For educated liberals, Jill Lepore is perhaps the most prominent historian in America today. Since 2005, two years after she moved across the Charles River from Boston University to Harvard, Lepore has written dozens of reviews and essays for the New Yorker on everything from Thomas Paine and Kit Carson to Wonder Woman and Rachel Carson. In some ways, this was a surprising development. When Lepore started her career in the Nineties, she specialized in colonial history, a period that many people view as equal parts boring and confusing. Lepore is, however, a gifted researcher and a lively writer, and her early books rightfully garnered acclaim: the first won the Bancroft Prize, and another was a finalist for the Pulitzer.
In those early books, Lepore’s argument hinged on the power of stories to shape our lives. This thesis has become the touchstone of both her historical and journalistic writing. “The rise of American democracy is bound up with the history of reading and writing,” she argued in The Story of America, her 2012 collection of essays. “The United States is a story,” she claimed; “it follows certain narrative conventions. … Who has a part in a nation’s story, like who can become a citizen and who has a right to vote, isn’t foreordained, or even stable. The story’s plot, like the nation’s borders and the nature of its electorate, is always shifting.” When Lepore wrote The Story of America, she was interested primarily in studying other people’s narratives about the nation, not in writing one herself. Six years later, she has offered up her own account.
“I haven’t attempted to tell the whole story,” she writes in These Truths, her new history of the United States. “No one could.” Instead, she explains, “I’ve confined myself to what, in my view, a people constituted as a nation in the early twenty-first century need to know about their own past.” What does the history of America seen through the lens of 2016 look like? In other words, what kind of story ends with Donald Trump?
The title of These Truths refers to Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in the Declaration of Independence “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights … [and] That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lepore glosses “these truths” as “political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people,” and her book loosely follows their fate across the centuries. “Does American history prove these truths,” she asks, “or does it belie them?”
To answer that question, Lepore focuses heavily on political history: conventions, campaigns, elections, debates. This looks like an old-fashioned approach, but she gives it a contemporary twist by making the heart of the book an account of the role of truth itself in American politics. At the time of the country’s founding, Americans claimed that their political arguments grew out of truths derived from history and experience. Thomas Paine’s Common Sense offered up “simple facts, plain arguments, and common sense” in favor of independence; a few months later, the bulk of the Declaration was devoted to historical evidence proving the necessity of separation from Great Britain. James Madison read piles of books on political history to prepare for the Constitutional Convention, and during the ratification debates Alexander Hamilton wondered, in the first paragraph of the first Federalist, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.”
Reflection and choice: Would the American people really be capable of using reason to frame good policies built on a foundation of truth? If so, Lepore suggests, they would need to be able to agree on what is true, and how to determine what is true. In these processes, the role of newspapers was crucial. Madison hoped that newspapers would knit the country together and ensure that knowledgeable voters would choose good men for public office. “It was an ingenious idea,” Lepore writes, one that worked well enough and looked so enticing that it was recycled over and over again as each new generation faced its own crises. “The newspaper would hold the Republic together; the telegraph would hold the Republic together; the radio would hold the Republic together; the Internet would hold the Republic together.” These Truths is, in large part, a history of the promises and failures of those technologies as means of communicating common values.
Because of her focus on communications and rhetoric, however, Lepore tends to skim the surface of political disputes, registering the rancorous arguments but rarely seeking the root of the disagreements that have divided Americans. For example, she traces the origins of America’s two-party system to the question of constitutional ratification, which was presented to state conventions as a yes-or-no choice. People debated the question at length in the era’s newspapers, the Federalist Papers being just the most salient example of a broad genre. According to Lepore, the nature of ratification split people into two sides, those two sides were reinforced by partisan newspapers, and we have been stuck with a two-party system ever since. But Lepore’s focus on discourse obscures the larger issues at stake in the debate. Should political power be centralized or decentralized? Do we need governmental power to protect our rights, or do we need to protect our rights from governmental power? Should we promote change or preserve tradition? Are individuals and society formed by rational choice or pre-rational attachments? Some of these questions divided the supporters of the Constitution and their opponents, as they continue to divide us today, but debates about constitutional ratification did not cause those divisions. The answers to such questions don’t necessarily fall into two neat camps, but the dualistic nature of much political terminology—left and right, liberal and conservative, court and country, Tory and Whig—suggests that they at least tend in that direction. The rise of America’s two-party culture might be attributed in part to the role of eighteenth-century newspapers and propaganda, but its endurance hints at more fundamental divisions in our politics and in ourselves.
