(Mis)Remembering the Good Old Days: The Politics of Nostalgia

I live in a suburb of Youngstown, in what is arguably a sterling example of the “white-flight” communities that have weakened our cities. My reasons for doing so would take too much time to discuss here, but the short version is that my partner grew up on a farm and here we have more than an acre of land—it’s a compromise, and I like the town. It reminds me of the New England community in which I grew up.

Everyday, I walk my dogs through the village, and on most days, I talk with my neighbors, who according to voting statistics are primarily conservative, and who according to me, are generally very good neighbors. Because I grew up in a place like this, I know to avoid talking about religion and politics, but this past Saturday, I let down my guard and got an earful of insight into our current political climate, one too often sustained by broad generalizations that divide the working middle class and the poor.

A local business owner, a man I like for his big dreams and for his openness, treated me to the familiar “Tea Party” mantra in passionate and patriotic oratory—more freedom, less government, no unions, no healthcare/socialism, no entitlements, and then of course, a return to Reagan conservativism.

As a former journalist and a teacher of aspiring journalists, I avoid disclosing personal details and discourage my students from first-person interjections, even in my Opinion Writing class. The argument goes that by taking oneself out of the equation, one focuses more on facts and policy issues thereby allowing for a greater connection to broader audiences who might not otherwise identify with the persona of the writer. This weekend I broke my rule and put the theory to the test.

I told my neighbor that my parents lived in a public housing project until the birth of the sixth and seventh children of their ten children(twins — we were the result of strict adherence to the church’s stance on birth control), and during these years, they also received food assistance. My father, who didn’t graduate high school, worked as a short order cook, as a dishwasher, and at a host of other jobs.  My neighbor exclaimed that this was exactly the point—my father was one of the “good ones,” who used the system as “way up and not a hand out.” But the truth is, and I told him this, that my father might not have found a “way out” save one life-altering opportunity: after numerous fits and starts he landed a job as a truck driver and therefore membership in the Teamsters union.  The union afforded my father job security, a decent wage for his manual labor, and perhaps most importantly, health care for his children which, in turn, allowed him to keep the house he had recently bought with a government backed loan for WWII vets, the house in which I grew up in a small, safe community with a solid public school system.

Had my father not had the good fortune of his union job, it’s quite probable that the expense of my sister’s minor spina bifida or of the more routine episodes of broken bones, childhood illnesses, decades of dental care, or that one terrible car accident might have plunged us back into poverty, with no bootstraps with which we might lift ourselves back up.

Of course, my neighbor insisted that my father represents a different generation, one with a presumably superior set of values that enabled them to get ahead—and he is partially right in his nostalgia. My father’s generation was different in that much of his adulthood and, and a part of my childhood were spent in an America in which the gap between the poor, the rich, and the middle class was not as pronounced as it is now. As Paul Krugman notes, “The Greatest Generation,” to which my father belonged, was much more equal, largely because of “more or less deliberate compression of wage differentials during World War II.”  And that equality lasted more about 30 years thanks to “a powerful union movement, which is at least in large part a change in the political climate, but then remained in place for several decades more.”

Krugman explains that over the last 30 years, the movement to the far right of the Republican Party created tacit support for union busting policies of the 80s – remember PATCO? That caused a decline in union power and membership, which in turncontributed to the enormous gap between rich and poor and between rich and middle class.

Frank Rich argues that while this anti-healthcare ire finds its locus in the Tea Party doctrine of “more freedom, less government,” the resistance is really linked to the dwindling power of the white majority.  While I agree with his analysis, I think one can’t discount the power of nostalgia, a point hinted at by Rich.  In public discourse, Jane Hill notes, nostalgia makes it possible for “people who benefit from the practices that they believe are legitimated by tradition” to at the same time “put forward their political interests.”

The current movement against government involvement in health care and the power of unions illustrates this.  As Krugman’s analysis suggests, many of those who are calling for a return to “the real America” forget what led to current problems.  The great days for which they yearn were built in part by strong unions that advocated fair wages and decent affordable health care, as well as government programs and policies that limited the gap between rich and poor.

Nostalgia explains the contradiction between the often fierce support some offer for Social Security and Medicare and dire warnings that government involvement equals “socialism.”  As a recent New York Times poll shows, a majority of those claiming allegiance to the Tea Party, who are on average at least 45 years-old, oppose government healthcare, but they favor the continuance of Social Security and Medicaid, programs staunchly criticized by conservative poster-boy Ronald Reagan, who campaigned against Medicare on behalf of the American Medical Association (AMA), according to Larry DeWitt.

