Nostalgia: It's good art, bad politics We can't return to age of factories any more than to yeoman farming

January 14, 1996|By Paul Starobin

"Factory jobs are the future of America's young," Patrick J. Buchanan declared at a recent gathering of Republican presidential candidates in New Hampshire. The statement was vintage Buchanan: simple, reassuring -- and deeply nostalgic. He longs for the 1950s America of his youth, when the factories boomed and "we did teach right from wrong," as he said during a visit to Los Angeles. His mom stayed home and cooked meals of fried chicken and pumpkin pie with whipped cream. It was "in many ways a better time," he writes in his 1990 autobiography, "Right From the Beginning."

Nostalgia, defined by the American Heritage dictionary as "homesickness," can be a potent force in the political arena. It often surfaces in American politics at times like this -- a period of economic and cultural transition, when the gap between yesterday and tomorrow seems especially wide and worrisome.

Mr. Buchanan isn't alone in trying to win votes through nostalgic appeals. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole's moralistic attacks on Hollywood are intended to evoke wistful remembrances of a more wholesome, pre-'60s culture. Sen. Phil Gramm, Republican of Texas, seeks to rouse crowds with the line: "If we don't dramatically change direction, 10 years from now we won't be living in the same country we grew up in." President Clinton plays on warm memories of Harry S Truman, who seems to have become more popular since his death -- "I come from a family that was for him when he was alive," Mr. Clinton says.

Meanwhile, conservative calls for welfare reform are often accompanied by glowing descriptions of Alexis de Tocqueville's America of the 1830s, when government safety nets weren't needed, it's said, because people took care of each other. The nostalgia bug has even infected Russia, where citizens talk longingly about the days of Communist rule.

Change is scary, so political calls for a return "home" can be seductive. But nostalgia is a siren song. For one thing, you can't really go home again; for another, the past is never as safe and secure as we imagine it to be.

There are many possible paths for the U.S. economy of the 21st century, but Mr. Buchanan's vision of a return to mass factory labor is not one of them, even with the protective tariffs he advocates. The nation is well along in the shift from an industrial LTC to a post-industrial economy. Manufacturing's share of the nation's labor force has declined steadily for decades -- from 33 percent in 1950 to 16 percent today. The principal culprit is not, as Mr. Buchanan says, foreign competition, but technology: Factory-floor automation enables firms to produce more goods with fewer workers. The pattern is akin to the mechanization of agriculture in the 19th century, which vastly reduced the share of farmers in the labor force.

In any case, the golden 1950s weren't so golden; nostalgia blinds people to the darker realities of that time. America lived under the threat of a nuclear holocaust. Legal forms of racial discrimination persisted in the South; job opportunities for women were severely limited; air and water were fouled by unregulated pollution. For all our current ailments, the 1990s are, in many respects, a great improvement.

Nor did the 1830s live up to today's paeans. "Tocqueville's America was egalitarian, individualistic, decentralized, religious, property-loving, lightly governed," conservative journalists Michael Barone and Grant Ujifusa rosily write in the new edition of their "Almanac of American Politics." They neglect to mention that Tocqueville's America was violent, anarchic and filthy, as well as inhumane in its treatment of the poor. Among other horrors, the 1830s saw Nat Turner's rebellion, in which slaves massacred 55 men, women and children on Virginia plantations, and a riot in Baltimore by depositors who lost their savings in a failed bank. (The militia attacked the mob, killing 20 people and wounding 100 others.) Raw sewage in the slums of Manhattan led to a cholera epidemic; in Philadelphia, fresh water pumped from the Schuykill went directly to homes of the wealthy, bypassing everyone else. Such were the good old days.

The last time nostalgic voices rose to today's pitch was the 1920s, when the rapid pace of industrialization and urbanization produced what Roderick Nash called "The Nervous Generation" -- a precursor to today's "anxious class." Back then, the Age of Steel was viewed not with longing but with fright. Small-town rural America was being destroyed by the motor car. President Calvin Coolidge tried to soothe the restive masses by standing for a photograph on a visit to a Vermont farm. There he was, wearing overalls, perched on the edge of a hay rig. In the background, wrote the historian Richard Hofstadter, was his Pierce Arrow, "a Secret Service man on the running board, plainly waiting to hurry the president away from his bogus labors."

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