I have never voted for Scott Perry, but he does represent me in the United States House of Representatives. Perry is the chairman of the right-wing House Freedom Caucus. He refused to cooperate with the House committee investigating January 6th after the committee learned that Perry had a major role in convincing Donald Trump to appoint Jeffrey Clark acting attorney general as part of the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election. The committee has referred Perry to the House Ethics Panel.
As I write this, the House has cast six ballots for the Speaker of the House of the 118th Congress. On all six ballots Perry was part of the small group that voted against Kevin McCarthy, preventing McCarthy from reaching the 218 votes he needs to assume the speakership.
Here is Perry’s speech nominating Florida representative Byron Donalds for Speaker of the House. I have started the video at the point he references Douglass.
Pulitzer-prize winning Frederick Douglass biographer and Yale University historian David Blight responded to Perry’s speech on Twitter:
It is worth noting that Perry’s problem is not with historical facts. The first Black members of Congress were Republicans. If Byron Donald (or Hakeem Jeffress, the Democratic candidate for Speaker) wins the speakership, he would be the first Black Speaker of the House. I don’t know if Douglass ever said that he “would never be anything but a Republican,” but if he did say this, no nineteenth-century historian would be surprised. Most American Blacks stuck with the Republican Party until the 1930s.
The problem with Perry has to do with what historians call “change over time.” As Blight notes, the Republican Party of Douglass’s day is not the Republican Party of today. The GOP has changed significantly in the last 150 years and this is especially true on matters related to race in America. The failure to acknowledge change over time is a common mistake that many conservative politicians and pundits make. I have blogged about this here and here and here. I have discussed the idea of change over time more fully in Why Study History?: A Historical Introduction.
Do people like Perry simply fail to understand the concept of change over time? If so, they are not very good thinkers–the kind of thinkers a democracy needs to survive. In an age when a person can graduate from college without exposure to a history class or basic concepts of historical thinking, it is certainly possible that many of these folks are simply ignorant or badly educated. Let’s remember that the founders had some things to say about an educated republic.
Or perhaps these politicians and pundits are deliberately ignoring this fundamental dimension of historical thinking in order to advance their political agendas. In other words, they know that the Republican Party of the 19th-century was very different from the 21st-century GOP but just refuse to admit it because such an admission would hurt them politically or prevent them from scoring political points.