When American History Turns Into American Mythology

In the realm of folklore and ancient traditions, myths are tales forever retold for their wisdom and underlying truths. Their impossibility is part of their appeal; few would pause to debunk the physics of Icarus’s wings before warning against flying too close to the sun.

In the worlds of journalism and history, however, myths are viewed as pernicious creatures that obscure more than they illuminate. They must be hunted and destroyed so that the real story can assume its proper perch. Puncturing these myths is a matter of duty and an assertion of expertise. “Actually”becomes an honored adverb.

I can claim some experience in this effort, not as a debunker of myths but as a clearinghouse for them. When I served as the editor of The Washington Post’s Sunday Outlook section several years ago, I assigned and edited dozens of “5 Myths” articles in which experts tackled the most common fallacies surrounding subjects in the news. This regular exercise forced me to wrestle with the form’s basic challenges: How entrenched and widespread must a misconception be to count as an honest-to-badness myth? What is the difference between a conclusive debunking and a conflicting interpretation? And who is qualified to upend a myth or disqualified from doing so?

These questions came up frequently as I read “Myth America: Historians Take On the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past,” a collection published this month and edited by Kevin M. Kruse and Julian E. Zelizer, historians at Princeton. The book, which the editors describe as an “intervention” in long-running public discussions on American politics, economics and culture, is an authoritative and fitting contribution to the myth-busting genre — authoritative for the quality of the contributions and the scope of its enterprise, fitting because it captures in one volume the possibilities and pitfalls of the form. When you face down so many myths in quick succession, the values that underpin the effort grow sharper, even if the value of myths themselves grows murkier. All of our national delusions should be exposed, but I’m not sure all should be excised. Do not some myths serve a valid purpose?

Several contributors to “Myth America” successfully eviscerate tired assumptions about their subjects. Carol Anderson of Emory University discredits the persistent notion of extensive voter fraud in U.S. elections, showing how the politicians and activists who claim to defend “election integrity” are often seeking to exclude some voters from the democratic process. Daniel Immerwahr of Northwestern University puts the lie to the idea that the United States historically has lacked imperial ambitions; with its territories and tribal nations and foreign bases, he contends, the country is very much an empire today and has been so from the start. And after reading Lawrence B. Glickman’s essay on “White Backlash,” I will be careful of writing that a civil-rights protest or movement “sparked” or “fomented” or “provoked” a white backlash, as if such a response is instinctive and unavoidable. “Backlashers are rarely treated as agents of history, the people who participate in them seen as bit players rather than catalysts of the story, reactors rather than actors,” Glickman, a historian at Cornell, writes. Sometimes the best myth-busting is the kind that makes you want to rewrite old sentences.

The collection raises worthy arguments about the use of history in the nation’s political discourse, foremost among them that the term “revisionist history” should not be a slur. “All good historical work is at heart ‘revisionist’ in that it uses new findings from the archives or new perspectives from historians to improve, to perfect — and yes, to revise — our understanding of the past,” Kruse and Zelizer write. Yet, this revisionist impulse at times makes the myths framework feel somewhat forced, an excuse to cover topics of interest to the authors.

Sarah Churchwell’s enlightening chapter on the evolution of “America First” as a slogan and worldview, for instance, builds on her 2018 book on the subject. But to address the topic as a myth, Churchwell, a historian at the University of London, asserts that Donald Trump’s invocation of “America First” in the 2016 presidential race was “widely defended as a reasonable foreign policy doctrine.” (Her evidence is a pair of pieces by the conservative commentators Michael Barone and Michael Anton.)

In his essay defending the accomplishments of the New Deal, Eric Rauchway of the University of California, Davis, admits that the policy program’s alleged failure “is not a tale tightly woven into the national story” and that “perhaps myth seems an inappropriate term.” He does believe the New Deal’s failure is a myth worth exploding, of course, but acknowledges that there are “many analytical categories of falsehood.” The admission deserves some kudos, but it also might just be right.

In Kruse’s chapter on the history of the “Southern Strategy” — the Republican Party’s deliberate effort to bring white Southerners to its side as the Democratic Party grew more active in support of civil rights — the author allows that “only recently have conservative partisans challenged this well-established history.” This singling out of conservatives is not accidental. In their introduction, Kruse and Zelizer argue that the growth of right-wing media platforms and the Republican Party’s declining “commitment to truth” have fostered a boom in mythmaking. “Efforts to reshape narratives about the U.S. past thus became a central theme of the conservative movement in general and the Trump administration in particular,” they write.

The editors note the existence of some “bipartisan” myths that transcend party or ideology, but overwhelmingly, the myths covered in “Myth America” originate or live on the right. In an analysis that spans 20 chapters, more than 300 pages and centuries of American history and public discourse, this emphasis is striking. Do left-wing activists and politicians in the United States never construct and propagate their own self-affirming versions of the American story? If such liberal innocence is real, let’s hear more about it. If not, it might require its own debunking.

One of those bipartisan myths, typically upheld by politicians of both major parties, is the ur-myth of the nation: American exceptionalism. In his essay on the subject, David A. Bell, another Princeton historian, can be dismissive of the term. “Most nations can be considered exceptional in one sense or another,” he writes. Today, the phrase is typically deployed as a “cudgel”in the country’s culture wars, Bell contends, a practice popularized by politicians like Newt Gingrich, who has long hailed the United States as “the most unique civilization in history” and assails anyone who does not bow before the concept. “For Gingrich, demonstrating America’s exceptionality has always mattered less than denouncing the Left for not believing in it,” Bell writes.

