Memory  /  Q&A

Americans Aren't Just Divided Politically, They're Divided Over History Too

Underlying current debates, says Jill Lepore, are fundamental conflicts over the meanings of the past.

MARTIN: Jill, you've written a lot about how we see our history and how that defines us. And the problem, as you see it, is we don't actually share a common understanding of our history. How so?

LEPORE: One reason is the way our politics works, and all politics works this way to one degree or another, but there's something particularly unstable about the way it works in the United States. Politics is really an argument about how we got to be where we are making that argument in order to convince people that you know how to get them to where we ought to be. So all politics is really an argument about the relationship between the past and the future. And the more polarized our politics has become, the more polarized our past.

MARTIN: Can you point to some moments in American history where the story we tell about ourselves has diverged?

LEPORE: The one that I've been really struck by over the last few years in thinking about it is the mid-1970s during and in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, which are eras that we go back to all the time because we know that there was a fracture there. But if you were to go back and look at Richard Nixon's inaugural address in January of 1973, he actually - he actually makes this argument. He says our children have been taught to be ashamed of their country. And there's this really interesting move that the Nixon administration has quite purposefully made, which is to reject the account to the American past that's coming out of universities, that's coming out of the academic world.

MARTIN: New ways of looking at history plus previously undiscovered or unreported history were emerging. That increased the unease some people felt, some of it stoked by politicians after a turbulent era. But Lepore sees irony in those reactions.

LEPORE: One of the things I think is so fascinating is that there's no country in the world that is so deeply founded on the very nature of inquiry, that we let facts speak to a candid world Jefferson writes in the Declaration of Independence. And there are moments in American history where there's just been an extraordinary amount of cynicism about that claim. It also is in real tension with the universal truths of revealed religion, and a lot of the kind of cultural wars of the 1990s were about kind of these competing notions of where we get our truth from.