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How Hillary Clinton got on the wrong side of liberals' changing theory of American history

Over the course of her extremely long life in American politics, Hillary Clinton has played many roles. And at the CNN candidates' forum in Iowa Monday night, she reminded us that one of those roles has been a moderately conservative Southern Democrat, a role she played starting in the late 1970s when her husband ran a successful campaign for attorney general of Arkansas and continued to play through the 1980s until the 1992 presidential campaign started up in earnest.

The kind of politician Bill Clinton — supported by Hillary as, by all accounts, a genuinely trusted adviser and confidante — was at that time has gone badly out of style, and Hillary Clinton's reemergence as a Northern suburbanite is part of that process. But answering the question of which historical president she most admires, Clinton named Abraham Lincoln. That's a safe choice in almost any context. But she went on to espouse a theory about the aftermath of Lincoln's assassination that would have been banal for almost any 20th-century Democrat but that cuts sharply against the modern progressive view of American history.

In the 1970s, when Clinton was the wife of a Southern Democratic governor, Democrats dealt with the awkward fact that they used to be the party of white supremacy by blaming Republican extremism — not Democratic racism — for the turmoil of the Reconstruction era.

But it's now 2016, and the modern Democratic Party has moved on. Most liberals now believe that Reconstruction was a noble project to secure racial equality that was stopped by unjustified Southern racism and violence. And if Hillary Clinton wants to lead the modern Democratic Party, she's going to have to align herself with this modern point of view.

Hillary Clinton's view of Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln is, obviously, the president who freed the slaves and saved the Union. Alongside George Washington he's the conventional choice for greatest American president. He's so universally admired, in fact, that the key political and historical debate isn't so much over whether Lincoln was a great leader as over what was so great about him.

To Clinton, the answer is that he was great because he tried to heal the nation. Lincoln, she said "was willing to reconcile and forgive," and she speculated that had he not been assassinated American history might have featured "a little less rancor" and been "a little more forgiving and tolerant that might possibly have brought people back together more quickly." But instead "we had Reconstruction, we had the reigns of segregation and Jim Crow. We had people in the South feeling totally discouraged and defiant."

This is the version of history that I read as a kid in Daniel Boorstin's Landmark History of the American People; it reflects a conventional wisdom among historians that became popular in the early 20th century and was later etched into the quasi-official history of the Democratic Party. But by the time I was reading it in the late 1980s, it was already on its way out among academics.

And at this point, it's politically obsolete as well. Modern-day liberals no longer feel the need to talk around the embarrassing fact that it was a Republican who saved the Union, and are in the process of constructing an entirely new usable history in which Alexander Hamilton is a heroic Founding Father and the post–Civil War effort at Reconstruction was a noble failure, not a regrettable consequence of Lincoln's death.

The Dunning School and the Democrats

Clinton is loosely glossing what is known as Dunning School historiography, named after Columbia professor William Archibald Dunning and his students. The key emotional note of the Dunning School was the idea that the Civil War itself, rather than the widespread enslavement that led to the Civil War, was tragic, and that the postwar effort of Radical Republicans in Congress to enfranchise the Southern black population had been "a serious error" that impeded restoration of the Union.

Only once the mixed-race regimes of freedmen, "carpetbaggers" (Northerners who'd moved South), and "scalawags" (pro-Northern Southern whites) had been displaced in favor of white supremacist governments was it possible for the South to be peacefully reincorporated into the nation.

The Democratic Party in the early to mid-20th century was a coalition that included both the victorious Southern white supremacists, Western populists, and the nascent big-city labor movement that found this notion congenial.

As Franklin Roosevelt successfully steered the party toward the idea of an activist state in pursuit of egalitarian economics while maintaining the coalition with white supremacists, sympathetic historians like Arthur Schlesinger continued to make use of the Dunning School's basic presumptions. The Reconstruction regimes were, in this view, an essentially cynical exercise in which Northern business interests used corrupt puppet governments composed of rapacious carpetbaggers kept in office by the votes of easily manipulated, ill-educated former slaves.

