“We Have to Go Back” Politics

*Cracks knuckles. Stretches forearms out. Wiggles digits over keyboard.*

Ahhhhhh. I’ve been waiting years to dash off this column. And not just because I frequently force my kids to watch the old Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon or my work desk is littered with eBay-acquired Happy Meal toys.

Without further amygdala-tickling ado, I present: my grand theory of nostalgia! *Crowd goes wild, cheering like I just finished first on Rainbow Road racing 150cc.*

To think I have Twitter’s biggest centrist whiner to thank for this memory-lane skipping disquisition: Matt Yglesias.

(No, this won’t be a jeremiad against Yglesias’s pipe dream of sprouting “one billion Americans.” Three-hundred-and-half-million Yankees is quite enough, thank you. I love my country but how many more Swifties and Netflix bingers do we really need on this blue ball?)

“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” said Milan Kundera. Yglesias agrees, but from the power end. He and his nerdocratic meliorist milieu think we put too much sentimental weight in the past, which blinds us to the possibility of bettering our future. Basically, the “you damn Mayberry-loving troglodytes who don’t celebrate transnational high-frequency capital trading!” argument.

In “Nostalgia Politics Is a Dead End,” Ygelsias isn’t making a clever pun. He really means Whitman’s “backwards glance o’ver travel’d roads” can’t be the governing basis for any society, especially America’s. Longing for a lost Arcadia isn’t just counterproductive, but, more often than not, mistaken. “I know, deep down, that nostalgia is an illusion,” Yglesias reasons.

The real mark of Yglesias’s ire is the nebulous notion of the average 1950s-era American family being better off than today’s. Objectively speaking, the mid-century living standards of your usual “retvrn” meme “would be typical of poverty in the contemporary United States.” Yglesias correctly points out that few modern women would want to return to the June Cleaver stay-at-home mores. And even fewer couples would sacrifice a dual income for the sake of the floor being vacuumed every day. (Though not stepping on Lego in the middle of the night while racing for a crying toddler’s bottle would be nice—except they’re usually my Lego.) That toothpaste is out of the bottle, as they say.

“[C]ontemporary conservative nostalgia-nomics,” is wrongheaded, Yglesias argues, because it’s more “aesthetic” than concretely remedial. His critique contains some truth: I grew up in a one-bathroom, three-bedroom Cape Cop that was “nice” by post-war, shuttered-Air-Force-base-family-barracks standards. Now I live in a house with four working toilets, twice as many bedrooms, and a furnished basement, knowing full well the latter is better even with my political disposition being in favor of the first.

But materialistic striving isn’t everything, despite our technoliberalcrat class’s insistence. It’s also a shallow cosmovision. “‘How can you be nostalgic for a time when your toaster didn’t even have an LED screen?’ is, I think, the single most groan-inducing bad-faith argument in world history,” tweeted Matthew Walther. Ross Douthat goes further, disputing Yglesias’s characterization of the nostalgia as both a false image and “the basic human preference for being young and vigorous,” which for an increasing amount of wrinkling adults means playing License-to-Kill Goldeneye multiplayer mode and arguing over whether or not Charizard can beat Mewtwo. (Only if Mewtwo knows ice beam, for the record.)

We may be richer now, but by all socioeconomic counts, we’re increasingly miserable. Need citation? Just search every major news pub for recent trends in depression, mental-health maladies, or so-called “deaths of despair.” Douthat plays the reverse objective-statistic card: as early as two decades ago, Americans were by and large happier, not as suicidal, not as addicted to opioids, less lonely, and more likely to settle into marriage and parenthood. That’s not an “aesthetic” but a confirmed sociological fact.

But Douthat understands only some of the pull Housman’s “happy highways where I went/And cannot come again.” (Can you tell I have an aide-memoire reserved for nostalgic epigrams? Memory is hard to remember.) Those lost days did seem more carefree, full of lief and life. It’s not a rose-tinted mental deception, or a Surge-and-Dunkaroos-induced hallucination, to consider that your childhood—in my case, the gloriously idyllic ‘90s, which Christopher Caldwell defined as the blissful decade between two collapses, the Soviet Union and Twin Towers—was better than your present. Saudade is a real emotion with heavy, dragging weight.

And here’s where we come to my all-important theory of nostalgia. The reason most of us keep what Philip Roth called a “hopeless, senseless loyalty to the long ago” is because that long ago is already defined. It’s over. The ending exists now. When you hear a word that evokes a special feeling, or catch a Proustian whiff of scent that recalls a particular moment, or browse Instagram and perk up seeing Fantastic Four figures your mom once bought you at Toys”R”Us (RIP), you smile wistfully in these remembrances because they’re safe. The conclusion wasn’t calamitous, if you’re still alive and breathing.

Meanwhile, the future is unknown, undetermined, up to chance. That’s why you can never know if you’re living in the “good old days” because your present joy is always in danger of being disrupted.

Politicians promising to “take us back” or “make America great again” shouldn’t be dismissed as hokey, mossbacked oldsters trying to revivify a myth. Nostalgia politics has a powerful appeal in its warm certainty. It shouldn’t be dismissed as quaint cozening.

The first presidential candidate promising to bring N64 kiosks back to McDonald’s stands a good chance at a 50-state sweep, fueled entirely by millennial mourning over a simpler, more comforting time.

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Free the People publishes opinion-based articles from contributing writers. The opinions and ideas expressed do not always reflect the opinions and ideas that Free the People endorses. We believe in free speech, and in providing a platform for open dialog. Feel free to leave a comment!

Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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