In his speech after the New Hampshire primary, Ohio governor John Kasich became nostalgic for an older America—the America of his mailman father who was one of many workers responsible for the fabric of face-to-face community in the small western Pennsylvania town of McKees Rocks.. He called for a more compassionate, empathetic, and caring America—a place where people sit on their front porches, give each other hugs, and love their neighbors.
Kasich reminds us that nostalgia is a powerful thing. It can make us long for lost worlds. The Ohio governor’s small town-upbringing may have been idyllic, but historians know that not everyone growing up in 1950s America can relate to this kind of childhood. The history of the 1950s, as opposed to nostalgia for the 1950s, is much more complicated and complex, dark and oppressive, for those who were not fortunate enough to participate in Kasich’s safe, white-working class world.
Nostalgia is so powerful because it usually contains kernels of truth. Neighborliness and the strengthening of the bonds of local community are good things. So is the American Dream that Bernie Sanders preaches. So are the ideals of political liberty that our founding fathers held so dear. So is limited government. All of these things will make us a better society.
But invoking the past to get us there will always be problematic because for every western Pennsylvania working class neighborhood there was a black neighborhood in Alabama dealing with segregation; and for every family who experienced the American Dream there was another family who did not. For all of the virtues of the Reagan era that the GOP presidential candidates love to extol, there was also Iran-Contra, the cutting of social programs, and the raising of taxes in 1983. For every founder who defended liberty, there was another caught up in the ugly legacy of slavery. And let’s not forget that early 20th century progressives had a horrible track record on race and immigration. Just ask Princeton University as they wrestle with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.
This is the difference between history and nostalgia. But I don’t see our political candidates learning this lesson anytime soon. Let’s face it, nostalgia works much better than history for those with the primary goal of getting elected.