As the Kennedy and then Johnson administrations steered Democrats in the direction of the civil rights movement, Dunning-style logic was twisted even further into the place where Clinton landed — Jim Crow and white supremacy were bad, but they represented an overreaction to the policies of Reconstruction, which was itself bad. Had Lincoln lived and the excesses of Reconstruction been avoided, we could somehow also have avoided "the reigns of segregation and Jim Crow."

This is terrible history

The merger of Dunning School thinking with the political priorities of the civil rights–era Democratic Party is an impressive intellectual synthesis, but it makes for terrible history.

The now-dominant view, closely associated with Eric Foner's book Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution1, is much more straightforward. The Republican Party was formed by people who didn't like slavery. The Civil War was initiated by Southerners who really liked slavery. Lincoln acted to end slavery. And after the war the Radical Republicans attempted, rather nobly, to impose legal equality between the races.

But see also his book on Lincoln, his book on the ideology of the prewar Republican Party, or just his short summary book; W.E.B. DuBois's Black Reconstruction in America anticipated Foner, but it's Foner who more directly influenced the contemporary literature.

Reconstruction, in this view, failed because the white South fought so hard against it, and because it turned out that while most white Northerners didn't like slavery, they also didn't like racial equality, and certainly didn't like racial equality enough to invest the money and manpower that would be needed to enforce it.

In this view, the white Democrats who overthrew Reconstruction regimes are just bad guys: violent, racist thugs who used force and terror to implement a completely unjustified regime of white supremacy.

That's an opinion that aligns well with the sensibilities of the modern-day Democratic Party, which includes very few white people with deep family ties in the South. But it's an institutional problem for the Democratic Party to the extent that admitting Republicans were right on racial issues in the 1860s, 1870s, and 1880s leads to awkward questions about why committed white supremacists from earlier periods (like Andrew Jackson) and later ones (like Woodrow Wilson) are celebrated as pillars of the party.

But more importantly, it's an opinion that would have aligned very poorly with Bill and Hillary Clinton's constituents in Arkansas in the 1970s and '80s. To the extent that the modern-day national Democratic Party wins elections in Southern states, it does so in places like Virginia and Florida by relying primarily on a mix of votes from nonwhite people and white people who are not culturally Southern. The Clinton-era Democratic Party of Arkansas wasn't like that. It counted on the votes of Arkansas's (modest by Southern standards) African-American population, but with few Northern transplants living in the state it primarily counted on the votes of politically moderate white Southerners.

In that era, Clinton's peculiar twist on Dunning School historiography — in which Reconstruction was bad in part because it somehow caused Jim Crow — would have been just what the doctor ordered for where her party was at the time.

Clinton is going to have to flip-flop on this

Historiographical controversies have not normally factored heavily in presidential politics, but where the Democratic Party of Arkansas was on Reconstruction in 1976 is simply not where the Democratic Party of the United States is on Reconstruction in 2016. She is going to have to make a new statement that clarifies her views on this subject, as even very Clinton-friendly pundits are absolutely not going to have her back.

The problem is especially acute for Clinton because her entire strategy for beating Bernie Sanders in the primary comes down to relying on the continued support of nonwhite voters and especially African Americans. Reviews like this from Ta-Nehisi Coates are not going to help her secure that continued support:

Yet until relatively recently, this self-serving version of history was dominant. It is almost certainly the version fed to Hillary Clinton during her school years, and possibly even as a college student. Hillary Clinton is no longer a college student. And the fact that a presidential candidate would imply that Jim Crow and Reconstruction were equal, that the era of lynching and white supremacist violence would have been prevented had that same violence not killed Lincoln, and that the violence was simply the result of rancor, the absence of a forgiving spirit, and an understandably "discouraged" South is chilling.

The good news for Clinton is that there is absolutely no reason to stick to her guns on this issue. Anyone emotionally invested in anti-Reconstruction interpretations of history has long since left the Democratic Party, and there are zero votes for her here in either the general election or the primary.

She experienced a kind of space-time slippage and delivered an answer appropriate to a completely different time and place; she is going to have to align herself with present-day reality. But unlike on questions ranging from the Iraq War to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, there's no cost for her in changing her view on Reconstruction, and it's all but inevitable that it will happen.