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Independence Day, The Declaration Of Independence And Understanding American History

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When Tea Party darling Herman Cain announced his candidacy for president in May, he decided to cite words from the U.S. Constitution to underline his key points. Unfortunately for Cain, he got his documents wrong. The passage he chose was from the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution.

Cain is not alone. There seems to be an epidemic of Tea Party Republicans botching historical accounts of the founding of the United States. Since Independence Day celebrates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and given the recent Tea Party problems with history, I thought it would be fitting to look a little closer at Cain's gaffe, as it has both symbolic and substantive importance regarding modern American politics.

Symbolically, Cain's problem with historical accuracy represents a major characteristic of the modern Tea Party-dominated Republican Party. Whether it is Sarah Palin's butchering of Paul Revere's role in the American Revolution, or Michele Bachmann's truly revisionist mangling of the facts to claim the founding fathers tried to abolish slavery (not to mention her belief that John Quincy Adams was a founding father, even though he was born in 1767), the Tea Party has shown a disdain for knowledge, facts and learning. History is not something set in stone, but rather something to be twisted and manipulated to support the immutable, ideological beliefs of the movement.

So if Palin or Bachmann plainly get American history wrong, the response isn't to admit it (after all, the statements are not debatable; Revere was not riding to warn the British, and slavery was enshrined as legitimate in the Constitution, notably through the three-fifths compromise). No, instead, their supporters tried to change history to match the statements of their leaders, which in 21st century practice means Palin supporters editing the Wikipedia entry on Paul Revere to reflect her mistakes, and Bachmann's followers doing the same for the page on John Quincy Adams.

The ignorance of Cain, Palin and Bachmann holds importance beyond a "gotcha" moment to demonstrate that these three individuals aren't up to the task of being president (similar to Mitt Romney's gaffe of telling an unemployed attendee at one of his events that he, too, was unemployed). More importantly, the lack of respect (or even caring about) facts, both by the candidates and their supporters, is indicative of the larger GOP approach to political positions. For example, Republicans support lower taxes for millionaires because that is what their core constituency and base ideology calls for, but they justify the position through unsustainable assertions that such tax cuts somehow create jobs, even though we know they don't (also here and here). Or, Republicans reject the existence of climate change to keep costs as low as possible for corporations regardless of the consequences, but justify their position by denying the existence of climate change, even though the overwhelming majority of scientists say it is real.

There are myriad issues for which Republicans rely on patently false assertions to back policy positions that may be otherwise unpalatable to the American public ("We're creating jobs" plays better than "Rich people shouldn't have to pay a lot in taxes"), but nowhere is this lack of respect for facts and history more prevalent than in the party's attacks on Barack Obama. Rather than oppose his policies on the merits, Republicans have engaged in a two-prong strategy of personal attacks meant to score political victories: First, they opposed every proposal made by the president, even if Obama called for the adoption of a policy once embraced by Republicans (i.e. becoming the Party of No, although I have argued they have evolved into the Party of F You).

Second, the right, including politicians and the right-wing, Fox News/Limbaugh propaganda echo chamber, has engaged in a coordinated assault to paint the president as being out of the American mainstream, regardless of the facts. They want you to think he is dangerous and un-American, that he was born in Kenya, and that his policy proposals are radical, and that he has no desire to keep Americans safe from terrorists with whom he actually sympathizes.

(Never mind that he has governed as a centrist and consistent with his campaign promises, which resulted in a hefty victory. For example, the stimulus package was smaller than many economists supported and included a ton of tax cuts; he didn't push for a single-payer system or even a public option as part of health care reform, instead getting behind a bill that pushed tens of millions of new customers into the hands of private insurance companies; and he stepped up the pursuit of Qaeda and Taliban targets, including drone attacks, taking out more terrorists than his predecessor, including Osama bin Laden.)

In right-wing rhetoric, the president is a threat to the American way of life, a socialist who wants to change traditional American values, even though there is no actual evidence to support these claims.

