Blogs > Checkered History > Showing the Data: The Political Uses of the Past Browser

Apr 29, 2019

Showing the Data: The Political Uses of the Past Browser

tags: politicians,Uses of the Past

The Political Uses of the Past Project collects statements by federal elected and appointed officials, and has long had a goal of making the collection accessible. The table below is a first step.

Each row represents a statement that makes use of the past. The table can be filtered, searched, and sorted. Clicking on a row will show the entire statement in a box underneath the table. The table was originally going to stand alone, but I wanted to provide some sort of visual overview, and that led me to create the tag plot. This feature provides a window into the collection, and any subset of the collection that users create through searching and sorting. (more below…)

A wider version of the table can be viewed here.

The plot shows tags for all the statements in the filtered set. Larger type and a higher position reflects frequency (please note that the y axis is set to a log-10 scale to make the lower half of the plot easier to read). Color and left-right position show whether the tag appears more often with one party or another.

The x axis is based on a simple index. A value of -1 means the tag only appears in statements by Democrats (in the filtered set), and a value of 1 means the tag only appears with Republican statements. A value of zero means it’s an even split. Please note that I included both independents in Congress with the Democrats because they caucus with them (and this shortcut saved me many headaches).

To take an example, the following plot showed up on April 28, 2019 after filtering the statement tags on "voting" (on April 28, 2019). Most of the statements come from the debate on HR 1, the Democrats' We the People Act.

When Democrats make historical references while discussing voting, they referenced Lincoln, racism, slavery, and Martin Luther King Jr. Several Republican statements in this dataset reference an alleged historic primacy of states in the election process. Others referenced the Soviet Union. Rep. Andy Barr (R-KY), for example, insisted that the We the People Act would "Stalinize" American elections. Both parties made reference to the founders in about equal measure.

The Political Uses of the Past Project is collecting these statements to discover patterns and develop insights into how views of the past shape policy. With this searchable table, anyone can do the same. But I had some other uses in mind as well.

  • Historians interested in correcting the record can search the data for statements in their area of expertise. This project is undertaking some fact-checking of these statements (examples here and here), but will never keep up with the volume.
  • Anyone writing on current policy or politics can use the statements to find quotes and ideas on how the past is shaping contemporary debates.
  • Teachers of history, civics, or political science can mine this list for inspiration or source material, or they can point their students to this browser for ideas or assignments.
  • Anyone who is tired of hearing how the study of history doesn’t matter can send those detractors here!

Of course we'd love to hear about any applications of this table or its data; plase contact the project here if you've found it useful (or if you notice any bugs). There is more information about the data and search tools on the browser's dedicated page, here. All suggestions and feedback welcome!

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