Here’s what I wrote down to say at the OAH. I’m posting it to go up at around the time of the panel, so I don’t know right now whether it’s what I’ll actually say (oh the verb-tense issues). But if you’re interested and you somehow didn’t manage to make the panel, read on.

Thank you for coming.

“Does liberalism have a usable past?”

A conservative would never ask this question. To a conservative, the answer is obviously “yes, of course liberalism has a usable past.”

It looks something like this:

Liberalism brought you tax-and-spend government.

Liberalism brought you activist judges and forced busing.

Liberalism countenanced the rise of black nationalism and anti-family feminism.

Liberalism was soft on communism.

Liberalism brought you interventionist government that prolonged the Great Depression, undertook sinister social engineering, created a culture of dependency, lost China and Vietnam, and very nearly brought the entire country to its knees by emboldening activist Islamists in 1979 Tehran—before the rise of Ronald Reagan restored everything to rights.

Unless you want to go back to those bad old days—unless you want the soft-on-communism crowd to come back and be soft-on-terrorism, unless you want someone who’ll hike your taxes and deepen the recession, unless you want godless government and political correctness and commerce-crippling policies to coddle welfare queens—you had better not let the liberals back in.

Which is all by way of saying to a conservative, liberalism has a highly usable past indeed—usable for electing Republicans.

And that is the past of liberalism we see used every day in all corners of our culture.

It is a past whose use, whose purpose, is to deny to liberalism a meaningful present and future.

We could offer an equal and opposite usable past, the kind that might help elect liberals. We could say,

Who beat back the Great Depression? Liberals.

Who defeated the Nazis and designed the strategy that won the Cold War? Liberals.

Who brought electricity to the South and water to the West? Who saved our forests and our air and our water? Liberals!

Who fought for our right to register and vote? Liberals. For our day in court? Liberals. For freedom of speech and religion, freedom from want and from fear? Liberals, liberals liberals!

But this is not the history of liberalism that we get if we read professional historians—even liberal ones—writing about American liberalism. Open up a book by Alan Brinkley, David Kennedy, William Leuchtenburg, James Patterson; read your Jim Kloppenberg, Julian Zelizer, Bruce Schulman, or Meg Jacobs: liberalism is complicated. Compromised. Conflicted.

When faced with the opportunity to fight for justice, liberals spend an awful lot of time dragging their feet and wringing their hands. Fretting about proper procedures. Calculating how much justice seems politically feasible, in light of prevailing trends, to grant. Doing deals with the titans of corporate power.

Theodore Roosevelt was bought in 1904, even if he didn’t quite stay bought.

Woodrow Wilson named eastern bankers and monopolist manufacturers to serve on the Federal Reserve Board.

Franklin Roosevelt dodged the opportunity to provide federal relief two or three times before giving in and aiding the unemployed, he took healthcare out of the original Social Security bill, he opposed the FDIC, he temporized on civil rights—indeed, they all temporized on civil rights, not to mention feminism; none of them were ever quite comfortable with labor unions….

And when not making pragmatic arrangements, liberals were caving to the worse angels of their nature.

Liberals carried out the Palmer Raids.

Liberals sent Japanese-Americans to concentration camps.

Liberals lied about Yalta and other incidents in the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis; liberals ensured that African Americans would be overrepresented in the U.S. Army that fought in Vietnam.

Liberals were the ones who tried to turn the Mekong River Valley into the Tennessee River Valley.

For every liberal plus, there is at least one minus.

If you should happen to be a liberal, then, or in the strange circumstance of wanting to become a liberal, you find yourself in much the same position Van Wyck Brooks described when, in 1918, he first called for an American “usable past”.

You find, if you read academic historians, that you have the “most meager of birthrights.” In addition, if you listen to today’s journalists and politicians, you are usually “cheated out of that.” Further, as Brooks wrote:

“We want bold ideas, and we have nuances. We want courage, and we have universal fear…. We want vitality, and we have intellectualism…. We want expansion of soul, and we have an elephantiasis of the vocal organs. Why? Because…. the past that survives in the common mind of the present is a past without living value.”

What is to be done? Brooks offered a recommendation: “not to seek for masterpieces—the few masterpieces are all too obvious—but for tendencies.” We should not, Brooks would chide us, string together Liberalism’s Greatest Hits as I did at the outset, and leave it at that.

Nor should we condemn the great liberals of the past for their shortcomings, cutting ourselves off from them; as Brooks says, that would be “severing the warm artery that ought to lead from the present back into the past.” We should ask instead, what tendencies gave rise to them, and what tendencies limited them? But we don’t do that.

And when I say we don’t do that, I’m not merely reflecting on my impressions of today’s discourse; I’m thinking of scholarly findings like those of Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, who found that Americans “placed national events within their familial stories, or made national personages into familiar figures in personal narratives. Or they talked about national events as disconnected incidents not linked to a larger narrative, and about national figures and events in distant and attenuated terms, rather than the rich terms they used for describing moments in their personal and family histories.”

Americans, Rosenzweig and Thelen discovered, loved looking at the history of their family or their heritage, but not of their community, town, or nation. “[M]ost Americans simply do not recognize themselves and their families in a distant narrative that stretches from election to election, war to war….”

Why? Many, if not most of them, learned from the experience of the 1960s to reject the national story. The government lies. People who try to make a difference get murdered. It was “a decade that had robbed them of hope.”

Or rather, Americans evinced this disappointed disconnection from the nation’s story unless they were black. Rosenzweig and Thelen discovered that African Americans make constant use of the past to explain where they are, relying on a narrative “from slavery to segregation to civil rights.” Black people in this country “have a stronger sense of a public … past than white Americans did.”

And that public past is a liberal past, a past of progress—progress against real obstacles, to be sure, but progress nevertheless.

And it is a liberal past within living memory, of overcoming real obstacles within living memory—it is a living memory of a national American history in which individuals matter, in which struggle matters, in which right made might, as a majority of Americans of all colors at long last bent their collective will, or at least lent their affirmative assent, to the use of all their power to right great historic wrongs—to give life to the dead letters of the Fourteenth Amendment, to restore to the Constitution what the blood of the Civil War dead had written there: the equal protection of the laws.

More, it is a story not over, but propelled by this sense of a shared past.

“The history of a civilization, if intelligently conceived, may be an instrument of civilization.” So Charles and Mary Beard wrote in the 1930 edition of The Rise of American Civilization. It begs the question of what we mean by civilization, which is where we started, fifteen minutes ago: a usable past, but for whose use?

If we want a usable past for liberalism, of use to liberals, where can we find it? Where can we look to see a story of citizens’ engagement in politics, of legislators and judges rising to the challenge, of the federal government deploying its powers—late, to be sure, in the day, but better late than never—for good? We can look to the history Rosenzweig and Thelen found alive and well in the black community—a history that translates well outside it.

In 1918, Van Wyck Brooks challenged his readers to see American history as non-Americans see it. “Go to England and you will discover that in English eyes ‘American [history]’ has become, while quite as complete an entity as it is with us, an altogether different one.” I can say from personal experience it is true today. In England the history of the United States is the Revolution, the Crisis of Slavery, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights movement—the fulfillment, over time, of the liberal promises written in 1776, made good at last even to a people once considered chattels. And a nation of pasty young white people like it. Because it is a story of collective action in the name of justice, of triumph over obstacles, of right making might. A history of liberalism.

And it is a history that inspires young white people in America today, people young and unprepared to hedge and qualify. This generation unmarred as yet by such disappointments as accrued to the youth of the 1960s, is a generation prepared to believe and make use of that story, a generation who think it offers them hope.