Why do these attacks matter? Well, that question segues nicely into the substantive problem with Cain's Constitution/Declaration gaffe, since the Tea Party regularly invokes an Obama attack on liberties, drawing on the Declaration of Independence (even if Cain thought he was citing the Constitution, not an insignificant error since the Constitution is the law of the land, providing a framework for our entire political system, while the Declaration is mainly historical in nature).

In his speech, Cain said:

"You know, those ideals that we live by, we believe in, your parents believe in, they instilled in you. When you get to the part about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don't stop right there, keep reading. Cause that's when it says that when any form of government becomes destructive of those ideals, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. We've got some altering and some abolishing to do."

This kind of language should sound familiar, since it is the bread and butter of Tea Party ideology. And Cain is right about what the Declaration says (well, he got the wrong document, but he got the right sequence of passages). The second paragraph of the Declaration begins:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

And then the paragraph goes on to say:

"That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Warms the cockles of the Tea Party heart, right? Well, with a little more perspective and examination, not so much. First of all, I'm sure it's no coincidence Cain stopped where he did, since the next line of the Declaration is:

"Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes."

So yes, the Declaration supports "the Right of the People to alter or to abolish" the government when it becomes "destructive" to "unalienable Rights." But not for "light and transient causes." What did the founding fathers think were big enough threats to warrant revolution? The answer is right in the Declaration, a laundry list of grievances that make up the bulk of the document. It is a litany of charges that the King of England had impinged on American liberties by, among other things, engaging in the hindering and dissolution of of legislative bodies, ignoring laws, preventing the adoption of laws (including, much to the Tea Party's disdain, I'm sure, the "Naturalization of Foreigners"), interfering with the judiciary, quartering English soldiers, interfering with trade, and imposing taxes without consent.

In short, the founding fathers bristled at being ruled by a dictatorial monarch. It is easy to see how in the over-hyped, rabid and, most importantly, false and historically inaccurate rhetoric of the Tea Party, such a connection would be apparent, from the tyranny of a King to a president looking to institute a socialist/Nazi/Islamist dictatorship in the United States.

Only, much like Bachmann's and Palin's lack of knowledge of our history, Cain (and it's not like he is the only Republican who talks about Obama's assault on our liberties) completely misunderstands and misapplies the content and context of the Declaration's call for revolution. Republicans can't seem to understand that if the president disagrees with them on how to address the country's roster of problems, it doesn't make him a tyrant. It's doubtful the founding father would look kindly on anyone trying to argue that the Obama presidency was comparable to the reign of King George III.

The language of the Declaration of Independence doesn't provide the support the Tea Party thinks it does.

(As an aside, the core charges of the Tea Party against Obama are all false: They complain about taxes, but Americans are experiencing their lowest tax burden since 1958, with taxes lower than they were under Reagan. They charge Obama with wanting to take away their guns, but the president hasn't signed a single piece of gun control legislation, nor did he veto bills with pro-gun provisions attached. I could go on and on.)

Cain (and Bachmann and Palin) getting history wrong isn't just about a funny media story. Rather, the Tea Party's ambivalence about facts and history is a necessary component of the GOP political strategy, as the party seeks to continue its drive since the 2010 elections to return the country to the 1920s (attacking social safety net programs like Medicare and Social Security, busting unions, cutting education, catering to corporate special interests and prioritizing eliminating abortion, all while further increasing the historically massive divide between the very wealthiest Americans and the rest of us). As Think Progress tweeted last week: "REMINDER: Current deficit + economy product of crisis created by deregulation + huge tax cuts. Solution isn't deregulation + huge tax cuts." (Just look at Tim Pawlenty's tax cut proposal, for example.)

Republicans, to win in 2012, are relying on Americans to forget history, not remember it.

So on this Independence Day, which commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, let's take the opportunity to read the document and better understand what it did (and did not) say, and, more importantly, against what the founding fathers were actually rebelling.

And let's try and stick to facts and accurate history when debating the issues. I know cognitive dissonance can be troubling for an ideologue, but here is a tip: If you find yourself literally trying to rewrite history, you're probably on the wrong side of a debate.

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