American political watchers--both liberals and conservatives--have always viewed American history through an ideological lens. There's nothing new about that. Recently, however, conservatives have started doing something new. They're brazenly attempting to rewrite American history to make conservatism look perfect--and they're getting away with it.
This disturbing trend seemed to start in earnest about 2008. On Christmas Day of that year, conservative Monica Crowley appeared on Fox News stating that Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal programs were dismal failures. Vaguely, she insisted that such an unorthodox claim was supported by "all kinds of studies and academic work." The host, Gregg Jarrett, agreed, stating that, "I think historians pretty much agree on that." Around the same time, a writer for The Wall Street Journal chimed in as well, writing that Roosevelt's programs transformed "a panic into the worst depression of modern times."
None of that is true. Virtually all historians agree with Adam Cohen, who wrote in a January 11, 2009, editorial for The New York Times that "F.D.R.'s spending programs did help the economy and created millions of new jobs." It is true that Roosevelt dramatically increased the size of the federal government, a fact that disturbed many people at the time. However, to assert that his far-reaching programs were failures is simply to engage in dishonesty. There's a reason why F.D.R. is so revered today: his policies had profoundly positive impacts on many American workers.
Obviously, these conservatives were attempting to score political points. What better way to do that than by trying to convince young people that the New Deal--one of liberalism's greatest successes--was actually a dud? Such efforts are, of course, odious, but people like Crowley are making significant headway: through constantly spreading such misinformation, many people are starting to believe them. Historians have a term for this phenomenon: revisionism. Sometimes, revisionism (the dramatic re-interpretation of historical events) is sound. Very often, however, it is bad, and merely reflects the desires of ideologues who wish to rewrite history to make their views look superior or unassailable. Left-wing radicals have also engaged in this practice, but, currently, there are scores of conservatives doing this.
One of them is David Barton, a fundamentalist Christian and prolific author. In his writings, Barton argues that the Founding Fathers--whom conservatives idolize and regard as being virtually pristine--never intended the separation of church and state. The Founding Fathers, insists Barton, wished to create a Christian nation. He has claimed that John Adams advocated religious control of the federal government. Many of Barton's "beliefs" are even stranger. Barton maintains that the Founding Fathers were stout creationists who rejected evolution (Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species wasn't published until 1859, long after they were dead). He argues that the American Revolution was fought in part to free the slaves, a bald-faced lie. No reputable historian would make such outlandish claims.
To critics, Barton is cartoonish. He has no degrees in history or law. The Southern Poverty Law Center has repeatedly condemned him for his homophobic remarks and ties to racist organizations. In 2012, the History News Network voted his book, The Jefferson Lies, to be the "least credible history book in print." Shortly thereafter, his publisher withdrew the book from circulation. Even fellow conservatives have distanced themselves from him, finding his distortions and untruths to be reprehensible.
Barton may be embattled, but he does have powerful friends and growing influence. He serves as "advisor" to Newt Gingrich, Sam Brownback, and Mike Huckabee. He's a teacher in Glenn Beck's online university. He has served as a consultant for the Republican National Committee, and, for years, he was vice chairman of the Texas Republican Party. In 2005, Time Magazine voted him as being "one of the 25 most influential Evangelicals." Critics may sneer at the clumsy, woefully misguided Barton, but he's quickly building an empire.
Yet another revisionist is Michele Bachmann, a U.S. Representative. As RationalWiki reports, Bachmann has claimed erroneously that the Founding Fathers "worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States." The truth is much different, of course. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson--two of the most esteemed Fathers--were slaveholders, and slavery did not end until 1865.
There are many more conservative revisionists. It is apparent that they love America. However, their idea of patriotism allows them to suppress any information that puts the United States in a bad light. As with Crowley, they also want right-wing politics to be seen as always right and correct. What they are actually doing is whitewashing history. A less flattering way to put this is that they are spreading lies. Thanks to their non-stop efforts, many naïve Americans are beginning to believe these lies.