The Limits of Nostalgia as a Political Philosophy

Sometimes it’s hard to separate conservatism from nostalgia, as conservative thought is so often wrapped up in talk of the good old days – when things were as they should be, as they had been worked out over the ages. And one shouldn’t mess with what works. Tradition matters, as does received authority. There is a reason for both. Conservatism is about conserving both. Of course these days you get a lot of talk about how wonderful things were in the fifties, and those of us who were there at the time wonder about that. The Cold War and Joe McCarthy and the Brown decision that desegregated schools and upset so many, and the new Disneyland out here and coon-skin caps, and then rock’ n’ roll exploded on the scene, even on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday evenings – and the Beats were laughing at it all, or howling, and Arthur Miller had Willie Loman, the salesman who bought into the dream, just dying out there and wondering what the hell had happened – “You can’t eat the orange and throw the peel away – a man is not a piece of fruit!” Well yes, that’s true. And the fifties were not our Lost Eden. Jackie Wilson was singing Lonely Teardrops after all.

But you do get silliness – the senate candidate in Nevada, Sue Lowden, fed up with Obama’s healthcare stuff, saying we should go back to the good old days “before we all started having health care, in the olden days, our grandparents, they would bring a chicken to the doctor, they would say I’ll paint your house, they would do… that’s the old days of what people would do to get health care with their doctors. Doctors are very sympathetic people. I’m not backing down from that system.”

She should have. She lost the primary to Sharron Angle, who wants to get back to the good old days before Social Security and Medicare and the Department of Education and unemployment insurance – back to when people had a strong sense of personal responsibility and didn’t whine that the government should do things for them, or do things at all. She wants to get rid of Social Security and Medicare and the Department of Education and unemployment insurance and lots more. It seems the key is not to mention chickens. And other candidates, like Joe Miller in Alaska and Rand Paul in Kentucky, are saying the same thing – abolish all that stuff. They are the Tea Party folks – who say they are the true conservatives and most Republicans are simply pretending they are. You have to take this good-old-days stuff seriously. And what’s with all the Muslim and Hispanic and gay folks hanging around in our country these days? They didn’t used to be here, or if they had been here they’d at least been gracious enough to disappear into the woodwork and not make trouble. It really had been pesky enough when the black folks just up and decided they weren’t going to be invisible any longer. What’s wrong with people?

Of course there are thoughtful conservatives. They talk about constitutional principles. They call themselves Originalist thinkers. We should not stray from what the Founding Fathers put down on paper, and they hate activist judges who simply make new law when none was there before. That’s not their job – but they do it over and over, as with inventing a right to privacy (Griswold) when is there no such thing in the original document, and that led to legalizing abortion (Roe) where they were saying a woman deciding such things, on her own, is her own business, leading to saying gays could do what they want with each other in private, behind closed doors (Lawrence) – and this will surely lead to gay marriage and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and all sorts of things. And these activist judges have the gall to say that laws passed by Congress – by the will of the people – all Unitarians must wear purple on Thursdays or whatever – cannot be the law at all, as somehow they’re unconstitutional. That can’t be right. What about the will of the people?

This is more thoughtful than talk about bartering chickens for a colonoscopy. Activist judges are a real problem. Received authority matters – we have an authoritative document. You can’t pretend it says things it doesn’t say.

But that led to problems, as in the confirmation hearings for Elena Kagan. Should she sit on the Supreme Court? She had clerked for a notorious activist judge, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the man who argued and won Brown, desegregating schools. He was famous, they said, for seeing things in the Constitution that weren’t there, and the narrative started to develop that Kagan would be one of those activist-judges, and stray from the Constitution and just make things up – because she probably didn’t have the proper respect for the document itself – she probably thought it could be improved, and probably thought she knew better than Congress. And that stopped when they realized they were arguing against desegregation and for White Supremacy when they were ragging on Thurgood Marshall. That was amusing. They had to admit the Constitution could be improved. It had been improved. Rats – foiled again. Nostalgia – even cloaked in legal theory – can be tricky.

But this goes way back, to the founder of modern conservatism, Edmund Burke, and his famous speech On the Death of Marie Antoinette. That was a cri de coeur. What had the French done? The age of chivalry was now gone and “that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever.”

That is real nostalgia. But of course Europe survived and did just fine. Maybe Marie Antoinette shouldn’t’ have gone to the guillotine – she was no doubt a nice kid – but the system, of which she was a key part, was doing no good for anyone. Sometimes you change the system. And underneath Burke’s despair he is really saying that you just don’t change the system to try something new. That something new is an unknown. What is new is almost always worse. History teaches us that. That was the hobbyhorse Burke rode.

