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The Triumph of Weaponized Nostalgia
Past eras of stable white Christian patriarchal dominance are widely sanitized and mythologized in our political discourse
Why spend so many words on detailing what should be evident to anyone following politics in good faith: that David Brooks has a tendency to present diagnoses of America’s past and present that don’t hold up to serious scrutiny? That was the tenor of many responses I got to last week’s newsletter, in which I dissected Brooks’ latest feature in The Atlantic – a moralizing tale about “How America Got Mean.” In fact, I received more comments on this essay than on anything I have ever written. The vast majority of responses was positive and supportive – I can’t say I am all that surprised that most of the people who would invest the effort to read my lengthy posts share the sense that Brooks exemplifies many of the problems with a certain type of vacuous, but immensely influential political punditry. And I get it: Who Brooks is, the way he works, and the political project he embodies is all well established. My point, however, was that if we simply discard “How America Got Mean” as David Brooks-doing-David-Brooks-things, we miss what makes this piece diagnostically relevant. The nostalgia problem goes well beyond just Brooks or even the center-Right: Much of the mainstream political discourse is animated by a longing for a “golden age” in the past that never actually existed, and the accumulative effect of this pervasive sense of nostalgia is to undermine and sabotage the response to the reactionary assault on democratic multiracial pluralism.
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Invoking a mythical past is essential to the Right’s political project
“Make America Great Again” is one manifestation of an ideology that seeks to return the country to a supposedly better state in the past. It’s also so obviously defined by white nationalist grievance that only proper rightwingers are ready to proudly don MAGA hats. But the longing to turn the clock back is hardly confined to Trump and his loyalists. David Brooks, for instance, is not a Trumpist. In fact, he claims that the recipes and recommendations borne out of his moralizing lament would provide the antidote to Trump. Yet he fails to acknowledge that his diagnosis of secular decline shares key elements with the Right’s critique of “woke” progressivism, providing an important vehicle to transport rightwing ideas into the mainstream and make the reactionary project more palatable in “respectable” circles. The effect is ultimately to blunt the mainstream reaction to the Right’s radicalization.
In the way he articulates and ennobles a sense of nostalgia, Brooks is emblematic of the current mainstream political discourse. Two of the central, widely accepted diagnoses of our time, for instance, are both grounded in nostalgia: The narrative of “polarization” as the root of all evil that plagues America and the idea that “cancel culture” constitutes a national emergency and a drastic departure from a glorious tradition of free speech. At the core of both the “polarization” and the “cancel culture” tales is the idea that it used to be better, that America is on a dangerous path away from an exemplary period in the recent past – a golden era of consensus and bipartisanship, or a golden era of free speech. Both benefit from the kind of political nostalgia which they, in turn, perpetuate.
Elsewhere, I have written and talked many times about why the “polarization” narrative, once it is adopted as an overarching diagnosis, does not hold up to a serious empirical, normative, or historical critique. As a governing political paradigm, it obscures the specifics of the current political conflict. Beyond offering a misleading interpretation of the present, moreover, the “polarization” narrative usually comes with a hefty dose of “golden age” nostalgia for a long-lost “consensus.” The polarization story tends to create a narrative of the American polity in decline – suggesting that the status quo ante against which the polarized decades since the 1970s are measured was one of unity and order.
But political “consensus,” to the extent it ever existed, was usually confined to white male elites and based on a cross-partisan accord to leave a discriminatory social order intact and deny marginalized groups equal representation and civil rights. The frequently invoked “consensus” of the post-World War II era, for instance, was depending on both major parties agreeing that white patriarchal rule would remain largely untouched. By the 1960s, however, that white male elite consensus had started to fracture. The parties began to split over the question of whether or not the country should become a multiracial, pluralistic democracy – a system in which an individual’s status would not be determined significantly by race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. Put differently, it wasn’t a coincidence that “polarization” started when one party broke with the white elite consensus and supported – albeit reluctantly – the civil rights revolution of the 1960s. In many ways, “polarization” is the price U.S. society has had to pay for real progress towards multiracial pluralism.
