One of my favorite social science books is a 1993 “golden oldie”– The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz. Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families.
The book was a methodical survey of the stories we tell ourselves about the American past, accompanied by copious data debunking them.
Think women were “purer” at the turn of the last century? How do you explain the substantial percentage who were already “with child” when they married? Did our brave and entrepreneurial forebears always “stand on their own two feet”? Coontz enumerates the numerous government programs–frontier mythology to the contrary– that they relied on. Etc.
Nostalgia may not be accurate, but it’s powerful. There’s no denying the attraction of a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. It always amuses me to hear my contemporaries longingly reciting the virtues of the 1950s; even when I was growing up at the time, I realized that life was really good if you were a middle-class white Christian male. Otherwise, not so much.
What made me think of Coontz’ book and my own formative years was a recent blog post by Michael Leppert, in which he made several astute observations about the politics of nostalgia.
“A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” seems to be a dominant part of the politics in charge today. The dictionary.com definition of “nostalgia” perfectly captures at least half of every debate in America right now…
Leppert traced that “sentimental yearning” to our current political scene.
The tedious breakdown of what happened in Alabama this week fascinates political nerds like me, but probably numbs the brains of most. We know, for example, that 30 percent of those voting were African-Americans which is three points higher than their share of the population there. We also know that they almost entirely voted for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones. Or did they vote against his bigoted Republican opponent? Either way, it tells a tale.
The tale is this: they voted for the future. They triumphed over people who voted for the past.
Leppert argues that this contest between tomorrow and yesterday will define the politics of 2018, and he notes that, in retrospect, the same thing probably could be said of the 2016 election.
“Make America Great Again” was a powerful sales pitch for a swath of folks who felt increasingly ignored. The mantra itself is asking for support for the way things used to be, as if that is possible. More importantly, it expresses a pessimism about our collective future that is hard to comprehend….
The past won in 2016 in many ways. So much of what we have seen in Washington this year comes from that perspective. Throwback health and environmental policy early in the year was followed by an uncreative and backward looking tax bill. All of it has been based on a sad view of tomorrow that couldn’t be more un-American.
I predict those who run on a platform of the future will sweep in 2018. Because forward is the only direction civilization ever truly goes.
As we get ready to “ring out” 2017–a year I’ll be happy to leave–I devoutly, passionately hope that Mike Leppert is right, that the future will win out over nostalgia for the way we never were.
My grandmother had a saying: “from your mouth to God’s ears…”