Announcer: This is The Takeaway with Melissa Harris-Perry.
Melissa Harris-Perry: All nations have myths that lays at our foundation. These are the stories we tell ourselves to instill a sense of connection to the larger national project. America has these stories as well. Stories about the founding of the nation, like this classic from Schoolhouse Rock.
Schoolhouse Rock: [singing] And the shot heard 'round the world was the start of a revolution. The Minute Men were ready, on the move.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We have stories about our heroes and what mattered to them. Like this classic 1936 Hollywood dramatization starring John Litel as Founding Father Patrick Henry.
John Litel as Patrick Henry: I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.
Melissa Harris-Perry: These stories create important through lines of who we are, but they can also distort our understanding of history and of ourselves. They can lead to a collective forgetfulness about the wrongs we've committed, or exclude the heroes and the sheroes whose stories we rarely tell. For historians, myth often sits at an uncomfortable tension with the known historical record.
Julian Zelizer: I'm Julian Zelizer. I'm a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and co-editor of Myth America.
Kevin Kruse: My name is Kevin Kruse. I'm a professor of history of Princeton University and co-editor of Myth America.
Melissa Harris-Perry: In their new book, Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies Of Our Past, co-eds Zelizer and Kruse, along with an array of American historians, take on the tales that conflict with the complicated truth of our history. Julian, I'll start with you. I mean, aren't a few myths actually a pretty beneficial sort of social cohesion within a democracy?
Julian Zelizer: Well, the kind of myths we're talking about are really poor understandings or false understandings of American history that tie directly into a lot of public debates we have. The myths, really, that we've honed in on are things you hear about in the media, things that are often floated by politicians, and we think have a damaging effect on our discourse.
The idea was not focusing on some harmless myths that bind us, but in fact, myths that undermine our ability to have serious and substantive debates about the present, and to bring some of the best historians in the country to tell people and to help share with people what scholars have to say on a whole wide range of issues.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Kevin, walk us through some of those myths.
Kevin Kruse: Well, we've got 20 chapters in all. We certainly could have done more. There are a lot more myths than that. We wanted to get a series of people in who are both smart historians, but also great communicators, people who can write and tell a story for a general public well.
They range from myths about the Constitution and the founding generation, the very idea of American exceptionalism, the idea that Native Americans have vanished from our presence and are simply something we think about in the founding era, all the way up to modern-day myths about white backlash and insurrection and voter fraud. Things that are very much alive and well in our public discourse.
As Julian said, myths that don't bind us but they blind us. They obscure some truths and they lead us down the wrong path. We thought that they were the important ones to address.
Melissa Harris-Perry: The first essay is on exactly this issue of American exceptionalism by David Bell. Who wants to take on giving us a sense of why you started there and what this essay does?
Julian Zelizer: Well, this is such a core idea in a lot of American political life. It has been for a long time, the idea that the US is fundamentally different from all countries comparable to us, that we avoid the problems and we avoid some of the challenges and fault lines that other countries have faced. David Bell wrote really a wonderful essay, first just challenging that idea and looking at why exceptionalism is not the best framework to understand the United States and often can create misleading impressions of what did or didn't happen in this country.
Then he really shows how it is a piece of political rhetoric that's been used a lot, including by Republicans like Newt Gingrich in recent decades, for very political purposes. It explodes the idea of taking it on face value, first debunks it, and then really shows the politics of how this concept is used. We thought it was a great way to frame the book. David is a French historian, so it was also interesting to have a scholar who really focuses on other areas to take a close look at our country and the way we write about the past.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It's often also really easy, Kevin, to fall into explaining an American present exclusively through an American past. That can be useful, but it's also useful to remember we are one country in the world. Sometimes what we are seeing is actually happening in 15 different nations around the world.
Kevin Kruse: That's right, yes. It's a real danger to think that the lessons we can draw from the past to speak to the present only come from the American context. Naturally, many of them do, but there are certainly experiences that other countries have had that are really instructive. Right now, as we're trying to grapple with what does it mean to have a proto-fascist movement on the rise, well, there are other countries we can learn from there who had to deal with this and made some good moves and made some bad moves as well. I think it makes a lot of sense to look outside of our own neighborhood and think more broadly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: There is-- Kevin, I'll stick with you for a second-- your piece on the Southern Strategy. What myth are you dispelling here?
Kevin Kruse: It's the most basic of myths, which is there's been a weird insistence in the last few years on the part of some partisans on the right that the Southern Strategy simply never happened. That the Southern Strategy itself was a myth cooked up by people on the left. Now this was really the surprising news to historians and political scientists who've been writing about this as boring conventional wisdom for decades now.
My task here was simply to-- it's one of the simplest tasks in the book, which I gave myself-- was simply to say, no, actually this happened. To document the history behind it, to show the way in which Republican strategists in the '50s and '60s and even before that were actively targeting segregationist votes in the South. How political strategists in Nixon's era, Nixon himself, Goldwater, they talk about this openly and publicly.
After the era, people like Lee Atwater apologize for it, or people like Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman apologize for it. Michael Steele, another chairman, acknowledges it. The basic job of an historian, the starting point, is to detail what actually happened. That was my task in that chapter.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Let's take a quick pause. We'll be right back after the break with more on the new book, Myth America. We're back with Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse, co-editors of the new book, Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past. Julian, you decided to take on the Reagan Revolution.