And yet, “consensus” nostalgia characterizes much of the broader polarization discourse. The longing for a supposedly better, pre-polarization era shines through even in generally excellent work, such as Steven Levitsky’s and Daniel Ziblatt’s investigation of How Democracies Die. Published in 2018, How Democracies Die is arguably the most famous – and one of the best – among the many books in the “liberal democracy in crisis” category that have successfully targeted a wider audience since the beginning of the Trump era. What distinguishes political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt is that they provide a convincing dissection of how the pre-1960s “consensus” was based on racial exclusion and depended on a cross-party agreement amongst white men to leave white patriarchal supremacy intact. And yet, in the end, the authors still settle on a warning against the dangers of “polarization” and combine it with praise for the mid-twentieth-century consensus era that was supposedly characterized by “egalitarianism, civility, sense of freedom.” (p. 231)
Historians are not at all immune to this kind of nostalgia. Jill Lepore’s grand 2018 retelling of U.S. history in These Truths, for instance, suffers markedly from relying almost exclusively on the polarization framework for interpreting the recent past. The final 250 pages of These Truths are basically a long-drawn-out lament over America’s decline since the 1960s that was supposedly caused by “both sides” becoming increasingly extreme and unreasonable. And it’s entirely unsupported by the evidence presented in the book. Bemoaning the end of a “midcentury era of political consensus,” Lepore diagnoses “division, resentment, and malice” as the animating forces in American politics since the late 1960s. In her interpretation, “wrenching polarization” brought “the Republic to the brink of a second civil war” and shaped America “to the detriment of everyone” (quotes on p. 633, 658, 546). But what if it did not? “Everyone” is certainly doing some heavy lifting here…
Lepore’s description of the media landscape is a case in point for “both sides”-ism completely distorting the picture. She laments the emergence of radically partisan media on both left and right resulting in what she calls “mutually assured epistemological destruction” (p. 711). The metaphor is striking—but it hinges on the questionable characterization of Fox News and MSNBC as equally partisan and extreme. When Lepore gives a detailed account of Rush Limbaugh’s outsized influence on conservative politics or the machinations of conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, it becomes clear that there are simply no equal counterparts on the Left. And yet, the narrative of polarization indicates that there should be, and encourages the search for (false) equivalence. Ultimately, it primes people to accept a politics focused on turning the clock back to a supposedly better past – before all the nastiness, before “America Got Mean,” as David Brooks put it.
When, exactly, was that golden era of “free speech”?
A similar dynamic characterizes much of the “cancel culture” discourse and lends legitimacy to the diagnosis that America is experiencing a “free speech crisis” – an idea the Right has successfully weaponized in service of a reactionary political project. Mainstream “free speech” nostalgia was on full display in an infamous New York Times editorial in March 2022. It presented a tale of decline: “something has been lost,” the paper of record’s editorial board lamented. But when, exactly, was that golden age of free speech when all Americans were at ease to speak their minds at all times?
Unless we are talking about wealthy white Christian men only, it makes little sense to construct a version of U.S. history in which previous eras were characterized by greater freedom while the very recent past has been marked by a loss of free speech.
I have often cited Yascha Mounk’s contention that Americans are less free to speak their minds today than in the 1950s (the 1950s!) as one of the more bizarre examples of the distorting effects of “free speech” nostalgia.
If your “objective” numbers tell you that people in 1950s-Red Scare-Segregated-Patriarchy America enjoyed more “free speech” than today, you need to think a little harder about what kind of data you got in front of you (and you should consider picking up a history book).
Combine the ideas of “polarization” and “cancel culture” into a myth of a past golden age of unity and freedom and you get the kind of easy-to-weaponize nostalgia that provides fertile ground for anyone who promises to restore a more stable equilibrium.
How far should the clock be turned back? The current state-level Republican assault on the post-1960s civil rights regime suggests that the GOP is dominated by forces determined to take society and culture back to the white Christian patriarchal regime of the 1950s and return the country’s political economy and state capacity to what it was like in the pre-New Deal era.