Reagan also mastered the art of pitting the working class against the poor. Lost in the shiny mythology that has become the Reagan legacy, a mythos largely unchallenged by mainstream media, is the Great Communicator’s invention of the “welfare queen,” as DeWitt recalls:

When a welfare recipient in Chicago was publicly exposed in 1977 for having defrauded state welfare programs out of $8,000 by using two identities, Reagan transformed the news report into a story regarding a “welfare queen” who drove a Cadillac and who collected an annual tax-free income of $150,000 by using “eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and . . . collecting veterans’ benefits on four nonexisting deceased husbands.” Reagan repeated this story of the Chicago welfare queen multiple times over the years, growing it like some kind of political fish-story with each re-telling. In the end, it seems clear that he could not distinguish his own mythical version from the historical one.

Reagan mainstreamed his disdain for the unions and for the poor, and he birthed the ethos that permeates today’s recession weary middle class: that one is lucky to have a job and the poor are poor because they lack the character of my father’s generation.

Rooted deeply in evocations of the golden ages of the Reagan years, or back further to the bootstraps ethic of the greatest generation, or further still to the founding fathers, the current anti-everything movement dissolves historical contingencies and uncomfortable facts into a nostalgia that ignores the role of unions in post-war prosperity, or the founders belief that only male land-owners should vote, or Reagan’s loathing for what his budget director David Stockton once labeled, “closet socialism,” Social Security and Medicare, or the fact that once he realized the popularity of these programs,Reagan abandoned his fantasy of dismantling them but stayed stringently on his union-busting course.

My neighbor is fiscally conservative, socially liberal, and non-white.  I respect his opinions, even when we disagree. As we spoke, he remembered instances that run counter to the Reagan mythology.  He was surprised to hear that, I, a Democrat am not “anti-capitalism,” and that I recognize the advantages this system brought my family. I understand his deep-rooted love for this country and his worry that things are changing too quickly. As I walked back past the rows of carefully restored historic homes to my own, I was reminded of how much we can learn from one another when we move our conversations beyond rhetorical flourishes wrapped in a kind of nostalgia for a past that likely never was and instead engage one another in civil discourse, discourse that acknowledges the faces, friends, and families behind public policy.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, The Working Class and the Economy, Understanding Class, Working-class politics. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to (Mis)Remembering the Good Old Days: The Politics of Nostalgia

  1. Jeanne says:

    I’m with you about nostalgia, but I want you to stop misremembering unions. In the past, they were deeply racist and sexist institutions, and some of that still lives inside of unions. Just ask the woman who installed our solar panels or the women in Haiti who got “help” from US unions only to have all the money they “won” with the help taken away by the unions.

    I want working people to organize, but I’d prefer it come from the bottom up again, like it did when we got the weekend and the forty hour work week and child labor protection laws. I’d like the current working class, mostly people of color, to mobilize, this time acknowledging and dealing with racism as part of poor working conditions.

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  2. Jack Labusch says:

    Maybe some Tea Partyers will eventually be persuaded to join with others to comment on local health care happenings, combat civic inertia, stave off public anxiety, and prepare for unusual and unexpected changes in a deeply iniquitous health care system.

    The disturbances feared by Tea Partyers, and caused by America’s unique group health insurance and government interventions, have been in place for generations.

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  3. Kendra C says:

    “and d) that there were too few incentives to work. Some of the last point had a racial tinge, but I think this is a widespread conception of welfare-state gone awry — one I hear from my white housekeeper about some of her relatives and others she knows, as well as from the relatively affluent crowd who made it to the Tea Party convention. I also feel it, sharing with Malvina Reynolds the old left sentiment that everyone who can is required to pull their weight — no free riders. The current bureaucratic welfare system allows large numbers of free riders, including the Section 8 dope dealers who lived down the street from me, neglecting their sweet but hungry children (who will undoubtedly too soon be anything but sweet) and moving our neighborhood’s spreading blight one house closer to my own.”

    Jane Adams, I appreciate your lengthy and nuanced comment. However, the section I’ve quoted above makes me, as someone with personal experience with poverty in the US, both on Welfare and off, extremely wary.