There are similar shortcomings in Lepore’s treatment of the shifting ideological commitments of America’s two main parties. Lepore believes the formation of new political coalitions “has nearly always been associated with a revolution in communications that allows the people to shake loose of the control of parties.” The penny press brought forth the rivalry between Democrats and Whigs, and muckraking journalism spawned Progressivism. This is an intriguing idea, conceived no doubt with an eye to showing how social media is bringing forth some new constellation of alt-right Trump supporters, socialist Bernie bros and scattered centrists. But, again, the means of communication can only explain so much. It’s possible, for example, to tie the collapse of the Whigs in the mid-1850s back to the invention of the telegraph in the late 1830s, which allowed news to spread more quickly to a nationwide audience and made the sectional differences within the parties increasingly untenable. It’s also reasonable to suppose that the root of the problem was a dispute over free labor and slavery, and that the question of slavery’s continued expansion into the Western territories would have wreaked havoc on the American political system even if people had been communicating via homing pigeon.
Lepore’s historical interests, it seems, align perfectly with prevailing trends in the media, in which the story is the story and all news is narrative. What is the narrative of the campaign? Who controls the narrative? Instead of reading about the substance or real-life implications of a new policy, we hear only about reactions to it. This tendency became especially pronounced during and after the 2016 election, when everyone became concerned about the effects of social media and fake news on our democracy without ever really investigating why those fake stories might have appealed to people in the first place. Our infatuation with the narrative construction of the world seems to be based on two odd and probably untenable assumptions: first, that stories are more important than policies, institutions and socioeconomic conditions in determining our experiences and allegiances; and second, that the great mass of people who don’t write stories are essentially powerless dupes in thrall to propaganda.
If Lepore’s treatment of American party politics seems geared toward finding the distant origins of our online echo chambers, then her history of truth is no less present-minded. At the beginning of the twentieth century, she argues, a split emerged between two concepts of truth. One was committed to objectivity and based on social-scientific empiricism. This tradition began in the 1880s and 1890s, the age of muckraking and truth-to-power reporting, and culminated when, in the 1920s, Time magazine introduced fact-checking and the New Yorker raised that practice to an art form. But as Walter Lippmann, a founding editor of the New Republic, noted in his book Public Opinion (1922), there remained a vast gulf between a pile of facts and a sense of the truth. In reaction to a fact-based rationalism that portended amoral atheism, fundamentalists started to assert the literal truth of the Bible—a truth based in divine mystery rather than in empirical observation. After these competing traditions came into open conflict in the infamous 1925 Scopes Trial over the teaching of evolution in Tennessee, Lippmann reflected on the dangers they posed to democracy. His main concern was that if democratic citizens, torn between reason and faith, couldn’t agree on what determines truth, then propaganda would fill the void. In that case, Lepore writes, “With enough money, and with the tools of mass communication, deployed efficiently, the propagandist can turn a political majority into a truth.” Soon Lepore is describing how a small number of people in “the new business of public relations” began to exploit “disputes over basic matters of fact” to shape debates about politics, science and history. Political consulting and public-opinion polling developed in the 1930s and quickly became, Lepore says, “the single most important forces in American democracy since the rise of the party system.”
By this point it is clear that Lepore is on the side of empiricism—in her view, it was not fact-checking that opened up the void at the heart of American democracy but fundamentalism. But perhaps as a result of these sympathies, Lepore adopts the same condescending attitude toward the people that characterized Progressives like Lippmann. In her telling, politics in the twentieth century becomes a game of propaganda, cynicism and personal animus. The people and even elected politicians are reduced to lemmings being led wherever political consultants and interest groups decide to take them. Do the people have any ideas of their own? Are there any principles behind the machinations of political consultants? It’s hard to tell from Lepore’s account, which becomes largely about how the people get played.
