When I was seventeen
It was a very good year
It was a very good year for small town girls
And soft summer nights
We’d hide from the lights
On the village green
When I was seventeen…
That song was composed by Ervin Drake in 1961 and originally recorded by Bob Shane with the Kingston Trio, but it was made famous by Frank Sinatra in 1966 – when Sinatra was an old man looking back. People got it. Everyone is looking back.
Businessmen know that. Oldies stations make money. Bill Haley and His Comets did rock around the clock, but the tune was nothing and they were rather awful musicians. That doesn’t matter. For most Americans, but not all, life peaked in their senior year in high school. That music was their soundtrack – and it’s been all downhill since then. But they can go back. That keeps Facebook in business too – all the old high school gang is there, those who are still living – but there’s a small cohort of Americans who graduated from high school in 1965 and went off to college that year. For them it’s still the Summer of Love and the Revolution and Woodstock and the White Album, those four years ending with the election of Richard Nixon. That’s when life peaked, but that’s only a slight temporal shift. They’re nostalgic too. Those were vital times, when it was good to be alive. And then everything turned to ashes.
That frightens people. That leads to nostalgia wars. That led to the Tea Party. In the summer of 2010 they’d had just about enough of Obama – that black man with what seemed to them to be wholly “sixties” values – peace and love and understanding and that crap. And he was setting up a dammed commune. They hated Obamacare, but that was only part of it. The “takers” were grabbing stuff from the “makers” – the good people, the Real Americans – but that wasn’t it either. Those Tea Party folks said they wanted their country back, which seemed to have something to do with Ozzie and Harriet and poodle skirts, and wholesome movies and blacks knowing their place, and gay folks hidden away, and Hispanics and Asians being either Ricky Ricardo or Charlie Chan – both harmless and amusing – and back-alley coat-hanger abortions only, and Jesus everywhere too. This was a nostalgia war. And although the Tea Party fizzled, that war continues. Donald Trump is the current general in charge. This country WILL run on coal again, damn it!
But he’s not alone. That’s what Max Boot recently argued here:
The politicians who want to return us to an imaginary past are seizing control of our very real future.
In country after country, right-wing populists/nationalists are taking power or holding onto it. In Britain, Theresa May, the relatively moderate Conservative prime minister, is being forced out of office, likely to be replaced by a more hardline Brexiteer such as Boris Johnson. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have all just been reelected. In the Philippines, allies of President Rodrigo Duterte swept the Senate elections. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency. In Italy, one of Stephen K. Bannon’s favorite politicians, Matteo Salvini, dominates the government from his perch as deputy prime minister and interior minister.
And all that has happened just in the past year. That does not even count all of the nationalists who are already firmly entrenched in power, including Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Donald Trump in the United States.
That’s more than a trend. That’s the world changing and one should never underestimate the power of the imaginary past. The imaginary past can be more real than any present. And there are those who know how to deploy the imaginary past to maximum effect:
One common theme is the extent to which they play on nostalgia for a long-lost never-never land when life was supposedly simpler and more secure – a time when the majority ethnic group enjoyed undisputed power and their country was more powerful and respected than it is today…
And Trump yearns for the 1940s-1950s, when white Christian men were firmly in control of America, non-European immigrants were few in number, and women and minorities had scant rights.
The Tea Party crowd wanted their country back. Donald Trump promised them that they would get it back just the way it was in 1957 or in 1953 or one of those very good years. He would make America great “again” – choose your year. You could count on him.
There were those who didn’t want to go back – that’s why liberals now call themselves progressives. Those were not good years for anyone who was not white and male and straight and conventionally Christian. The nation had moved on from that. The nation had made “progress” – schools were desegregated and Johnson’s civil rights and voting rights laws were in place, and he put Medicare and Medicaid and Head Start in place too. Obama’s Affordable Care Act wasn’t all that radical – it was just more of the same – more progress. That’s what America does. It progresses.