The clear majority of Americans rejects this vision. But many “moderate” conservatives and people on the Center are willing to provide cover for the increasingly authoritarian rightwing minoritarianism that constitutes the key threat to pluralistic democracy. Nowhere has this manifested more clearly than in the opinion pages of the nation’s leading mainstream newspapers, where the radicalizing reactionary mobilization against democracy has been accompanied by a constant drumbeat of anti-“woke” commentary and warnings about the dangers of encroaching leftwing illiberalism. It is here that a mainstream audience regularly encountered the idea that there was indeed something dangerous about Critical Race Theory, that all this talk about structural racism was divisive, corrosive, and subversive. Christopher Rufo, the main architect behind that manufactured anti-“CRT” panic, knew that people primed to believe that a “radical new progressivism” was injecting extremist race talk into the classroom would have a hard time resisting his crusade – or would at least exhibit a lot more tolerance towards it. Still, today, the paper of record is platforming Rufo as a voice to be taken seriously, even as he is helping Ron DeSantis spearhead the authoritarian assault on education.
Then there are the never-ending cries of “cancel culture” and the “free speech crisis” the country is supposedly facing – all caused by leftwing censoriousness that is supposedly equal to the most dangerous forms of totalitarianism in the twentieth century. And there is, finally, the insistence by the mainstream media’s self-proclaimed arbiters of reason that “gender ideology” and “trans-genderism” are spreading like wildfire among teenagers, that our children are being pushed into transitioning in great numbers, and that a powerful cabal of radical trans activists is making sure no one gets to ask any critical questions.
No serious person should still be humoring the drastically disingenuous claim that none of this has any connection to the reactionary policies that are being legitimized as a necessary defense against exactly the kinds of radicalizing leftwing dangers the mainstream discourse is constantly presenting as real and urgent, that it hasn’t helped undermine the resilience of the center, broadly speaking, to stand united against the assault of basic liberties and civil rights.
Why are so many “respectable” elites willing to help provide fertile ground for these rightwing campaigns, even though they are uneasy about Trumpian extremism and the energies and anxieties that are fueling its rise? The mantra among “reasonable” centrist and center-Right pundits is that the illiberal Left is pushing America far beyond what is right and just, into the territory of rampant “wokeism.” Fundamentally, they agree that someone needs to stand up to the radically “woke” Left because things have gone too far – enough already!
The pervasive nostalgia among the nation’s elite commentariat is a reflection of widespread anxieties regarding the fundamental social, cultural, and demographic changes America has been undergoing over the past few decades – anxieties the Right is gleefully, and to great success, weaponizing. Once you’ve convinced yourself that the country is coming apart, you might decide it’s ultimately preferable to lend your support to those who promise to turn the clock back rather than to the “radical Left.” Even if it means you’ll have to hold your nose while doing so.
Nostalgia is a powerful part of the human condition. It can easily become a filter through which every political, social, and cultural information is absorbed. And if a political movement offers to bring back what has supposedly been lost, that can be hard to resist.
Countering the politics of nostalgia
What is the counter to the pervasive longing for a better past and the politics of weaponized nostalgia? A more accurate understanding of American history might be a start, one that doesn’t idolize consensus and stability, but acknowledges that they often stifled racial and social progress. In U.S. history, the price for extending democracy has always been political instability – or: division, polarization – because demands for equality and social justice are inherently destabilizing to an order based on traditional white Christian patriarchal authority. American democracy was stable whenever and as long as it didn’t interfere with a political, social, and cultural order in which wealthy white Christians – and white Christian men, in particular – got to be on top and got to define what did and what did not count as “real America.” Conversely, moments of racial and social progress – or even just perceived progress – have always been conflictual, have always led to a reactionary counter-mobilization that threatened to abolish democracy altogether rather than accept multiracial pluralism.
Similarly, there was no talk of a “free speech crisis” as long as those in power got to define the boundaries of what was / wasn’t acceptable speech – before traditionally marginalized groups gained enough influence and the technological means to make their claims heard. What rightwingers and reactionary centrists deride as a “free speech crisis” is better understood as a much-needed conversation about changing speech norms – one that the Right wants to delegitimize by applying the “cancel culture” label. This process of re-negotiating the boundaries of acceptable speech is conflictual and can be messy. But it’s necessary because traditionally marginalized groups are finally part of that conversation. As such, it constitutes not decline, crisis, or carnage – but progress.
Nostalgia is a common reaction to change. And weaponized nostalgia is a powerful tool of reactionary politics. Let’s not fall for it. Absolutely no need to mythologize past eras of stable white Christian patriarchal rule.
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