Populist v. Liberal Conceptions of History (in Dutch)

I recently published an article comparing the populist and liberal conceptions of history for a Dutch magazine/ journal called Liberale Reflecties. Naturally, I’m critical of the populist conception of history, which I see as an emotional (i.e. non-rational) desire to believe in inevitable cycles of history, in which the good, pure people must fight to regain control from the corrupt elites. This is, as I say, “history without discussion” (a play on the Dutch historian Peter Geyl’s phrase that history is “a discussion without end.” )

When pressed to find examples of populist history in print, I struggle. The reason is that populist history is largely a non-elite, unpublished phenomenon. It exists as the lowest common denominator of vernacular gossip; it is built not on research but on what people want to believe happened in the past. It combines what one person heard at a Civil War reenactment, with what another heard on Ancient Aliens. It doesn’t in fact establish hard facts at all, but only the most general of outlines of history. In populist history, the powerful man (always a man and not a woman) must defend the people against outside elites. The clearest published examples of this are the extremely popular “Killing”  series by Bill O’Reilly and Laura Ingraham’s economically illiterate Billionaires at the Barricades.

I write, in translation: “The danger of history conceived as a single truth, a single story, is that it allows no alternatives, no debates, no recognition of perspectives of individual action.”

Liberal history, on the other hand, is built from the sources, through critical dialogue and discussion. Liberal history is academic history. Indeed, the foundations of academic history began with the classical liberal tradition. To learn more, you’re going to have to read the article (in Dutch, lol), or ask me kindly to re-write it in English.

In the meantime, if you are interested in understanding populist history, read this underappreciated article by Carl Ritter.



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