The economics professor (and author and blogger and podcaster) Tyler Cowen has written intelligently about our national stagnation and “the growing number of people in our society who accept, welcome, or even enforce a resistance to things new, different, or challenging.” He also thinks we reached a tipping point on this score in the 1990s. “Americans are in fact working much harder than before to postpone change,” he wrote in his 2017 book The Complacent Class, or to avoid it altogether, and this is true whether we’re talking about corporate competition, changing residences or jobs, or building things. In an age when it is easier than ever before to dig in, the psychological resistance to change has become progressively stronger. On top of that, information technology, for all the disruption it has wrought, allows us to organize more effectively to confront things that are new or different, in a manageable and comfortable way, and sometimes to keep them at bay altogether.
He predicts that “eventually stasis will prove insufficient,” given the “ongoing collapse of the middle class” and because our political economic “structures are not ultimately sustainable for the broader majority of the population” to improve their lives, so “big changes will have to come, whether we like it or not.” Cowen shakes his head at “people’s willingness to just put up with things” and “settle for the status quo” and “not really agitate for very urgent change.”
However, he doesn’t say that the resistance to change and enervation and political complacency mainly serve the interests of the right and the rich. Nor does he acknowledge that the increase in economic insecurity and inequality and immobility that began around 1980 was caused or exacerbated by our historic right turn just then. That’s probably because Cowen is a product and promoter of that turn—incubated as a student at George Mason University in the early 1980s just as the libertarian right turned it into a headquarters. He is now a George Mason professor and director of its Mercatus Center, the think tank created by Charles Koch, with whom he has a mutual admiration society.
Cowen correctly points to many symptoms of the disease he calls the Great Stagnation, but he’s evidently too ideologically blindered to specify all its causes and comorbidities or to recommend emergency treatment. His free-market faith obliges him to conclude that the only real problem is the slower rate of economic growth for most of the last half-century. Furthermore, he thinks the long American economic heyday from the late 1800s through the 1970s came to its natural conclusion because we’d picked and eaten all “the low-hanging fruit” that produced easy growth—cheap land, fossil fuels, new technologies, mass education. Thus it was only from World War II through the 1970s, in Cowen’s view, that America could afford to be so generous—that is, to make the political economy fair for all its citizens—because the GDP per person was growing by almost 3 percent per year, as opposed to 2 percent or less afterward.
The end of that marvelous century-long boom time was nobody’s fault, couldn’t really be helped, he thinks. So likewise now: while it’s too bad that since 1980 only the prosperous have continued getting more prosperous and feeling secure, the people refusing to put up with that status quo and agitating to change it politically are indulging in misguided . . . nostalgia. Cowen says it’s “nostalgia for aspects of the economic world of the 1950s” that leads economists on the left to push for “some very particular features of the 1950s: high marginal tax rates, high rates of unionization, and a relatively egalitarian distribution of income and wealth.”
LOL and touché, clever contemporary conservative, for using nostalgia as a political pejorative, the way liberals have always done, the way a lot of us got into the bad habit of doing in the 1970s and ’80s about FDR and organized labor and antitrust and thereby became useful idiots for you and the evil geniuses of the right.
Yet why shouldn’t Americans feel nostalgic for the time before 1980 when we had a more equal distribution of income and wealth and all boats rose together? If “Make America Great Again” hadn’t already been taken, it could’ve worked extremely well as a 2020 Democratic presidential campaign slogan.
Nostalgia is not always wrong or all bad. Almost all of us are nostalgic for something, if only for our childhoods. Almost everyone likes new things as well as old and familiar things, each of us choosing different combinations from the menu. For instance, a lot of habitués of those supermodern Apple stores, shopping for an iPhone 12 or AirPods and adoring their regular visits to the high- production-value future promised in the past, go home to make-believe-old-fashioned lives—a new gingerbread cottage or an apartment in a renovated former factory, beer gardens, greenmarkets, local agriculture, flea markets, tattoos, lace-up boots, suspenders, beards, mustaches, artisanal everything, all the neo-19th-century signifiers of state-of-the-art American cool.
Beyond the charming surfaces and styles of the past, it’s essential as well to look at history carefully for deeper lessons and models, inspirations and cautionary tales for the present and future. Nostalgia starts getting problematic only when it becomes reflexive and total, congealing into an automatic antagonism to the new or unfamiliar. Nostalgia is problematic when it becomes the fuel for a politics based on fantastical or irrecoverable or unsupportable parts of the past. And that current American political movement, consisting of pathological nostalgias centered on race and ethnicity and religion and gender and sexuality, Trumpism, has as its avatar a quintessentially 1980s creature, living proof of my ’90s theory that the decade never did end.
