Tag Archives: nostalgia

The Way We Never Were

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…”

A Plausible Explanation for the Otherwise Inexplicable

One of the disquieting realizations I’ve come to during this interminable campaign is just how many things I don’t understand.

Hard as it has been for me to “get” why any sentient being would support Donald Trump, I’ve been particularly confused about why Evangelical Christians would support a thrice-married admitted adulterer who boasts about his greed, talks about the size of his penis and has a long history of distinctly unChristian behaviors.

It certainly isn’t because they agree with his policy proposals. He doesn’t have any. (Martin Longman recently explained why policy has played such a minor role in this campaign: Despite the fact that Clinton has advanced multiple proposals,  you can’t have a policy debate with rageoholic voters, or with a candidate more focused on beauty queens and his penis than with what is ailing America.)

Not all Evangelicals support Trump, of course, but a significant number do, and I’ve been at a loss to account for that support. I recently came across an interview with Robert P. Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America” that offers a plausible explanation.

I went back and looked at remarks Trump made at that evangelical college in Iowa in January. There it became really clear to me that he really wasn’t making the case that he was an evangelical. Instead he was making the case that he saw their power slipping from the scene and that he was going to be the guy who would do something about it. He very explicitly said in that message in January in Iowa, “When I’m president, I’m going to restore power to the Christian churches. We’re not going to be saying ‘Happy Holidays,’ we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas.’”

In the book, Jones talks about the politics of nostalgia and grievance–important clues to Trump’s appeal.

When I think and write about white Christian America in the book, I use the term to refer to this big cultural and political edifice that white Protestants built in this country. This world allowed white Protestants to operate with a whole set of unquestioned assumptions. It really is the era of June Cleaver and Leave It to Beaver and Andy Griffith. This sense of nostalgia is very powerful for white Christians, particularly conservative white Christians, who could see themselves in that mythical depiction of 1950s America, but who are having a more difficult time seeing their place in a rapidly changing country….

 What has become most important to the eight in ten white evangelical voters who are now saying they’re voting for Trump over Clinton is that in Trump they see someone who is going to restore their vision of America. It is a vision which really does look like 1950s America. It’s pre-civil rights, it’s pre-women’s rights, and it’s before immigration policy was opened up in the mid-1960s. And most of all, it’s a time when white Protestants were demographically in the majority. But just over the last two election cycles, we’ve gone from a majority white Christian country to a minority white Christian country, from 54 percent white Christian in 2008 to 45 percent white Christian today. So this nostalgic vision of the country harkens back to a mythical golden age when white Protestants really did hold sway in the country, both in terms of numbers and in terms of cultural power.

As Jones sees it, Trump’s real appeal to white evangelicals—how they hear “Make American Great Again”—is his promise to turn back the clock and restore their power, a promise Jones puts in the same category as “I’m going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.”

Obviously, neither is going to happen. But then, reality isn’t Trump’s–or his supporters’–natural habitat. Grievance is.

There simply may not be “a bridge too far” for these voters, but I can’t help wondering how they  will rationalize away yesterday’s disclosure of a tape of Trump bragging about grabbing women by the p—y” ….

 

 

Brexit, Texit, Indiana

In the wake of the British vote to exit the EU, several of Texas’ more “colorful” politicians have renewed their call for Texas to exit the United States.

In my snarkier moments, I’d love to see Texas leave; for one thing, the federal government sends more of our tax dollars back to the Lone Star State than its taxpayers remit to Uncle Sam, and the rest of the U.S. certainly doesn’t benefit from most of the state’s forays into public policy, or from the wisdom of the people it sends to Congress. (Just losing Louie Gohmert would make “Texit” worthwhile.)

In my more measured moments, however, I recognize that Brexit and the subsequent efforts not just of Texan separatists but of far-right movements elsewhere represent a reaction to—and rejection of—modernity. We see that rejection everywhere, from the Taliban and ISIS trying to “purify” the Muslim Middle East, to the French members of Marie Le Pen’s National Front, to homegrown nativists wanting to “Make America Great Again.”

Elections have become a choice between accepting modernity with all its maddening complexities and frantic and futile efforts to “return” to a time that never was. That is just as true of local contests as it is for national referenda; Hoosier voters will face that choice in November.

Governor Mike Pence hasn’t just strongly endorsed Donald Trump, disqualifying as that endorsement is; well before Trump became the GOP nominee, Pence was advocating measures to keep Indiana from engaging with the 21st Century. (There’s a reason for the Facebook meme advising Hoosiers to turn their clocks back to 1800.)

Just a few of the more obvious examples: RFRA was focused on turning back the clock to a time when “God fearing” Hoosiers could discriminate against LGBT citizens with impunity. Signing the demeaning and punitive anti-choice bill (the most drastic in the country) was part and parcel of the old-time belief that women are not competent to make our own decisions about reproduction. His refusal to accept Syrian refugees (until a court reminded him that immigration comes under federal jurisdiction) was entirely in keeping with a worldview that looks askance at immigration, diversity and globalization.

In all fairness, Pence had plenty of help from Indiana’s GOP super-majority.

It’s easy to understand why so many people find modern life threatening. Change is constant; technology is confounding. Foreign people with different cultures and ideas can make us uncomfortable and unsure of our most foundational beliefs. The economic ground beneath our feet keeps shifting.

As disorienting as modernity is, however, the choice is not between a discomfiting now and a mythical then. If we find going forward too demanding, too frightening—if we vote for people firmly planted in an imagined past—we will simply be throwing in the towel, refusing to meet the challenges of our time.

What we won’t be doing is reinstating a world that never was.

A lot of people—including a number who read this blog—are unhappy with the candidates proposing to lead us forward. I understand that. But the choices this November are pretty stark: we can inch forward with people who are less than perfect, or we can go backward with people who live in never-never land.