jill Lepore. "Just how is a subject of this book."

It is two days before the midterm elections, and I am sitting in Atlanta, not looking forward to the outcome two days hence, and reading Lepore (an early American historian who teaches at Harvard and writes those fabulous review essays for The New Yorker). In The Whites of Their Eyes, Lepore reviews the history of the American Revolution—in order to explore, and explode, the way the 21st-century Right uses that history. She criticizes history-according-to-the-Tea-Party on two levels. First, and unsurprisingly, she finds that the Tea Party's description of the past is simply incorrect at many turns. More interesting is Lepore's second criticism. In their asking the (unanswerable) question, "What would the Founders do?", the Tea Party invites people to have a very strange relationship with the past: "People who ask what the founders would do quite commonly declare that they know, they know, they just know what the founders would do, and, mostly, it comes to this: if only they could see us now, they would be rolling over in their graves …. We have failed to obey their sacred texts, holy writ," Lepore writes provocatively. "That's not history. It's not civil religion, the faith in democracy that binds Americans together. It's not originalism or even constitutionalism. That's fundamentalism."

Historical storytelling is not just an interesting but peripheral part of Tea Party politics. It is, Lepore contends, central to the far Right's emergence in late-20th and early-21st-century America. The Right came to prominence, Lepore argues, in part because of two happenings in the 1970s. One, the bicentennial sparked widespread interest in all things Revolutionary, and two, Richard Hofstadter died; the great Columbia University historian "would turn out to have been one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations both of the past and of his own time." American history in the Glenn Beck vein has filled the void left by Hofstadter, and, today, politicians and Tea Partiers ground their political striving in distorted accounts of the American past.

To wit, George Pataki's recent founding of a nonprofit called Revere America, whose motto is "Respecting our history. Protecting our future." Revere America aims to advance "policies rooted in our traditions of freedom and free markets that will once again make American secure and prosperous for generations to come." Lepore's bottom line, which shouldn't be controversial, is this: Pataki can support policies that prop up the free market if he wants to, but he shouldn't imagine that the colonists of the late 18th century "fought a Revolution … for the sake of free markets." (I might add that most of the Republicans we seem to be on the verge of electing don't support free markets either—they support markets in which the federal government gives enormous advantage to banks and other hubs of capital.)

Friends of mine have complained that The Whites of Their Eyes seems hastily written. This strikes me as an unilluminating criticism. The book probably was written in a sprint, as has been every other Tea Party book we have at present. In five years, Lepore can publish a new edition with a more meditatively written epilogue about the consequences of the Tea Party's use of history; for now, it's enough to have this unsettling initial analysis of the far Right's uses of the past.

Lauren Winner is an assistant professor at Duke Divinity School. For the academic year 2010-11, she is a visiting fellow at Yale's Institute for Sacred Music. Her book A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia was just published by Yale University Press.

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