That means that only one of our two major political parties gets to be the party of nostalgia. One party says let’s go back – things were mighty fine back then. The other party says no, things weren’t fine back then, not at all – let’s move forward. Everyone knows this and votes accordingly. No one agrees, but everyone knows who’s who and what’s what here.
And then there’s Joe Biden:
Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday lashed out at his Democratic rivals who had condemned his fond recollections of working relationships with segregationists in the Senate, declining to apologize and defending his record on civil rights. The angry exchange shattered, at least for now, the relative comity that had marked the Democratic presidential primary.
Biden broke the rules. That other party is the party of nostalgia:
Until Wednesday, many of the Democratic candidates had largely taken oblique swipes at Mr. Biden, while the former vice president sought to stay above the fray, training his sights on President Trump instead.
But a day after he invoked the 1970s, an era when he said he could find common ground with other senators – even virulent segregationists – his opponents offered their sharpest criticism yet.
Senator Kamala Harris of California said the former vice president “doesn’t understand the history of our country and the dark history of our country,” and Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said Mr. Biden should immediately apologize for using segregationists to make a point about civility in the Senate.
Ms. Harris and Mr. Booker, who are both black, were not alone: Other candidates including Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont also weighed in with criticism. And even some of Mr. Biden’s senior campaign advisers were privately shaken by his remarks.
Doesn’t this man realize that the good old days were not good at all? Biden says he DOES realize that. But at least way back then people worked together:
For much of the day, Mr. Biden and his campaign appeared publicly unbowed and intent on defending, or at least explaining, his worldview of politics, which is rooted in his early days in the Senate when, he said, legislators who disagreed still worked together. He cited two defenders of segregation, Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, to make that point.
“Apologize for what?” he said Wednesday evening before appearing at a fund-raiser in Maryland, adding that he “could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more.”
Asked by reporters about Mr. Booker’s demand that he apologize for his remarks, Mr. Biden said: “Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career, period, period, period.”
And he said that he knew all along that those two guys were awful:
At another fund-raiser later that evening, Mr. Biden was sharper in his criticism of the two former Southern senators.
“We had to put up with the likes of like Jim Eastland and Hermy Talmadge and all those segregationists and all of that,” he said. “And the fact of the matter is that we were able to do it because we were able to win – we were able to beat them on everything they stood for.”
“We in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest,” he continued.
And he had his defenders, the best of defenders:
Mr. Biden, a longtime supporter of the Voting Rights Act who has cited the civil rights movement as motivation for getting into politics, has many African-American allies, and on Wednesday a number of prominent black leaders defended him, including James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, the House Democratic whip and the highest-ranking African-American in Congress…
“I don’t see anything different in what Biden said to what we all do over here,” Mr. Clyburn said. “He didn’t say anything more than I would say to describe my work with Strom Thurmond and a few others.”
Mr. Clyburn, who participated in civil rights demonstrations in the 1960s and 1970s, said that Democrats of his generation needed to develop working relationships with segregationist Southern politicians like Thurmond, his state’s longtime senator.
So this was a dispute about nothing:
The Rev. Joseph Darby, an influential African-American pastor from South Carolina – a state where polls show Mr. Biden with a commanding lead, currently, among black voters – dismissed the notion that Mr. Biden should apologize.
“People look at his overall record rather than cherry-picking some of the things he says,” said Mr. Darby, a longtime ally of Mr. Biden’s who also spoke positively about Ms. Harris and Ms. Warren. “They weren’t the examples I would use, but I don’t think that merits an apology. He was talking about the way the Senate used to work. That’s the way the Senate used to work.”
