This project is a growing collection of political uses of the past by elected and appointed officials. It is also an invitation to historians and other experts to comment on and rate those political statements to provide constructive guidance on how historians think and how to best use history to inform policy and politics.
Read the “Welcome” post.
Broader Participation by Historians. History is too important to be left to politicians, and historians are increasingly restless about our policy makers’ sometimes feckless uses of the past. This project hopes to provide an outlet for a growing consensus among historians that they need to share their expertise.
A Showcase for Historical Thinking. Historians think in ways that could have a surprisingly positive effect on our polarized partisan climate. Historical thinking requires equal parts of empathy and objectivity, attention to detail and to broad sweeping changes, and above all the need to change your mind when the facts no longer support your position. This project has the potential to showcase these qualities in small, easily digestible examples.
A Resource for Applied History. The project is building a substantial collection of political uses of the past (PUPs?) in a searchable database, open for researchers or casual browsers. As the collection expands, it will become a first stop for anyone who wants to know the political class’s thinking on a broad range of historical topics.
Inspiration for Historians. Historians’ work matters. Our elected officials make that plain every day. If this collection inspires a historian to use their research and expertise in an op-ed or magazine article, either in support or derision of a statement they find here, this project will have been worthwhile.
A Place to Find Historians. Journalists, editors, and policy makers want to know what historians think; they don’t always know where to find an expert on a given topic. Historians who contribute to the ratings and commentaries here make their expertise known while signaling their willingness to speak to the public.
A Way to Track Trends. Even at this project’s early stages, certain motifs and trends started to emerge. This site will occasionally highlight how certain historical examples are going viral among the political class.
The project is launching with statements culled from the Congressional Record, the White House Press Office, and a handful of executive departments. As the project evolves, it will include more sources.
I wrote a piece of code that finds them for me! I’ve had this project in mind for a long time, but I’ve been deterred by the time needed to read these sources and pull relevant statements. The task always seemed too daunting and time-consuming until I found how to make automation my friend. In the course of learning statistics with the R programming language, I wondered: If supervised machine learning can be used to filter spam messages, can they be used to spot historical references? Turns out they can, so I did that.
My home-brewed history sniffer is a handy little script written in R and using the rvest and rpart packages. It harvests each day’s Congressional Record and White House transcripts, slices them into discrete statements, sniffs out the political uses of the past using recursive partitioning, and serves them up in a format ready for me to drop into this WordPress site. The whole process takes a few minutes.
I trained the model using statements analyzed by Politifact and sorted by me into historical and nonhistorical. I have since then been refining the model with the newer statements from other sources. It works surprisingly well, and will only improve with time. These improvements will free up time for me to include additional data sources in the project.
There’s a perennial and important discussion among historians about what counts as history and what counts as current events, and I’ve arbitrarily decided that history starts about twenty years ago and reaches back. Yes, this is an arbitrary cutoff, but a cutoff had to be made.
My data sources are full of biographical information: members of Congress regularly stand up and tell the life story of a constituent by way of honoring them, and the White House Press Office releases a full bio of every nominee as they are put forward. I have not included purely biographical information unless it’s directed at some larger policy discussion.
Likewise, I’m not including mere references to events, like the fact that a law was passed in a certain year, that are easy to check in a reference book. The focus will be on questions that you’d want a historian to answer.
The main feed on this site includes at most only about four statements per day, chosen because they are either audacious, show a clear connection to a policy, raise big questions, or are just plain interesting. The rest I’m throwing into a searchable database that will be open to researchers or casual browsers. These will include statements that may seem a bit pedestrian or innocuous, but the purpose of the database is to catalog rather than generate commentary. However, any statement that appears in the database can be promoted to the front page if a historian wants to rate it and comment on it.
The project will publish ratings and comments from historians, defined broadly. One does not necessarily need to have academic credentials, but each reviewer should be able to supply some sort of bona fides, such as work or study in the field, and demonstrate that they are a real person.
Historians are quite familiar with the misuse of the past and the creation of false histories; this is nothing new to our particular time. But I believe that polarization and calcified thinking have increased, and the misuses of the past, the sorts of mythologies that propel dangerous actions, are much more likely to find willing audiences than at any time I have witnessed or studied. It’s not that politicians lie about history more; it’s that bigger lies are being taken much more seriously.
I’ve had this project in mind for some time, well before we entered our present hall of mirrors, but watching the way history has been deployed toward questionable political ends has provided the motivation. It’s a small contribution, but it’s something.
I am using a ton of free tools to make this happen, and I hope that this free and open site pays it forward.
In R, I used the following packages to harvest, tidy, clean, blend, and analyze my data: rvest, magrittr, tidyr, stringr, dplyr, tidytext, widyr, rpart, tm, httr, jsonlite, lubridate.
I used ProPublica’s Congress API to grab additional info about members of Congress.
I am using a raft of free WordPress plug-ins to make this site hum: Wp-D3m, TinyMCE Advanced, Simple Custom CSS and JS, Same Category Posts, Ninja Forms, Collapse-O-Matic.
The visualizations of the statements database are done in Tableau Public.
It’s not free, but Tinderbox 7 for Mac was helpful for doing final processing, editing, and putting the data into HTML templates.