Hanging above all of these themes, however, is an old unspoken maxim: History repeats itself. Lepore even acknowledges explicitly that “to study the past is to unpack the prison of the present.” When it comes to that initial theme of race and racial tension as a key element of American history, then, Lepore is really asking: Why is race such a recurring theme during every national election? Why is it the root cause of a daily struggle for so many Americans?
When it comes to the history American women and of their struggle for equal rights and equal pay, Lepore discusses one of the most overt symbols of past injustices coming back to haunt us: the impact of Phyllis Schlafly’s opposition to the ERA and her embracing of Donald Trump as a “true conservative,” as one who would fight for immigration and abortion reform. She died days after speaking at the Republican National Convention, a speech that helped the president to win 52% of the Catholic vote and 81% of the evangelical vote in 2016.
Regarding income inequality, Lepore traces the transition in the flow of income and profit from Southern farmers to Northern industrialists. She also tells the story of the modern technology sector, which rewards the few innovators and inventors—the new economic elite—for their brilliance while leaving the rest of the population at a comparative economic disadvantage. She demonstrates how, in the 1970s, the gulf between social classes began to emerge—at the same time that the middle class began to disappear.
Lepore’s fourth focus is on the ongoing role of the press—and its significance from the founding of our nation to this very day. Embedded in this theme is the role of political consultants and how they have used—and continue to use—divisive language in order to inspire fear and to distort fact. Indeed, Lepore’s analysis of the media throughout our nation’s history is a chilling commentary of the impact of partisan positions versus objective fact.
Ultimately, then, a brilliant potential reading assignment for American history students and a potent lesson on the cyclical nature of history in these troubled times, Lepore’s latest is, for educators, a new perspective on many of the same themes that have driven our work for decades. It gives voice to how the challenges facing our schools and students have changed over time—and where they come from.
And in times like ours, we can’t afford to be uninformed.
To close, I lift a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History, one of the many famous works highlighted and dissected in Lepore’s book:
“If we should perish, the ruthlessness of the foe would be only the secondary cause of the disaster. The primary cause would be that the strength of a giant nation was directed by eyes too blind to see all the hazards of the struggle; and the blindness would be induced not by accident of nature or history but by hatred and vainglory.”