Blinded by Nostalgia

By Yuval Levin

Recourse to a glorious past is of course nothing new in political rhetoric. And Americans suggest that a return to that state – that getting back on that track – should be the goal of American politics.

 

Whatever the argument being advanced about America’s challenges in our politics in recent years, it is a pretty good bet that it has been rooted in an understanding of that lost era of American greatness – that it has been an argument for understanding our challenges as functions of an unfortunate detour.

Recourse to a glorious past is of course nothing new in political rhetoric. But these kinds of appeals do not hearken to America’s Founders and their principles, or to some heroic peaks of achievement and greatness that might inspire us now to live boldly. They hearken to a living memory so powerfully present for many Americans as to seem like the natural state of American life. And they suggest that a return to that state – that getting back on that track – should be the goal of American politics.

The lost golden age at the centRE of these stories occurred in the decades that followed World War II. A great many of our current political, economic, and cultural debates are driven by a desire to recover the strengths of that period. As a result, they are focused less on how we can build economic, cultural, and social capital in the twenty-first century than on how we can recover the capital we have used up. That distinction makes an awfully big difference.

Liberals are especially nostalgic for the economic and political order of that era. Government was growing, the labour movement was powerful, and large corporations in key sectors seemed content to work with government and labour to manage the affairs of the nation.

This kind of analysis is by no means limited to politicians. In fact, it is precisely because such nostalgia characterises the thinking of so many of our most able and important scholars, journalists, commentators, and social analysts that it poses a problem for our capacity for self-diagnosis. Politicians and intellectuals across the political spectrum articulate what we are missing by pointing to what they miss about midcentury America. This inclination is understandable, but its ubiquity means that its blind spots risk becoming our collective blind spots as a nation.

Although liberals and conservatives both frequently look back to midcentury America with fondness, they long for different things about it, and their distinct nostalgias now frequently give our politics its shape.

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Liberals are especially nostalgic for the economic and political order of that era. Government was growing, the labour movement was powerful, and large corporations in key sectors seemed content to work with government and labour to manage the affairs of the nation. This combination seemed to deliver broadly shared prosperity for a generation. Meanwhile, a surge in confidence in government led to the Great Society agenda and to a managerial politics that offered a public program to cure every public problem. Economic analysis on the Left now frequently consist of arguments depicting the past forty years as an era of almost uninterrupted decline from that high point – with wages stagnating or falling, inequality climbing, worker protections diminishing, and the middle class getting squeezed. As we will see (especially in chapters 3 and 5), this depiction of key economic trends over that period leaves a lot to be desired. But it often seems like not so much a narrative history as a form of yearning to return.

That yearning is sometimes made remarkably explicit. In 2007, the progressive economist and commentator Paul Krugman, a leading voice on the Left in this century, published a book entitled The Conscience of a Liberal, laying out his basic views of America’s challenges. The book begins with a chapter called “The Way We Were”, which opens with a characteristic example of the sort of homesickness, or longing for a time that got it right, that so pervades many analyses throughout our politics. Krugman’s opening words were: “I was born in 1953. Like the rest of my generation, I took the America I grew up in for granted – in fact, like many in my generation, I railed against the very real injustices of our society, marched against the bombing of Cambodia, went door to door for liberal political candidates. It’s only in retrospect that the political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation’s history.”1

Krugman then framed his economic and political analysis and his prescriptions as a recipe for a recovery of what that lost era had to offer – understanding its prosperity and promise as functions of the political and economic order of the time, and therefore as recoverable through efforts to reestablish key components of that order in our own day. An extraordinary number of the most prominent works of social analysis in recent years have followed the same pattern – positing the postwar decades as a standard of excellence against which to assess how America is doing by one important measure or another.

An extraordinary number of the most prominent works of social analysis in recent years have followed the same pattern – positing the postwar decades as a standard of excellence against which to assess how America is doing by one important measure or another.

Many, for instance, point to the relatively low levels of inequality in the United States during the postwar years. In 2015, Robert Putnam, a Harvard political scientist known for tracking key social trends, published a book called Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis that sought to illustrate how things have changed on that front. The book begins with the same now-familiar brand of nostalgia. Here are his opening words: “My hometown was, in the 1950s, a passable embodiment of the American Dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for all the kids in town, whatever their background. A half-century later, however, life in Port Clinton, Ohio, is a split- screen American nightmare.” But also crucial to what Krugman and many others on the Left want to recover from the postwar era is the political vision that gave shape to public policy through much of the 1960s – a robust faith in the potential of welfare-state liberalism to address the nation’s problems.2

And when Democrats translate their aspirations into policy, they tend to follow just that model – seeking to add more rooms onto the mansion of the Great Society through massive legislation that creates large, centralising, new programs empowering the federal government to manage portions of the private economy and provide benefits to individuals. Thus even the policy innovations, such as they have been, in our twenty-first-century politics have been shaped by a hearkening to the great postwar model. When the House of Representatives voted on final passage of the Affordable Care Act (often called Obamacare) in March 2010, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi gavelled the vote closed using the same gavel that Congressman John Dingell had used when presiding over the passage of Medicare in 1965, highlighting the party’s allegiance to the approach to public policy that characterised the Great Society and its era.

When liberals have confronted political resistance to those efforts in this century, they have again tended to return to memories of a lost paradise – this one characterised by political consensus and bipartisan comity. In his 2006 book, The Audacity of Hope, then senator Barack Obama remarked on how powerful the memory of that time was among critics of twenty-first-century Washington. It is, he wrote, “one of the few things that liberal and conservative commentators agree on, this idea of a time before the fall, a golden age in Washington when, regardless of which party was in power, civility reigned and government worked.”3

In fact, liberals and conservatives agree about more than that. They both approach our challenges nostalgically today, even if conservatives yearn for different facets of the postwar golden age. On the Right, it is often not so much the economic consensus of that era that beckons as the cultural or moral consensus – and it, too, has been fading for decades.

 

Adapted excerpt from THE FRACTURED REPUBLIC: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism by YUVAL LEVIN. Copyright © 2016. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Perseus Books, a division of PBG Publishing, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

 

Featured image courtesy of: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

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About the Author

levinyuval-webYuval Levin is the editor of National Affairs and the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He is a contributing editor to National Review and the Weekly Standard, and his writings have appeared in numerous publications including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, and others. He holds a PhD from the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and has been a member of the White House domestic policy staff (under President George W. Bush). He is the author, most recently, of The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left (Basic, 2013).

 

References

1. Paul Krugman, The Conscience of a Liberal (New York: W. W. Norton, 2007), 3.
2. Robert Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015), 1.
3. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), 38. Obama seemed to recognize that these rec- ollections were at least a little too rosy, but six years later, as president, he offered a similar ode to the old consensus. “Yes, there have been fierce arguments throughout our history between both parties about the exact size and role of government— some honest disagreements,” he told an audience in Cleveland, Ohio, in 2012. “But in the decades after World War II, there was a general consensus that the market couldn’t solve all of our problems on its own. . . . In the last century, this consensus—this shared vision—led to the strongest economic growth and the larg- est middle class that the world has ever known. It led to a shared prosperity.” Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Economy—Cleveland, OH,” June 14, 2012, White House, https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2012/06/14/remarks-president-economy-cleveland-oh.