Mike Lee’s bad history: Utah senator’s book is an ignorant hodgepodge concocted to justify the modern GOP

Roundup
tags: Founding Fathers, Mike Lee, Written Out of History



Andrew Burstein is the Charles P. Manship Professor of History at Louisiana State University and coauthor with Nancy Isenberg of "Madison and Jefferson."  His latest book is "Democracy’s Muse: How Thomas Jefferson Became an FDR Liberal, a Reagan Republican, and a Tea Party Fanatic, All the While Being Dead."  Nancy Isenberg is the T. Harry Williams Professor of History at Louisiana State University and coauthor with Andrew Burstein of "Madison and Jefferson."  Her latest book is "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America."

As the year 2017 opened, we wrote in Salon of the dangerous disconnect between ideals and reality when Americans cast themselves as a moral community. Every nation struggles to do the same. The question is how people react and what people do with the messages they receive. You’re only screwed, we concluded, if you allow lies about our history to stand. Like taking the GOP at its word when it says it has always represented “fiscal conservatism” and will act honorably to curb “government overreach.” It has done neither.

Lies linger. Or, to put it another way, they don’t bother enough people who vote. We submit that today’s Republican Party is vainly searching for something to believe in, because its backers honestly do not know what it stands for, other than Wall Street and the super-rich. Smug indifference to human suffering and injustice has been the calling card of the “family values” party for far too long. Right now, the GOP is waking up to the possibility that the con can’t go on forever. It’s looking for a viable direction, and, as usual, it’s looking backward.

In steps Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, an unapologetic Ted Cruz supporter during the 2016 Republican primary campaign (and something of a Donald Trump skeptic). He is circulating a new book that professes to deconstruct historians’ work on the relationship between the vision of America’s founders and modern ways of governance. It is a bad book, ideologically driven, as one expects, but also historically flawed. It deserves to be exposed for what it is. 

In “Written Out of History: The Forgotten Founders Who Fought Big Government,” a derivative book of vignettes, Lee asserts that the dissent from centralized power was strong at the time of the republic’s founding. Well, it was. This may all be new to the senator, but historians have been dissecting federalist vs. antifederalist strains of thought for generations; for the context he lacks, Lee would do well to start with Fordham professor Saul Cornell’s captivating study of the subject, The Other Founders” (1999). Cornell presents “the dissenting tradition,” as it’s termed, in a way that shows readers that antifederalism is not the exclusive province of modern Republicans — not even close. Lee ignores this book. Indeed, he ignores the best work of professional historians (with a few exceptions) and looks to a disconnected hodgepodge from which to construct his America.

First, Lee professes to be “channeling voices from the past,” which, to our minds, is another way of saying “making shit up.” In a feat of sophistry and contortion, he connects a piece of legislation he sponsored in 2015 to the heroic tradition of Massachusetts revolutionary James Otis, circa 1775. Pretty silly. Wherever he turns, Lee heralds those whom he imagines “understood the importance of keeping the government out of Americans’ private and commercial lives.”  ...




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