When exploring earlier arguments about America’s unique nature, Bell touches on John Winthrop’s 17th-century sermon “Model of Christian Charity,” in which the future governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that the Puritan community would be “as a city on a hill” (a line that President Ronald Reagan expanded centuries later to a “shining city upon a hill”). The reference is obligatory in any discussion of American exceptionalism, though Bell minimizes the relevance of the lay sermon to the exceptionalism debates, both because the text “breathed with agonized doubt” about whether the colonists could meet the challenge and because the sermon “remained virtually unknown until the 19th century.”

It is an intriguing assumption, at least to this non-historian, that the initial obscurity of a speech (or a book or an argument or a work of any kind) would render it irrelevant, no matter how significant it became to later generations. It is the same attitude that Akhil Reed Amar, a law professor at Yale and the author of a chapter on myths surrounding the Constitution, takes toward Federalist No. 10. James Madison’s essay “foreshadowed much of post-Civil War American history,” Amar writes, in part for its argument that the federal government would protect minority rights more effectively than the states, “but in 1787-1788, almost no one paid attention to Madison’s masterpiece.” Unlike other Federalist essays that resonated widely during the debates over constitutional ratification, Amar writes, No. 10 “failed to make a deep impression in American coffeehouses and taverns where patrons read aloud and discussed both local and out-of-town newspapers.” Alas, Mr. Madison, your piece was not trending, so we’re taking it off history’s home page.

To his credit, Amar is consistent in privileging immediate popular reactions in his historical assessments. He criticizes the argument of Charles Beard’s 1913 book, “An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution,” that the Constitution was an antidemocratic document. “If the document was truly antidemocratic, why did the People vote for it?” Amar asks. “Why did tens of thousands of ordinary working men enthusiastically join massive pro-constitutional rallies in Philadelphia and Manhattan?” Even just in the aftermath of the 2020 election and the Capitol assault of Jan. 6, however, it seems clear that people in a free society can be rallied to democratic and anti-democratic causes, with great enthusiasm, if they come to believe such causes are righteous.

Other contributors to “Myth America” are more willing to squint at the first impressions of the past. In a chapter minimizing the transformational impact of the Reagan presidency, Zelizer laments how “the trope that a ‘Reagan Revolution’ remade American politics has remained central to the national discourse,” even though it “has been more of a political talking point than a description of reality.” (Reminder: Calling them “tropes” or “talking points” is an effective shorthand way to dismiss opposing views.) When Zelizer looks back on a collection of historians’ essays published in 1989, just months after Reagan left office, and which argued that Reagan’s 1980 victory was “the end of the New Deal era,” he does not hesitate to pass judgment on his professional colleagues. “Even a group of historians was swept up by the moment,” he writes.

Here, proximity to an earlier historical era renders observers susceptible to transient passions, not possessors of superior insights. If so, perhaps an essay collection of American myths that is published shortly after the Trump presidency also risks being swept up by its own moment. (Incidentally, that 1989 book, edited by the historians Steve Fraser and Gary Gerstle and titled “The Rise and Fall of the New Deal Order, 1930-1980,” shares one contributor with “Myth America.” Michael Kazin, take a bow.)

Zelizer writes that the notion of a revolutionary Reagan era did not emerge spontaneously but was “born out of an explicit political strategy” aimed at exaggerating both conservative strength and liberal weakness. This is another recurring conclusion of “Myth America” — that many of our national mythologies are not the product of good-faith misunderstandings or organically divergent viewpoints that become entrenched over time, but rather of deliberate efforts at mythmaking. The notions that free enterprise is inseparable from broader American freedoms, that voting fraud is ubiquitous, that the feminist movement is anti-family — in this telling, they are myths peddled or exaggerated, for nefarious purposes, by the right.

But in his essay on American exceptionalism, Bell adds in passing an idea somewhat subversive to the project of “Myth America,” and it separates this book from standard myth-quashing practices. After writing that narratives about America’s exceptional character were long deployed to justify U.S. aggression abroad and at home, Bell posits that notions of exceptionalism “also highlighted what Americans saw as their best qualities and moral duties, giving them a standard to live up to.”

Bell does not suggest that the belief in American exceptionalism fulfills this latter role today; to the contrary, its politicization has rendered the term vacuous and meaningless. “The mere notion of being exceptional can do very little to inspire Americans actually to be exceptional,” he writes. Still, Bell has opened a door here, even if just a crack. National myths can be more than conspiratorial, self-serving lies spread for low, partisan aims. They can also be aspirational.

American aspiration, idealism and mythology have mingled together from the start. In her 2018 one-volume American history, “These Truths,” Jill Lepore wrote eloquently of those self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence — political equality, natural rights, popular sovereignty — that the country never ceases to claim yet always struggles to uphold. It is the argument, often made by former President Barack Obama, that America becomes a more perfect union when it attempts to live up to its ideals and mythologies, even if it often fails. The tension between myth and reality does not undermine America. It defines it.

In his best book, “American Politics: The Promise of Disharmony,” published in 1981, the political scientist Samuel Huntington distills the tension in his final lines: “Critics say that America is a lie because its reality falls so short of its ideals. They are wrong. America is not a lie; it is a disappointment. But it can be a disappointment only because it is also a hope.” The authors and editors of “Myth America” do plenty to discredit the lies and reveal the disappointments, as they well should. Reimagining myth as aspiration can be a task for historians, but it is not theirs alone.

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