    It seems clear from your statements that you have not experienced the “current bureaucratic welfare system.” You speak of “large numbers of free riders.” Who are these free riders?

    Seth Wessler investigated and wrote an informative piece about food stamps and their use and misuse that might shed some light on “those who can’t” and why:

    http://colorlines.com/article.php?ID=685&p=1

    In addition, you seemed to duck the question of the Tea Partier’s racist implications around poor people who aren’t motivated to work. By invoking your white housekeeper, you suggest that race has nothing to do with it, and that indeed, there are poor people of all colors who just don’t want to work because they could be collecting a government check. This analysis appears to embrace a kind of colorblind, Welfare Queen classism in order to avoid sounding racist.

    Of course there are American citizens who choose not to work. I argue that there are far fewer than you suggest. And I argue that before you condemn those who are caught in this nation’s woefully inadequate social safety net, you take a good hard look at what it’s actually like to get government assistance, perhaps by chatting with those “Section 8 dope dealers” to find out their story.

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  4. Bennett Steury says:

    I oftentimes have to use my sister as an example in conversation so that the “welfare queen” does not come to mind when health care reform is debated. It seems the “welfare queen” of today is the undocumented immigrant or the lazy person who won’t find a job, as if they are growing on trees these days.

    My sister has worked low wage jobs for years because, in order to cut child care costs, she has to work less than 30 hours a week to be home when the kids are. She works at a daycare and can’t afford to pay for day care. She went without health insurance for herself for years and went without preventative care long enough to be diagnosed with early stage cervical cancer.

    She is the reason health care reform had to happen so I agree Tim. Sometimes bringing the human side of the equation to light is the only way it can sink in for some folks.

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  5. Jane Adams says:

    I observed the Tea Party Convention in Nashville and spoke with a number of people there. The folks we talked with were specifically not opposed to all government programs. Some worked for the government and explicitly and thoughtfully valued a lot more than simply SS and Medicare. But what I heard were a number of serious critiques of government, and specifically of the stimulus programs: a) That it expanded government excessively and hindered the private sector — referring more to Main St. than to Wall St. or transnational corporations; b) that government promoted and condoned widespread corruption, both inside government and in the private sector; c) that government was inefficient, ineffective and bloated; and d) that there were too few incentives to work. Some of the last point had a racial tinge, but I think this is a widespread conception of welfare-state gone awry — one I hear from my white housekeeper about some of her relatives and others she knows, as well as from the relatively affluent crowd who made it to the Tea Party convention. I also feel it, sharing with Malvina Reynolds the old left sentiment that everyone who can is required to pull their weight — no free riders. The current bureaucratic welfare system allows large numbers of free riders, including the Section 8 dope dealers who lived down the street from me, neglecting their sweet but hungry children (who will undoubtedly too soon be anything but sweet) and moving our neighborhood’s spreading blight one house closer to my own.

    Today, unions are largely made up of public employees, supported by tax dollars, not industrial workers or workers in the trades. As government services decline, and as state, local, and federal governments are in crisis, government employees’ generally good salaries, benefits, and job security are often resented by people whose own lives are far more precarious in the private sector — even if they appear among the relatively affluent for the moment.

    Then, the public schools are too often failing, not only because of their failure to deal with educating poor children, but also because they are not preparing lots of middle class kids for the world outside their walls. And the teachers and administrators and school boards too often appear indifferent to this failure, but rather appear primarily concerned with their own paychecks and working conditions.

    Every significant improvement creates unintended consequences, and (in addition to sentimental nostalgia and the self-interest of the privileged) it’s clear that the reforms of the New Deal and Great Society eras had significant unintended consequences that not only hamper economic growth, but jeopardize the well-being of a large number of people and the communities and institutions within which they live. These programs were created to resolve the contradictions in industrial capitalism and white supremacy. They created their own problems and we now face new ones rooted in the globalized economy and environmental pressures. Nostalgia for the labor movement and all it represents (and won) will not help us solve the current crises — any more than conservative programs will. The problems are global, not simply national, and require a re-thinking of what policies and practices will “bend toward justice” in the 21st century.

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  6. Joe Atkins says:

    Really nice piece. Lots of factors play into this misguided “nostalgia.” Reagan, even when he was president, seemed to embody for many some ephemeral golden era of when all was right with the world. Only problem was: for him, that era was that of Calvin Coolidge, one of the three Republican presidents in the 1920s who helped set the stage for the Great Depression.

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