And of course what passes for true conservatism in America is at its core Burkean – the healthcare system was fine, the school system was fine, the economy was fine – and here are all these people wanting to try something new. Substitute glory of Europe being extinguished forever with the glory of America being extinguished forever. It’s the same thing. We just talk about it now a bit differently. We talk about American Exceptionalism – Obama doesn’t believe in it and his conservative foes do, although it’s not quite that simple – you can be exceptionally proud of your country without claiming any exceptionalism. But at least now no one says much about Manifest Destiny any longer – that was renamed the Project for the New American Century and it hasn’t worked out as planned.

But the impulse is there. You might call it hyper-aggressive nostalgia – things are as they should be, as they always really have been, and we are just who we should be and always were – the light and the hope of the world. It’s just that others, even if they are sometimes pleased with what we do, don’t seem to share our nostalgic thoughts about our innate wonderfulness.

And nostalgic thoughts are often dangerous. Do you miss the old days? Imagine what a paradise Europe was before the rise of nation-states and big government and all the things you hate. A very few, the local nobility, or the local minor king or whatever, owned all the means of production, the land, and all the capital, such as it was. And you, the happy surf, worked the land and gladly gave your lord, and your better, half your crop, and the choice livestock, and went and fought in his wars, and when he approached you lowered your eyes and tugged your forelock and muttered words of respect. You paid your liege fealty. Things were as they should be.

You don’t think so? The rich, who own the means of production – these days large corporations, for which you work – don’t get to drop by and take half your stuff and get to send you off to their wars you don’t understand and you’re not supposed to understand, and then demand and receive your humble respect? You’re as good as they are and you get to keep your stuff?

Then what are you doing in siding with the Republicans on the Bush tax cuts about to expire? Roughly, Obama says the deficit is worrisome but ninety-eight percent of the population – those earning less than a quarter million a year – should have their tax cuts extended. They desperately need the money, and they’ll spend it, which will help get the economy unstuck. And the remaining two percent – the rich – should have their tax rates revert to the previous levels, still way under forty percent – a record low – but a tad higher. The government, to keep running, sure could use the money. And the rich wouldn’t spend the money anyway. Those guys don’t need to.

The Republican position is that’s just not fair. They’ll block any move for lower taxes on that ninety-eight percent of the population unless the rich keep their tax cuts. Obama will have none of that. And of course now the Republicans come off as protectors of the rich and rather heartless in saying those who really need the money won’t get it unless the rich, that top two percent, get to keep their big expensive tax cuts.

That’s how the midterm elections are shaping up. The narrative is in place. The rich, who don’t need the money, should get it anyway – and when they approach you should lower your eyes and tug your forelock and mutter words of respect.

Of course this is a political trap for the Republicans. No one is nostalgic for serfdom. Next it will be that droit de seigneur business. And Obama has been playing it up, saying that the opposition is pretty nasty – holding tax cuts for everyone, except the rich, hostage, until the rich get to continue to keep their extra hundred grand a year. Obama tries to make it look like the Republicans are saying Screw You to ninety-eighth percent of the population, who need the money, to make sure those who don’t need it continue to get lots of it.

And the argument has some resonance. How else can you frame this? And as we live in an age where everyone is always making up new meaning for old nouns, one could say the optics here are bad – the optics are real bad.

And that is why House Minority Leader John Boehner signaled his reluctant willingness to go along with Obama’s tax-cut policy. He believes in tax cuts – they fix everything – but if they must be for only the little people, well, he might go along with that. At least it’s something. And he avoided using the term “little people.” Obama’s political trap was making him uncomfortable. Marie Antoinette is thought to have said let them eat cake – or brioche or something – and he just didn’t want to sound like that, even if there are no guillotines anymore. One can have one’s head chopped off metaphorically.

But for months one of the central Republican talking points has been that if Democrats allow tax rates for the wealthy to return to the 2000 levels that would undermine small businesses. A Republican congressman from Texas, Randy Neugebauer, has been insisting that letting the Bush tax breaks expire would increase taxes on NINETY-FOUR PERCENT of America’s small businesses. (The capital letters might give a sense of how much this appalls him.)

Is that so? See Greg Sargent here on another exchange from Boehner’s “Face the Nation” appearance, where Boehner said he might give in:

BOB SCHIEFFER: The Joint Committee on Taxation, which is a non-partisan body, says that only three percent of those small business people you keep talking about all the small business people, they’re going to get taxed, only three percent would be affected by that. Do you quarrel with that figure? Is that a right figure or a wrong figure?

BOEHNER: Well, it may be three percent, but it’s half of small business income. Because, obviously, the top three percent have half of the gross income for those companies that we would term small businesses. And this is why you don’t want to punish these people at a time when you have a weak economy.

Steve Benen comments:

Boehner effectively conceded that Neugebauer and Republicans like him aren’t even close to telling the truth. We’re talking about 3% of small businesses that would see a difference.