Fine, but the Senate doesn’t work that way now, which Elizabeth Bruenig explains here:
With his promises of bipartisan cooperation and his reported efforts to attract GOP donors, Biden’s campaign seems premised on the idea that only a reasonable, moderate man such as him – civil with Republicans and Democrats alike – can return a semblance of normalcy to Washington. He aims not just to invoke the Obama era, which surely felt like normalcy to a great swath of his potential voters, but also the politics of the 1970s and ’80s, when he was a senator. He’s a nostalgia broker, in other words, for a time when politics felt predictable and stable, and the men in Washington respected one another – as did, we’re meant to gather, their constituents.
Plenty of Americans certainly did not experience the ’70s and ’80s as halcyon days: The great era of Democratic-Republican consensus-building that Biden harks back to was built in part around the exclusion of black Americans, for instance. Nor were the Obama years, ensuing after the 2008 financial crisis, necessarily pleasant, socially or politically, for a significant number of people. (Remember Occupy Wall Street?) But putting aside whether getting back to that sort of normal would be desirable, it isn’t even possible. Biden’s campaign is premised on a promise he can’t keep: that the problems plaguing Washington are mainly aesthetic and can be reversed with the good attitude, deep experience and folksy charm of a man such as him.
Bruenig is arguing that there are now major systemic problems that no folksy charm can fix:
A 2018 Pew Research Center survey found, for instance, vast gaps between the political priorities of Republican and Democratic voters. “71% of Democratic voters say the way racial and ethnic minorities are treated by the criminal justice system is a very big problem for the country,” Pew’s report read, “compared with just 10% of Republican voters.”
There were other major gulfs: Seventy-five percent of Republicans felt that illegal immigration is a major problem, while only 19 percent of Democrats said so, and Democrats were 61 percentage points more likely than Republicans to say the same of climate change.
Such deep disparities can’t feasibly be solved by better relations between particular politicians.
They exist among voters themselves and are thus reflected in the antagonistic tactics of legislators and, lately, the president.
Biden is outgunned and outnumbered here, so the situation is hopeless:
Pressing those widely varied medians back together may theoretically be possible, but it’s hard to see how a more genteel individual in the Oval Office could radically alter such a long-running trend unfolding on the ground among ordinary voters. After all, even the ever-equanimous Barack Obama remains the most polarizing president in recent history – though he may well be outdone by President Trump.
And what Trump has done, too, seems impossible to simply reverse.
Whatever illusions Americans may have maintained about the inviolable dignity of the presidency and the knowing competency of the electorate writ large ought to be wiped out by now, similar to Richard M. Nixon’s effect on public trust in the government. And if Jimmy Carter, for all his moral rectitude, self-evident decency and gentle demeanor, couldn’t reverse the cynical trend in U.S. politics, then Biden, with his unctuous mien and tendency to say the worst possible thing at the worst possible time, doesn’t stand a chance.
So there’s only this:
None of which means there aren’t better days ahead: It just means that we likely won’t get there by pursuing the past.
Martin Longman sees that too, but as a structural problem:
One thing Biden is glossing over is that he and Talmadge were still members of the same party. That’s the primary reason Biden was able to work with him in a constructive way.
So long as the segregationists were still Democrats, Congress was able to function and there was enough ideological overlap between the two parties to allow for some civility. I’m sure Biden was able to work with Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama in the 1980s when Shelby was a Democrat. He didn’t get much cooperation from him after Shelby became a Republican in 1994. I don’t recall Shelby lifting a finger to help the Obama-Biden administration.
Biden should have thought about that:
The real problem with Biden’s worldview isn’t that he’s misjudged the Democratic electorate, or that his re-telling of history is too rose-colored, but that he’s most likely wrong about what is possible.
When the Democratic Party was divided between north and south, they could hash out most of their internal disagreements and keep the country’s lights on… Senators Eastland and Talmadge needed people like Joe Biden in order to maintain themselves in the majority and keep their committee gavels. Today, the senators from Mississippi and Georgia have no such use for the current senators from Delaware.
