Note to reader: This is a long, rambling post from a previous NaNoWriMo attempt. I split it into two parts for clarity sake.
For the past three years, I have been challenging myself with reading goals. It sounds kind of silly admitting it aloud because I have always been an avid learner, though more of a reluctant reader, at least when it comes to dedicating myself to an entire book. In this way, the challenge has forced me to slow down, to absorb information more intentionally and to think more critically about ideas that I encounter, in addition to a pursuit of following through, of finishing a project once started.
Recently in this journey, I have been reading Strangers in Their Own Land, a fantastic book that attempts to climb what the author eloquently calls the “empathy wall” between her liberal enclave in Berkley, California and that of the center of the Tea Party: Louisiana. As an avid reader of social class and a member of the working class myself, I put off reading this book for at least two years, as I was extremely skeptical of the basic premise. Working class people in flyover country did not need some liberal professor coming in to “enlighten” them or “save” them, I thought. Certainly, I have discovered that my assumptions of the book were quite wrong.
Though I will elaborate on the book in another post (or two, or five….), there are many themes present in it that I have thought about obsessively since way before indulging in this particular book. What I truly enjoy about this book is that is succinctly captures many of the thoughts that I have been stewing over for at least three years. Two of those thoughts form an interrelated theme, one that I have only recently begun cracking open, though only to discover more layers below.
Nostalgia is a word with myriad meanings, but they all focus on the concept of an idealized past, one that is longed for in a loving way, full of memories of a greater-than-now time, innocent and often full of wonder, or at least love and warmth. The study of nostalgia as a political force has gained a little ground in recent years as sociologists, historians, political scientists, and even psychologists discover its power for influencing the world. Growing up in the Heartland in the midst of conservative politics, I can clearly attest to the power of nostalgia as an immense political force, and it is something that Hochshild hints at in her book, but it is something I feel deserves even more attention, as it forms not only a foundational piece of the current administration, but is in itself a pillar of an entire generation, if not ideological worldview. And it is one that spans the entire political spectrum, too.
Our current president has used nostalgia as the premier message for his campaign, with a promise to make American great again, as if there were a glory day to which we must return. Much in the same way that I have read about and discussed in the past few years regarding the idea of a pristine nature, we can clearly see that this idea doesn’t really quite exist, at least not in the way many supporters think it does. However, within it are truths that are important to acknowledge because not only do they help us understand this longing, but they are also powerful tools for moving forward in our society.
For me personally, the chief problem with nostalgia as such a critical junction in one’s ideology is its ephemerality. The truest constant of the universe is change. Research shows that liberals and conservatives incorporate different values of change into their own moral roots, and though this is not the entire moral story, it certainly has a measurable impact. If it did not, there would be little resonance for our current president’s message. However, despite its powerful pull and drive, we need to also acknowledge the ecological and scientific fact of the universe in which we live: change is a constant. We can either embrace it, or resist it to little avail. Besides, upon closer inspection, the idealized past that we long for probably never really quite existed as we thought it did. However, there may be aspects of it that did, which is why we study history. Union membership, for example, is one aspect of someone’s social class and upbringing that could influence their childhood idea of work and life that has simply withered itself away, for many reasons. However, if we look at what those numbers of union workers achieved, we might reconsider some of our current strategies within our movements.
Too many liberals and other progressives, though, focus on fighting the aspects of nostalgia that are obviously detrimental: the longing for a “whiter” world, the “return” of women to their “place,” and the diminishing of rights of many minorities, especially including LGBT folks. These are certainly real issues, and they must be taken extremely seriously, especially within the current administration. Though while we simultaneously fight to uphold these newly won rights, we should also ask the harder question: why is nostalgia such a powerful personal and political force?
Of all the morals, values, and ideologies shaping politics today, nostalgia plays not only a silent role, but a powerful one. It’s place within politics is relatively unexamined, at least when considering the reasons why it is such a powerful force, rather than just simply how. But a cogent analysis requires a little of both.
There are innumerable impacts of nostalgia on personal and political discourse, and here I will discuss a few that I have seen most resonantly in my experience and research.
Changing demographics has not only been an underlying force within politics in many obvious ways--increasing ethnic diversity, raising tension amongst social groups, and newer types of immigrants arriving to the country--but it has always changed the world in another, often less obvious way: regarding age. Baby boomers will soon be replaced as the dominant group, and with them, the dominant ideology of the current world. Without a doubt, this large demographic shift has shaped politics in modes both seen and unpredictable. I believe nostalgia is one of those shifts in the cosmos.
When examined on a personal level, age begets nostalgia, at least longing of a certain type. It is common when people reach certain ages to reflect upon their lives, reaching for the importance of their hard work, their community, their familial connections, and the general time that they have left. Upon reflection, one easily slips into nostalgia, in the form of hyperbolic stories or a longing for something no longer present, whether a fit mind and body or a loved one long since passed. As the largest generation in American history reaches this point in their lives, then, it is not pushing the envelope too far to claim that nostalgia would play a critical role in their everyday lives and that this may or may not bleed into their political worlds.
If we stop to consider the immense changes even in the last two decades in the lives of many boomers and older generations, we can simply gawk at how radical the world has become interconnected, faster, and more globalized in the matter of just one person’s 12 years of schooling. These changes have wrought other shifts in society as well, many of which are positive. However, many of these very changes also create an immovable shift as they collide headlong with the ideologies present in many previous generations. Some of these are moldable, others are not.
