The Politics of Nostalgia: America’s War with the Present

Posted on July 11, 2011 by

There is certainly no lack of theorizing in the mainstream and non-mainstream media about why the United States finds itself in what is, in effect, a political stalemate.  Theories range from media-fueled polarization, to the impact of the internet on giving voice to more radical perspectives, to increased income polarization, to increased suburbanization and alienation, to trends towards increased “assortative living” and on and on.  While all of these factors are certainly relevant to the current state of political discord in the U.S., and each has played a role in creating the current climate, nevertheless I think there is an over-arching theme that permeates American politics, currently, regardless of one’s specific political perspective (be it right, left or middle): nostalgia.

It seems to me that America is currently in the midst of a gauzy haze of nostalgia.  This phenomenon is not only political — it is also cultural, as well.  Susan Walsh has noted, in a recent post, that a spate of recent and soon to come television shows are focused on a nostalgic, almost wistful, kind of escapism from the present in favor of a perceived simpler, better time in the pre-1965 world.  Similar trends are observable in everything from popular music (with Lady Gaga being a kind of 1980s Madonna redux), fashion, film (e.g., the recent film Super8) and even in popular photography, where “retro” smartphone photography and video applications like Hisptamatic and dozens of similar ones are focused on recreating the kinds of images that existed in the age of film, before we digitized all media.  It seems that, these days, wherever one looks in the popular culture, the whiff of nostalgia is palpable and powerful.

In the political realm, this has translated into various ideological nostalgias, among virtually all political players and parties.  On the right, where it is often most obvious, it takes the form of a nostalgia for social relations and mores as they existed prior to the social revolution of 1965-1980.  On the left, where it just as present but sometimes less obvious, it takes the form of a nostalgia for economic relations that existed before the era of globalization, free trade, and the rise of former third world and communist countries as global competitors.  In the middle, it manifests itself in the desire for greater political amity and less divisiveness, again in a nostalgic remembrance of the clubiness of relationships among politicians that predominated in the period from 1950-1970.  Even libertarians indulge in a nostalgia of their own, a kind of “constitutional purity” nostalgia, in which the country can be returned to its “true vision” by stripping away this or that which has accrued over time and which therefore in the present distorts that primeval American vision.  Again, wherever one looks, there is a profound discontent with the present.  This discontent is certainly exacerbated by the current economic situation of the U.S., but was definitely not caused by it.  Rather, the seemingly universal discontent with the present — regardless of political persuasion — is based on several factors.

First, there is a widespread sense among a large percentage of the population that the best days of the U.S. are behind it.  This may be for cultural reasons or economic ones or both — but the feeling is quite strong and widespread and creates discontent.  This is to be contrasted with the general mood that prevailed in, say, 1960 (not to be nostalgic!), which was generally much more positive and upbeat about the future prospects for the nation.

Second, there is a sense of loss that is pervasive. The “kind” of loss that matters differs based on political persuasion, but the sense of loss is common.  The right feels a sense of cultural and moral loss.  The left feels a sense of economic loss, or economic solidarity loss.  Libertarians feel a sense of freedom loss.  Much of the present is perceived as loss, compared to the past, in the eyes of our nostalgia politics.

Third, there is, due to some of the issues that the nostalgists themselves point out, a much weaker sense of community, and much stronger polarization in the society.  This leads to greater ideological isolation, which leads to more radical views (on all sides) being aired, which in turn leads to great discontent with the present situation.  And the “content” of most of these radical views is very often quite nostalgic itself.  Progressives may view themselves as essentially forward-looking, but in reality they are for the most part fighting a rear-guard action to preserve the programs of the past, as well as to recreate economic conditions that prevailed 40 years ago.  Conservatives may see themselves as being fundamentally optimistic about the power of the American spirit to prevail against adversity, but much of their social programme reflects a desire to recreate broad social norms that prevailed 40 years ago.  And millions upon millions sympathize with one or the other side, often for rather nostalgic reasons based on what they, themselves, personally “miss” the most.

Where do we go from here?

One truism of history (and theoretical physics) is that time’s arrow points only in one direction.  It’s quite understandable why each political faction in the United States is nostalgic at the moment.  The U.S. finds itself in a position of relative economic and political (power) decline, vis-a-vis the rest of the world, as compared with the situation 40 years ago.  It also finds itself in a confused intermezzo in terms of social mores, where key social institutions are in the process of being pushed to the breaking point (if they have not broken down already, in some sub-communities in the US).  These things are true, regardless of what one thinks of them.  However, the path backward is not a realistic or possible path, for either side.  Insisting on a path backward is, in fact, part of the main problem our political system finds itself in — something that is fueled by both main political parties and their most loyal adherents.  By trying to reconstruct the conditions of the past through this or that social program or this or that legal prohibition (or legal elimination, as the case may be), each political side weakens its ability to speak in the present tense, and provides, at best, a brake on the efforts of the other side to recreate its own vision of the past.  The result of this dance is predictable:  gridlock, increasing polarization, and an inability to achieve much of anything satisfying for either side or for the society as a whole.

A better path, it seems to me, would be to abandon nostalgia without abandoning principles.  That is, to recognize that the essence of what it means to be “conservative” or “traditional” or what have you is something that is always fresh in every age, and in every circumstance, rather than being something that is tied to a particular time or set of circumstances that obtained sometime in the past.  In other words, it is high time that a principled, yet contemporary, kind of traditional conservatism be articulated in the present tense — in a way that embraces and celebrates to the greatest extent possible (without violating core principles) what is good and vibrant and supportive in the contemporary world, in our contemporary lives and situations while, at the same time, advocating policies that allow traditional approaches to life and culture to be lived in the current setting without being, to a significant degree, at war with it.  To me this is a far more fruitful path for conservative and traditional thinkers to engage in to move things forward, rather than to slip back into a comfortable yet fruitless nostalgia for a past that will not return.

In future posts, I’ll examine what the contours of such a contemporary traditionalism might look like, in specific areas of our lives, and in specific areas of our politics.