James Grossman and Allen Mikaelian: Politifact and Historical Thinking: Disenfranchisement, Then and Now

Roundup: Historians' Take

James Grossman is executive director of the American Historical Association. Allen Mikaelian is a PhD student at American University.

Is it appropriate to reference “Jim Crow” when discussing the rash of new laws and measures further regulating who can vote and under what conditions? Do the rhetorical analogies fit the historical facts? Politifact, the Pulitzer Prize-winning watchdog best known for mercilessly wielding its trademarked Truth-o-Meter™, is somewhere between skeptical and incredulous. Last year, the editors of Politifact counted one Democrat’s statement evoking Jim Crow as a finalist for “lie of the year.” Politifact Georgia took to task a mayoral candidate for making an analogous comparison between a crackdown on undocumented workers and the infamous “black codes” (enacted a generation earlier than the Jim Crow era and quickly erased by Reconstruction). More recently, Politifact Florida called a Democratic U.S. Representative’s reference to poll taxes “half true.”

Each time, Politifact editors called on historians to help them judge. Each time, their analysis and resulting judgments raised important questions about how historians, journalists, and politicians evaluate the nature of truth and how the past can best be mined for constructive analogy. Amid this useful conversation between heated political rhetoric and cool journalistic analysis, historical thinking finds its place at the table as uncomfortable as it is essential.

The Politifact editors do their research. On this issue, they’ve consulted prominent historians, legal scholars, and political scientists. Our colleagues on the list include such historians as Eric Foner, Robert Korstad, Glenda Gilmore, Jane Dailey, Alex Keyssar, William H. Chafe, Thomas Adams Upchurch, Leslie V. Tischauser, James C. Cobb, Randall Miller, Paul A. Cimbala, David Colburn, Morgan Kousser, and Michael Fitzgerald. The Politifact editors clearly have made an effort to get the best thinking on the subject....

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