While the baby boomer generation will slowly leave us, their resistance to change may shift, but it is also likely that their longing for a past will also increase. In this way, and in others, we must ask ourselves what aspects of the past are best to remember. Surely any of us would love for any other person to want to remember life well, but the definition of a life lived well may differ between folks.
Within this difference, though, we find the more complex and nuanced factors influenced by the force of nostalgia in both personal and professional life.
Some of the shifts toward nostalgia are certainly guided by principles that many would renounce. In the US for example, there exists a small minority who long for some of these aspects of society, whether they be a return to a time when women and blacks and LGBT folks were reserved as second class citizens or at least to a time when those issues weren’t discussed in the ways they currently are being debated. At its deepest root, some of these folks may have genuine concerns, though I personally believe they are misguided in their solutions and overall conclusions. However, within some of these more radical viewpoints exist parcels of other, more common, beliefs.
One such belief relies upon the idea of tradition. As society increasingly becomes secular, scientific, and technologically based on a globalized system, traditions of all sorts are diminished, as new ones are consistently developed and refined. When one is in shock of these new changes--especially when they challenge the very foundations of one’s identity or morality--it is easy to side into a nostalgic state of mind, sometimes for good reason. It is important to note, though, that this slide away from tradition can affect both sides of politics, or at least issues that are associated with both sides. For example, while science undermines Judeo-Christian religion, technologies that exploit indigenous land breakdown tribal networks and governments. Though seen as divergent on the political spectrum, these issues are actually intimately tied and both sides participate in a form of nostalgia to lift these issues up, whether that be through a return to “traditional” Christian “family” values or the empowering of indigenous people to take back their homelands. In this way, nostalgia is practiced across the political divide.
Butting heads with tradition isn’t something that humans haven’t overcome in the past, as the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution clearly point out. However, the complete overhaul of traditional systems across the board is certainly something coming from nearly every academic field, from Quantum Theory to Philosophy to Ecology. Similar to Newton’s second law, it may not be too farfetched to consider an equal and opposite reaction from those still clinging to tradition in the face of a massive wave of global integration. In fact, many World Systems Theorists posit many events of the last half century in this regard, from terrorism against US and Western “values” to ethnic cleansing in Yugoslavia and Burma. As new ideologies replace tradition there may be increased violence, hatred, and bigotry. Avoiding these will require compromise and empathy from all sides, I think.
Similarly, the left and the right use this nostalgia to refer to similar time periods, though often for very different reasons. For example, one idea of many libertarians is a return to simpler times, a time when people worked with their hands and could do many of the jobs needed in everyday life. This idea of simpler times can be seen across the spectrum but is especially prevalent in rural society that is increasingly becoming poorer, left out of the conversation, and is traditionally Christian and conservative. A very similar issue can be seen advocated on the left, though: the return to a pristine nature. Within the environmental movement, a return to the Pleistocene world of bountiful beauty and wildness is implicit and explicit within the discourse of the movement, though, once again, it spans the political spectrum. Both of these concepts are clearly half-truths: true in certain regards but not in their entirety.
There is another important point often acknowledged that both of these examples point directly toward: an idealized past. Many commentators contend that a certain past existed, and it is our duty to return to that past, especially because our current state has us “drifting away.” Historians are always quick to point out, however, that often our ideas of the past are often overzealous and unrealistic in their simplicity, even naive. However, even with this in mind, we must consider that not only do these logical details matter little, as nostalgia is a feeling and not necessarily a logical thought, it is also true that some aspects of the past not only were positive but may, indeed, be worth longing for, as they have slipped away from our societal grasp and other, less pleasant phenomena, have filled the void.
To begin, we can examine union membership. In the post-war period of US history, union membership soared and with it, a standard of living that become not only the basis for the mythical American Dream but also some sense of upward mobility and stability. Along with union membership, policies across the board favored the worker, but not necessarily at the expense of the owner. However, they did force corporations and bosses to become incredibly thoughtful about the ways they did business. This form of quasi-Keynesian economics succeeded for nearly 30 years before coming to a halt during the oil embargo crisis in the mid and late 1970s. During this time period, a new consensus emerged and union membership declined. Simultaneously following a half decade of membership collapse, business regulations also crumbled after the very successful early 1970s. Along with this, corporate taxes declined, automation increased, and offshoring thrived. The time of globalization emerged, to the detriment of many blue collar, unionized manufacturing and other jobs, which forced the entire economy to change, despite few supports from above. In this way, union membership declined throughout the years and with it, many of its benefits, including negotiating higher wages, worker benefits, and a general kinship amongst workers. As one can see, this positive benefit of looking nostalgically at the world could be to our benefit, and it is certainly something important to note.
Along with union membership, upward mobility has seen a recent decline in the US, along with a lack of belief in the myth of the promised American Dream. It is easy to turn toward nostalgia when the past certainly looked and actually existed, at least in certain ways, in a way that was more stable, with careers that helped someone get by.
Beyond just economic reasons, though, other factors are influencing an increased turn toward nostalgia, too. Some of these are cultural, such as beliefs in a time of more freedom, less PC conflict, or just simply a return to innocence and childhood, the golden years. With these in mind, it is important to realize that there are innumerable reasons why nostalgia influences politics and the personal today. In the end, it is critical to accept that while some aspects of nostalgia may be rooted in false notions, they are always in a sense “true” insofar as they evoke true, valid emotions, even when those emotions may be based on a false belief, or at best a half-correct belief, what I will call a half-truth or a double-truth. Despite this, understanding nostalgia as a political entity begins with thinking the why, not just the how.
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About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.