Julian Zelizer: Yes, this is certainly one of the most powerful ways in which we think about United States since the '70s and the idea that in the 1980s, Reagan was simply a unifying figure who swept through the country and won a lot of the country over. Being that there's a clean shift to the right in American politics, that liberalism falls away after the period from the 1960s to 1930s to '60s.
I wanted to take both of these on. I mean, part of my essay is to show that yes, conservatism is a very powerful part of politics and succeeds in the '80s, but it's not as if liberal ideas, liberal policies, liberal institutions are erased. They remain very powerful in American political life, from the way people vote to the preferences of legislators in the House of Representatives.
I also try to show Reagan was a very divisive figure. He was incredibly polarizing. There were many people in this country who were fundamentally at odds with the direction in which he was taking the nation. By trying to show a much more nuanced understanding of how the 1980s was unfolding, I think it helps just to restore a sense of how we got to where we are today.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering if the two of you are aware that there has been a little bit of controversy in recent years about how we teach American history. I mean, I'm laughing because obviously you all know this, but you all clearly decided to walk directly into the midst of-- This isn't just an academic, intellectual, or scholarly project. This is highly political at the moment.
Kevin Kruse: Yes. In a way, it's sad that it's highly political, but that's where we are. The motivation for this came from the realization that historians have been called upon in recent years, increasingly, to push back against the fire hose of falsehoods that are coming out about the American past. They're coming out largely from the right. They're coming out largely as a way to distort the past to fit an agenda for the present. It really was pronounced in the Trump administration, but there were satellite figures hanging on that pushed it as well. We had to take it upon ourselves, really, to get involved in this, much as climate scientists feel a duty to speak out on issues of global warming or doctors about anti-vaccine nonsense.
Historians have a set of skills, a certain expertise that the general public shouldn't be expected to have. We should be ready to stand up and state clearly when lies are being told in the public sphere. There's really an audience for that out there. If we don't speak to this audience that's trying to understand the American past, well, they're going to listen to partisans who are all too ready to fill that void.
Melissa Harris-Perry: This might be too inside baseball, but help me to understand it a bit. The most recent, or another recent, very large project that is meant to be a corrective on the American myth is obviously the 1619 Project. That was staffed primarily by journalists and opinion writers, folks in media, as opposed to folks in the academy. Now obviously, there was some reliance on folks from the academy and on their research, but this collection of researchers is quite different. I'm wondering how you see Myth America as connected to or diverging from the 1619 Project.
Julian Zelizer: Yes, I was one of the few historians-- I think I might have been-- no, there were two of us, I think, in the original 1619 Project. Many more were added for the book. You're right, that was an endeavor started by journalists and some deep reading in history. I was really impressed at some of the conversations we had, people like Jamelle Bouie. Yes, its home was in the New York Times. It was really driven by journalists. This is a project that was by historians and of historians, but not for historians. It's for the general public. We've got some of the same general goals, but I think how we've gone about it is a little bit different.
The starting point for the 1619 Project was that special issue of a magazine. It's since expanded into a book with teaching tools and I'm really happy to be associated with that. This one started out as an edited collection deep on scholarship, well-built on the shoulders of all of our colleagues in the profession, and framed that way. I don't think it's really inside baseball. It's really two different paths to help the public understand these matters of history, which they are, I think, deeply curious about, and rightfully so.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I started by asking, "Aren't myths valuable in some ways?" I feel I've wrestled with this a lot since January 6th of 2021. There's clearly been an effort, an important effort, to battle myths, to do some deconstruction and valuable reconstruction of our understanding of the American project. Let me ask again about myth and whether or not there are some social-political values to maybe not getting it completely right, but telling a story that we can collectively hold onto.
Julian Zelizer: Look, there are great myths and, I think, important myths. The myths that bind us, right? There are certain patriotic values that maybe in the operation don't play out as much as we hope they would, but are still goals to aspire to. Maybe they're not myths, they're aspirations, they're ideals. If you talk about January 6th, we talk in the book about a number of myths that both shaped how that happened and how it was understood.
Carol Anderson writes about the myth of voter fraud and the sense that elections were stolen. She talks about how these myths have been pushed, bipartisans, how they've metastasized in the public sphere, and the damage they've done. January 6th is a good sign of that, or Kathleen Belew's great piece on insurrection. There were a lot of commentaries about January 6th of, "How could this happen here? How could this ever happen in America?" She shows the way in which, actually, these kind of uprisings have happened before in American history, how this isn't something brand new.
We're not trying to tear down the general ideals of Americanism. This isn't somehow an attack on patriotism, if someone might see it that way, but rather an attack on the individual myths that have distorted our understanding of what it means to be patriotic, of what it means to be a good American. We're trying to change the myths that have made it hard to understand what real patriotism looks like.
Kevin Kruse: Look, the more you understand history and the more you understand the complexities and the challenges of our past, I actually think, then, these other kinds of myths that you're talking about, the stories that help serve as aspiration, as values that actually can overcome some of the divisions, I think those actually become stronger. If they're not just based on totally false beliefs and disinformation, then we can seriously think of those ideals in a more robust way.
Look, the most famous moment for many students of the American past was Martin Luther King's speech in the March on Washington, where he does just that. He is not abandoning these ideals, whether we call them myths or aspiration, but he's grounding them in the very real, harsh reality of racism in the country, only trying to make the promise stronger. I think in some ways that's what a book like this, that's what this kind of scholarship aims to achieve.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Julian Zelizer and Kevin Kruse, co-editors of the new book, Myth America, thank you both for joining us.
Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer: Thanks for having us.
[00:15:45] [END OF AUDIO]
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