The Nostalgia Trap

by Michael Schaffer | September 4, 2008

Watching the first night of the truncated Republican National Convention, you could be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon C-SPAN coverage of some Veterans of Foreign Wars gathering. Shots of the crowd at the Xcel Energy Center revealed a sea of white faces and gray heads. The only young visages seemed to be those in the black-and-white photographs projected onto the video screen, the ones depicting the brave young men of a distant war--and especially the bravest of them, the man who, decades later, is about to get the party’s 2008 presidential nomination.

The vibe grew even more pronounced when they opened their mouths, conjuring a world of Communists vanquished, Vietnam Vets embraced, big governments dismantled, liberals foiled. It’s the whole greatest-hits collection for a party history that seemed to have ended sometime around the end of the twentieth century--the era that the convention’s Ronald Reagan tribute video narrator described as “our century.” John McCain’s campaign has good reason to write the despised Republican incumbent out of history, but the effect—looking back a minimum of 18 years to find a leader they can celebrate--makes the GOP convention reek of nostalgia like so much Aqua Velva on Fred Thompson’s jowly face.

Even the furious broadsides against Obama seemed dated, replete with Madonna references and accusations of urban disrespect for honest small-town life. In a spawl age, did they have to go all the way to Alaska to find a pol who recently lived in a real small town? And, thanks in part to Wednesday night’s keynote speaker, Rudy Giuliani, those big coastal cities whose elites allegedly disdain the noble residents of Wasilla no longer seem so alien or threatening. Rather, they’re a place for a safe, fun family vacation or political convention.

A political gathering steeped in nostalgia is hardly unique. Evocations of a happy past have long been a potent piece of American political culture. Nostalgic appeals are a way to channel contemporary anxieties. It’s no coincidence that the log-cabin political story became especially popular in the mid-19th century, when industrial revolution and big business were leaving voters worried about their own social mobility. In the second half of this century, Republicans eulogized some half-remembered (or fictitious) small-town America of the 1950s as a way of speaking to voters anxious about crime or sexual behavior or integration. And Democrats traveled the rust belt mistily evoking half-remembered white, ethnic manufacturing neighborhoods of the same era as a way of getting at economic and status anxieties. Promising to bring back either era may be utterly fraudulent, but that’s politics.

The variety of nostalgia that seems to have captured most of today’s Republican party, though, represents something else. Between the video tributes to Reagan and McCain’s ongoing efforts to tie himself to the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt, it’s less an appeal to how voters once lived than to how Republican politicians did. Whatever the late leaders’ biographers may say, talk of Teddy Roosevelt in today’s culture boils down to a simple image of a president taking it to powerful politicians. And Reagan, as Tuesday night’s film showed, represents some mystical combination of smiling, believing, and “standing tall.” The heroes’ purported qualities, in both cases, hew closely to the image McCain wants to establish for himself.

Whether or not voters buy the comparison, the result is to moor this year’s candidate in the past--“a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution,” as Rudy Giuliani put it, but not an avatar of anything new and different. Reagan and TR may have been trailblazers, but by the logic of the convention’s auto-nostalgia, McCain is a mere second coming.

And it’d even be true of he were a first-term Alaska governor whose jowl-free face was new on the political scene. In fact, the variety of reform associated with Sarah Palin, the woman who is supposed to add a dose of the tomorrow to McCain’s yesterday-heavy image, is a perfect complement to the Republican nostalgia of the day. Palin shook things up in Republican Alaska, they say, which sounds like a sign of some new manifestation of the party that has held the White House for 28 of the past 40 years. But how did she shake them up? She didn’t take on the GOP establishment because they were too mired in doctrinaire Reaganism to notice that the world had changed dramatically. Rather, she took them on for deviating from the one true faith. The Elliot Ness-cum-ideological commissar act may be necessary and good and even brave, but it still feels like a glance backwards. It’s not a renovated philosophy for a multiethnic, high-tech, post-industrial century whose residents appear unhappy with Republican stances on major issues. It’s surely not what Roosevelt offered the sclerotic party of William McKinley a century ago.

You don’t have to look far to see what this sort of perpetual ancestor worship says about a party’s health. For decades, Democrats maintained an ongoing political vigil for Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, with each election season featuring an increasingly creaky promise to bring back the old magic. It was Walter Mondale who would bring FDR’s happy days roaring back again; no, now Michael Dukakis would carry us back to JFK’s new frontier. They may have meant it, but the embrace still served to underscore their status as a coalition bereft of contemporary animating ideas, at least animating ideas anybody wanted to hear.

The party’s efforts in 2004 offered an echo of the phenomenon. When conventioneers weren’t praising John Kerry’s war record, they were offering bromides about bringing back the good times of Bill Clinton’s 1990s. Even though those good times were just four years gone, and Clinton was wildly popular, it wasn’t enough. Since Barack Obama has already appropriated George Bush’s 2004 Brooks and Dunn tune for his convention, McCain would do well to swipe Clinton’s 1992 ditty for the GOP gathering: Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Or else.

Michael Schaffer is the author of the upcoming book One Nation Under Dog.


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