In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes the old Russian general Kutuzov as having “reached the conviction that thoughts and the words which serve to express them are not what move people.” Lepore, with her unwavering commitment to narrative, seems to adhere to the opposite conviction. These Truths has little to say about the role that custom, faith and emotion play in political life, nor does it provide much detail on the lived experience that lies behind all the talk. For Lepore, those who count are primarily a handful of highly articulate people who wrote things down. (Even the lesser-known figures whom she highlights, such as Maria Stewart and Mary Lease, are almost inevitably writers or speechifiers.) After the opening chapters, she says almost nothing more about Native American society and culture—with the notable exception of the Cherokees, who developed their own writing system and established their own newspaper. Indians west of the Mississippi River are dispatched in three paragraphs. And although Lepore often discusses slavery as a political problem, she never explains how the institution actually developed in America over the course of more than two centuries or what the lives of slaves were like. They are part of the American story as well. But Lepore spends so much time worrying about truth and how it has been manipulated that she ends up forgetting about the people to whom these truths are supposed to apply.
It’s clear from the start that These Truths is on a trajectory toward fake news, Facebook and Donald Trump’s Twitter account. So as she approaches the present, Lepore shifts her focus to how computers have transformed our understanding of truth. Lepore believes that the use of computers to sort people into ideological piles has brought the country “to the brink of a second civil war.” Tech utopians may have promised that the internet would help bring us together, but the reality, according to Lepore, is that the internet has made the problems of ideological sorting and polarization even worse by undermining the notion that the people might share some set of truths that bind them together as a community or a country. “The culture and structure of the Internet made it possible for citizens to live in their own realities,” Lepore writes. In fact, she thinks the internet has played a central role in “the crisis of American moral authority” that has characterized the 21st century. It is “everything a rule-based order is not: lawless, unregulated, and unaccountable.”
The result, Lepore believes, has been an unmitigated disaster. In the fifteen years from 9/11 to the 2016 election, “the United States lost its way in a cloud of smoke. The party system crashed, the press crumbled, and all three branches of government imploded.” To many people “it seemed, as Trump took office, as if the nation might break out in a civil war, as if the American experiment had failed, as if democracy itself were in danger of dying.” In her final paragraphs, Lepore draws on Longfellow’s “The Building of the Ship” to encourage Americans to repair their tattered ship of state:
They would need to fell the most majestic pine in a deer-haunted forest … to hew timbers of cedar and oak into planks, straight and true … to drive home nails with the untiring swing of mighty arms … [to] stitch new sails out of the rugged canvas of their goodwill … to forge an anchor in the glowing fire of their ideals.
“And to steer that ship through wind and wave,” she concludes, “they would need to learn an ancient and nearly forgotten art: how to navigate by the stars.”
Are we really on the brink of a second civil war? I doubt it. Her invocations of an “irrepressible conflict” and her hand-wringing over the internet often have the same melodramatic feel as clickbait—and among our many problems, one is surely that we are drowning in op-eds and think-pieces warning about how the internet polarizes people, balkanizes truth and enables Trump-style populism. Lepore’s long history aimed at Trump and the internet doesn’t add anything to our understanding of Trump’s appeal or the internet’s influence, while her focus on means of communication causes her to squander the opportunity to show some neglected dynamic at work.
An overlooked connection between past and present is what we always look for in a good work of history—that moment when it’s possible to see and make sense of a vast sequence of events. American history presents plenty of opportunities for such a task. There are lessons to be learned, for instance, from the late nineteenth-century years when an older idea of liberalism ran aground against problems similar to those we face today: immigration, increasing social diversity, environmental degradation, political sclerosis, technological disruption, newly powerful corporations, income inequality and bitter class conflict. But These Truths is not the book where we will find those lessons. Instead, even in its approach to the past, it remains sadly trapped in the Age of Trump.
The book has one saving grace, though, which is Lepore’s focus on the question Hamilton posed of “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice.” We tend to take our country’s existence for granted, but it’s important to remember that it started as an experiment and remains one today. It began as “a new nation,” as Lincoln said, “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” I’ve always appreciated Lincoln’s use of “proposition” there in place of Jefferson’s claim of self-evident truth. The Declaration’s truths aren’t really truths; they’re more like hypotheses that the experiment of America is meant to test.
It is a miracle that the American experiment in pluralistic democracy has lasted as long as it has. What are its prospects for the future? On this question I prefer Lincoln’s simple majesty to Longfellow’s overwrought metaphors. “Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?” he asked in his First Inaugural Address. “Is there any better, or equal hope, in the world?” He somehow kept that confidence even on the brink of a civil war over slavery, with seven states already seceded, and he was willing to see more than 700,000 men die to preserve that hope. We should be grateful that the experiment survived, even as we recognize the ambiguities that define the American story: humanitarian ideals supported by dehumanizing bondage, beauty mixed with suffering, deep wisdom alongside enduring failures.