So things really have changed:
The current Republican Party is a southern party. They are waging a war against immigration and secularism because they do not want to see change in what they perceive as “a perfect society.” When these same people were Democrats, they fought to preserve slavery and Jim Crow, but now they are outside the tent pissing in, and getting them to work civilly or constructively with progressive reformers is a fool’s errand.
Biden either doesn’t understand this or doesn’t want to believe it, but he’s encountering skepticism for a very good reason. What he’s saying strikes many as delusional.
On the other hand, there is nostalgia:
I think most voters probably share his desire that we get back to the old days, at least with respect to having a functional Congress. From a strictly political point of view, Biden’s position is a probably a winner in a general election. People want someone who will at least try to bridge our divides.
They do want that, and Frank Sinatra wanted to be seventeen again, because that was a very good year.
Jonathan Chait adds this to the discussion:
American politics has grown more polarized because the unusual and precarious conditions of the 20th century have disappeared. Politics in the 19th century was deeply polarized around the linked issues of issues of race and big government (we fought a Civil War, remember.) But after Reconstruction was crushed, the Republican Party abandoned its commitment to African-American equality and activist government, while the Democratic Party eventually adopted those identities. In the decades while the Republicans were moving right and the Democrats were moving left, there was a long period in which the parties overlapped. During that time, bipartisanship was the norm. Biden came of political age during the period when polarization had reached its historic nadir.
That’s the era Biden grew up in and recalls fondly. It has disappeared for reasons that may be lamentable, but are grounded in large, immutable forces of ideology and self-interest. Today’s partisan division reflects the same elemental conflicts between Yankee socially progressive advocates of energetic central government and Southern “strict constructionist” defenders of the existing social hierarchy that divided the political system of the 19th century.
That is, once again, who’s who and what’s what is finally quite clear, and everyone has adapted to that:
Modern leaders have learned that the old conventional wisdom that voters would punish them for failing to get along is false. As Mitch McConnell has bluntly explained, persuadable voters do not pay close attention to policy details. If they see leaders in both parties getting along, they will assume things are going well – this is the crucial detail – they will consequently reward the party in power. If they see a nasty partisan fight, they will assume Washington is failing, and reward the opposition. To ask the opposing party to compromise with the majority party is to ask it to undermine its own political interest.
Biden either fails to grasp this dynamic, or believes he can overpower it with sheer charm. “Folks, I believe one of the things I’m pretty good at is bringing people together,” Biden boasted of his time as vice-president. “Every time we had a trouble in the administration, who got sent to the Hill to settle it? Me. No, not a joke. Because I demonstrate respect for them.”
Chait isn’t buying that:
This account of Biden’s role in the Obama administration is very different than what I observed. Biden did play an important role in wooing three Republican senators to support the stimulus bill in 2009, a crucial accomplishment and a necessity, given that Democrats had 58 Senate seats at the time and adamantly refused to disable the filibuster. However, those three Republicans faced such intense backlash from the right that one of them, Arlen Specter, was driven out of the party altogether, and the other two – Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe – subsequently refused to support any health-care bill on any terms. The aftermath of the success was such that it could never be repeated.
Afterward, Republicans held their wall of total obstruction throughout Obama’s terms.
That is, after all, what happened, and Chait can see only this:
The most favorable interpretation of Biden’s bipartisanship nostalgia is that he knows he’s peddling baloney, but he’s doing it because people like it. But that seems hard to square with him relying on an example that’s so politically radioactive. If Biden’s just being politically savvy, why is he doing it in such an un-savvy way?
The other, scarier interpretation is that Biden actually believes the nonsense he’s peddling. He’s a 76-year-old man, and maybe he shares the inability of many old people to surrender the lessons of their youth.
Few old people ever surrender the lessons of their youth – but they don’t need to. They’re not running for president. Biden is, and America already has its party of nostalgia. It doesn’t need another. It doesn’t need an autumn, next year, of two old white men talking about the good old days, and arguing with each other about which two weeks in 1953 were wonderful, and which were awful. Then there’s no hope for any of us.