DNC spokesperson Hari Sevugan said in a statement, “Now that Boehner admits at least 97% of small business won’t be affected if the Bush tax cuts expire, we can put an end to the canard that John Boehner and Republicans are fighting to extend tax breaks for anyone but super-rich individuals. And while Republicans are fighting for tax cuts that they now admit won’t help small business they are holding hostage a small business jobs bill that actually provides significant tax benefits for most small businesses.”

Some Republicans are already less-than thrilled that Boehner grudgingly endorsed Obama’s tax-cut plan. The fact that he also undermined a key GOP talking point probably won’t help matters with his caucus.

No, they weren’t thrilled:

Top Republicans are not embracing House Minority Leader John Boehner’s assertion that he would back a proposal that allows tax cuts on upper-income Americans to expire. Not one Republican leader – including House Minority Whip Eric Cantor of Virginia or House Republican Conference Chairman Mike Pence of Indiana – has backed Boehner’s statement on “Face the Nation” Sunday that he would vote for a bill that renews 97 percent of tax cuts while letting taxes increase on the top 3 percent of income earners. While Republicans aren’t being openly critical, it’s clear that Boehner’s off-message comment has created some discomfort among Republicans.

Rep. Paul Ryan, the Wisconsinite who serves as the top Republican on the Budget committee, was the most critical. Appearing on conservative radio host Sean Hannity’s show Monday evening, Ryan said “we are for a full, complete extension of the Bush tax cuts. We are not going to negotiate down; we want to extend all these things.”

“We should not be negotiating that down, we should be insisting on preventing this huge tax increase on the most successful small businesses which is where most of our jobs come from,” Ryan said Monday on conservative radio host Sean Hannity’s show.

And then that came to a head:

Senate Republicans will oppose any effort to renew soon-to-expire Bush administration tax cuts if upper income taxpayers are excluded from the reductions.

A spokesman for Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell said Monday that every Senate Republican has pledged to oppose President Barack Obama’s tax-cutting plan.

And they know how to do that:

McConnell has said a bill extending the tax cuts for only low- and middle-income earners cannot pass the Senate. Forty-one senators can block a bill with a filibuster, but McConnell spokesman Don Stewart declined to say whether all 41 Republicans would support a filibuster.

Again, Steve Benen comments:

Republicans will say, “Give us everything we demand or tax rates will go up on everyone.” Democrats will say, “Um, voters? The other guys are holding Obama’s middle-class tax breaks hostage because they’re worried about millionaires and billionaires.”

The fact that McConnell’s spokesperson “declined to say whether all 41 Republicans would support a filibuster” was interesting. It may be because the Minority Leader’s office hasn’t taken the caucus’ temperature on this yet, and just can’t say for sure.

Or maybe he’s not sure Americans are nostalgic for thirteenth century serfdom. See Ezra Klein:

Here’s a statement that isn’t true: The American people want Congress to extend all the Bush tax cuts. The political system acts like it is true. The media often does the same.

And then he runs the numbers from the polls. Americans are not nostalgic for thirteenth century serfdom, and not nostalgic for making sure that their betters get the good stuff.

And it’s a mess. See the Washington Post editorial on September 14:

The tax debate about to unfold on Capitol Hill is breathtakingly irresponsible. Even as politicians of both parties purport to be concerned about the nation’s long-term fiscal situation, they are poised to worsen it to the tune of trillions of dollars by making the Bush tax cuts permanent.

The only difference between the parties is in degree of recklessness. Republicans want to extend all the tax cuts, at a total cost of $3.5 trillion over the next decade. A disturbing number of Democrats would follow the Republican path. The more “responsible” Democrats would extend “only” the tax cuts for those making less than $250,000 a year, at a cost of $2.8 trillion.

And the Post suggests the “responsible” position:

Let the upper-income tax cuts lapse on schedule, at the end of this year, and extend the rest until the economy recovers. Then let all the rates return to their pre-Bush, 1990s levels. The economy did pretty well back then.

That might be based on reports like this one from Bloomberg News:

Hand the wealthiest Americans a tax cut and history suggests they will save the money rather than spend it.

Tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 under President George W. Bush were followed by increases in the saving rate among the rich, according to data from Moody’s Analytics Inc. When taxes were raised under Bill Clinton, the saving rate fell.

The findings may weaken arguments by Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who say allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans to lapse will prompt them to reduce their spending, harming the economy.

What arguments are left for the Republicans? If you’re going to write off 2.8 trillion why not write off 3.5 trillion and be done with it? That’s not much of an argument, when the difference won’t be spent on anything and no good will come of it. Perhaps all that’s left is an appeal to nostalgia – but not for the fifties. What’s the argument? That’s easy. Remember how cool it was to be a peasant back in the thirteenth century?

That probably won’t fly. Sometimes it’s hard to separate principled conservatism from absurd nostalgia, but not this time.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to The Limits of Nostalgia as a Political Philosophy

  1. Richard T says:

    As you say, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

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