Misguided resistance to the new isn’t limited to the right. Leftist reactionary is not an oxymoron. For instance, I think of liberals I know who want to outlaw GMOs and charter schools and allow kindergarteners to go unvaccinated, to make it harder to build affordable housing and easier to prevent disagreeable public speech. Conversely, some people on the left reflexively dismiss almost any fondness for the past because so much about the past was bad. During a recent panel discussion about the history and future of the news media, I made the point that before the 1980s and ’90s, editors and producers did a better job of keeping outright falsehoods and delusions from circulating widely—and the panelists, friends of mine, immediately pounced because it seemed to them I was implicitly excusing the paucity of women and nonwhite people in journalism back then.
But of course, opposing the new has also always been and remains a defining trait of conservatism, and nostalgia-based reactionary politics are thus much more common on the right. Apart from purely technological progress, the important changes of the last century that make the American present preferable to the American past—universal pensions and guaranteed medical care for old people, more freedom and fairness for women and black people and queer people, cleaner air and water for everyone— were opposed by the right. So it’s no surprise that today’s most explicitly nostalgia-driven politics, all about fearing and loathing the new, are on the conservative side.
One astonishing and unambiguously great new American condition since the early 1990s is how murder and other violent crime rates have dropped by half, and in many places by much more—by more than 80 percent in New York City, for instance. Like all good news, it was soon forgotten and ignored, but politicians on the right go even further, actually denying that this remarkable social improvement happened, because it doesn’t fit well into their racist or nativist or otherwise fear-mongering political narrative. Donald Trump began his presidency by saying “the murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 47 years,” which is the very opposite of the truth. Of course, he’d launched his campaign in Trump Tower by portraying Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug dealers, even though immigrants are less likely than native-born Americans to commit crimes.
In addition to these dangerous falsehoods portraying the present as worse than the past, most of the important new social facts on which American politics have hinged lately are no longer actually new. We just haven’t managed to address them honestly or seriously or effectively as a nation. Economic growth slowed forty years ago, when the downsides of automation and globalization started becoming obvious— and when experts also agreed that global warming was becoming a crisis. A quarter-century ago the digital revolution was in full swing, and people paying attention saw that economic inequality and insecurity were rapidly increasing. The number of immigrants to the United States started soaring back in the late 1960s, and the increase in our foreign-born population was already leveling off by 2000, and a dozen years ago the undocumented population started decreasing. So much of the “new” is old.
More and more of our politics has devolved into battles among nostalgias, fights over which parts of the past should or shouldn’t and can or can’t be recycled or restored. Each of the particular nostalgias tends to be more red or more blue, but they all fall on a spectrum from reasonable to understandable to foolish to malignant.
By reasonable, I mean both desirable and feasible. It’s reasonable to seek to return somehow to something like the economic fairness and opportunity and security we enjoyed before 1980. It’s reasonable to want to recover the skepticism our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents had about huge corporations exercising unfair economic and political power, especially companies that provide essential goods and services such as energy or information. It’s reasonable to be nostalgic for faster economic growth, although our ability to achieve that by government action is limited.
It’s understandable nostalgia, but verging on foolish, to think that the old norms of reality-based discourse or bipartisan Washington cooperation will return anytime soon. It’s foolish verging on malignant for leaders to promote a U.S. economic future in which coal mining and steel milling are central features.
And then there’s nostalgia for a strong and widespread sense of national solidarity. A historically important source of that feeling—actual solidarity, not rueful pining to feel it again— was the shared experience of World War II. A related social benefit of the war, and the New Deal before it, was the universal understanding that a strong federal government was crucial as well as basically competent. The American bond from having survived the war (and the Depression before it) lasted a couple of decades—until around 1965, when the sense of national solidarity began its long decay, accelerated by a disastrous imperial war in which most Americans had no personal stake. By 1998, the year Tom Brokaw’s book The Greatest Generation and Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan came out, the iffy us-against-them bonding provided by the Cold War was over, and World War II was practically fossilized nostalgia.
As recently as the 2000s, it seemed quite reasonable to strive for national solidarity. The 9/11 attacks produced a jolt of it, and three years later it became the premise for the instant rise of an Illinois state senator (“The ‘Blue States’ . . . the ‘Red States’ . . . We are one people”) to superstardom. As a form of nostalgia, the wish for greater national solidarity is understandable, but it lately has felt impossible to achieve and therefore somewhat foolish.
The biggest (but not only) reason for national disunity the last dozen years or more is that a quarter or third of Americans and one political party have explicitly given themselves over to malignant nostalgia—nostalgia for a country with much larger and more dominant majorities of white and native-born and Christian people, and for a time when people who weren’t white or male or straight had fewer rights and less stature. That’s a lost cause for them—the United States will never be as white or Christian as it was, nor a country where women and people of color are oppressed like they were when I was young.
That nostalgia is also a revival of the Lost Cause from a century and a half ago— post–Civil War white Southerners’ self-pitying, self-flattering nostalgia for the wonderful Old South (which happened to include the enslavement of black people) and the Civil War they started and fought to preserve it.
Our 21st-century political fight over immigration is a case of dueling nostalgias over the same subject. It’s Build the wall nostalgia for the mid-20th century, when our foreign-born population shrank to less than 5 percent, versus Ken Burnsian nostalgia for a half-century or century earlier, huddled masses sailing in to breathe free, become new Americans, and continue the building of a new nation. Back in 1855, when young Walt Whitman described us as “not merely a nation but a teeming nation of nations,” America’s foreign-born population had exploded since he was a boy from 2 percent to more than 13 percent, where it remained through the 1920s. Since we reopened the gates in the late 1960s, our immigrant fraction has tripled, reaching nearly 15 percent, back to what it was when the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island were new.
There was always plenty of bigotry against immigrants—for being Catholic, Jewish, poor, foreign, swarthy— but historically a negligible fraction of immigrants were not white. Indeed, in the late nineteenth century, 98 percent of Americans outside the South were white. For all of America’s defining embrace and embodiment of the new, for more than two centuries our society was unchanging in its basic racial makeup—overwhelmingly white and very consistently so. From the first census in 1790 through the one in 1970, the national population was 85 percent white and non-Hispanic, give or take a couple of percentage points from decade to decade, and it was still at 80 percent in 1980. But as a result of the latest immigrant influx from Latin America and Asia, today barely 60 percent of us are non-Hispanic white people.
It is an unprecedented American metamorphosis. As a white person delighted to live in a thriving city with low crime rates where white people became a minority just after I arrived forty years ago and the foreign-born population has since doubled, I say: Good job, United States! Obviously not all my fellow white Americans agree, especially not my fellow white men, and more especially my fellow old white men, many of whom also feel diminished by the simultaneous rise of women. Those transformations of American society have reduced some of their privileges.
To me, the most striking metric of female empowerment concerns women’s higher education: in the early 1970s, almost twice as many men as women in America had graduated from college, but today more women than men have BAs, and they earn most of the advanced degrees as well.
The large social and political consequences of lots more people having college degrees extend beyond equality for women. In 1970, when the hard hats and other angry blue-collar patriots were hating and beating on uppity college-kid protesters, only a small minority of American adults, 11 percent, were college graduates. Back then, 88 percent of Americans were white and 95 percent were not Hispanic and 89 percent lacked a college degree—in other words, non-Hispanic white people who had no more than a high school diploma made up three-quarters of Americans. (And if their kids wanted to go to college, it cost a fraction of what it costs now.) That majority, naturally, felt as if in every way they ruled.
Since the 1970s the giant U.S. supermajority of white people without college degrees has shrunk by more than half, down to about 35 percent. They constitute a shrinking fraction that’s now the same size as the fraction of college graduates and the fraction of people of color, both of which are growing. Thus a lot of less-educated white people, especially older ones, feel nostalgic for the old days. Yet while it’s understandable that such nostalgia zeroes in on race and ethnicity, it’s inexcusable when it’s politicized—and by my moral calculus, even more so for affluent white people with no screwed-by-a-rigged-system economic excuse for resentment and racism.
Since the 2016 presidential election, scholars and journalists have debated which type of unhappiness more importantly drove a majority of white people to support Donald Trump. Was it all about America’s new racial and ethnic character, or was it all about America’s new economic character? Was it nostalgia for a whiter, more sexist society or for more fairly shared prosperity, security, and economic mobility or for the time before America was awash in the meritocratic hubris of the liberal social winners? Of course it was all of those different versions of nostalgia for the past and of resistance to the new. It’s another clear case of social and political and economic comorbidity: different chronic conditions with intertwined causes and symptoms that make both more debilitating and harder to treat.
Excerpted from Evil Geniuses by Kurt Andersen. Copyright © 2020 by Judy Christie and Lisa Wingate. Excerpted by permission of Random House Group, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher