Is Nostalgia a Dead End?

A dive into mid-century American history uncovers how a strong labor movement was pivotal in building social unity, equality, and advancing civil rights. While nostalgia might seem like a dead end, the past holds valuable lessons for shaping a better future.

In the 1960s, a majority of Americans were members of a social or civic organization. (Ernst Haas / Getty Images)

It’s likely that many Jacobin readers — begrudgingly — find a lot to agree with in Matt Yglesias’s Max Weber–inspired Substack Slow Boring. After all, Weberian liberalism has a lot to offer, even to socialists.

At the same time, liberals like Yglesias can still learn a lot from socialists, particularly in terms of historical analysis. One of his latest essays would benefit from a bit more social analysis and, ironically, a little less economic determinism.

Yglesias argues that “nostalgia politics is a dead end,” and in some ways he is right. He’s right that the psychic power of conservative nostalgic appeals trades on the audience’s vague sense of the Good Old Days, while offering no positive policy solutions to achieve something like a better future. He is also right that nostalgia politics is largely subjective — we are often nostalgic for just those times when we were younger, had more disposable income, were less burdened with responsibilities, or were healthier than we are today. Fair enough. But does it follow that all nostalgic appeals are always just such a trick? No. Nostalgia for the postwar era specifically is not simply a kind of “false consciousness”; it is in many ways rooted in an objective reality.

Maybe our society was in a better place — and plausibly on the path to a better future — in those decades after the war.

No, Time Is Not a Flat Circle

Yglesias observes that a lot of nostalgia politics is rooted in personal experience. And that which isn’t life-cycle nostalgia can be attributed to a tendency toward a cyclical appreciation of prior periods, supercharged by the marketing agencies and media companies that shrewdly exploit this. As an Onion headline once succinctly put it: “US Dept. of Retro Warns: ‘We May be Running Out of Past.’”

The current fad for the ’90s fashion, television, and music among teenagers is one example. For Yglesias, this example is representative of most of the appeal for any given nostalgia trip. However, the nostalgia politics he is trying to refute is not that of the early aughts or the ’90s. Rather, it’s the prevailing idea — given viral expression through “What Went Wrong?” memes — that the postwar decades were a fabulous time for the American masses. Yglesias disagrees, stating that “it’s not factually accurate that things were better” in those decades.

To demonstrate his point, he explains how much richer and better off we are now. We have more cars, we have more microwaves, bigger homes, etc. Yet if today is so great, why do so many people — from very opposite political worlds, and from very different age cohorts — find this specific period so attractive? Sure, some conservatives long for a whiter, more segregated, and patriarchal society, and the 1950s offers them a picture of that, but so do the 1880s, the 1890s, the 1910s, or the 1920s, and no one waxes poetic about the Coolidge years. And while some reactionaries may be fond of a time before the Civil Rights Act, you can’t say the same about all the millennial socialists who stuff their homes with mid-century modern furniture and ’60s records (on vinyl!).

In fact, in 2016 the New York Times published the results of a Morning Consult survey that asked  “When Was America Greatest?” The results confirm a particular fondness for the mid-century. Republicans tended to laud the 1950s (and Ronnie Reagan’s 1980s) as the halcyon days. Curiously, however, among Democrats, the Times notes that “Mr. Sanders’s voters were more likely to pick a year from the 1960s, and more of the Clinton supporters chose best years in the 1990s, when her husband was president.”

Surely these Sanders supporters aren’t pining for Jim Crow. The reality is that a substantial portion of people across the political spectrum and across the generational divide feel a strong pull of nostalgia for those decades. Even when they hadn’t lived through them!

For those who did live through the period the affection seems even more profound. In his book Stayin’ Alive, Jefferson Cowie quotes the son of a Pennsylvania steelworker: “If what we lived through in the 1950s was not liberation, then liberation never happens in real human lives.” The liberation referred to is the “complete transformation in his family’s life — from their material well-being to his father’s bearing toward supervisors on the shop floor.” As Cowie notes, the decade really was a revelation for the working-class, with workers’ wages increasing by almost 62 percent between 1947 and 1972. By comparison, between 1998 and 2022, real median household wages only increased by 13.88 percent. As much talk as there is about the impressive growth of the Clinton years, and despite the resurgence of the show Friends, the 1990s was nothing like “liberation.”

What’s more, the breakneck speed with which the postwar moment was romanticized reveals something about its perceived greatness and the contemporary understanding of its importance. The setting for George Lucas’s coming-of-age classic American Graffiti is 1962, first screened in 1973 — just eleven years after the fact. It’s hard to imagine a nostalgia flick about the year 2013 becoming a pop-culture phenomenon today. The eagerness to reminisce about the mid-century emerged almost instantly. And the rush to canonize the period was palpable — La Belle Époque sounds quaint compared to the Les Trente Glorieuses.

To be fair, Yglesias admits that fondness for this period does have to do with the rapid economic growth of the moment. But he fails to capture the breadth of social achievement that culminated in the postwar moment. In fact, it wasn’t simply that the 1950s and ’60s were a brief blip of supercharged growth in an otherwise plodding, but upward trending, development. Instead, from about 1900 until about 1970, virtually every metric of social life slowly and steadily improved, before suddenly reversing. That is, the fondness for the mid-century isn’t just about partisan approval of the New Deal and the Great Society (or Jim Crow and housewifery) — it’s also a recognition that this was a pivotal moment in history. Since then, the social world has been slouching toward dissolution.

The ’50s and ’60s were not just a high point for social development but also a hinge point.

The Mid-Century Really Was Special

In 2020, Robert Putnam and Shaylyn Romney Garrett published a remarkable book that, due to the pandemic, went mostly unremarked upon. In it, they argue that from around 1900 to today the United States experienced what they call an “I-we-I” curve. That is, the society went from the rugged individualism of Teddy Roosevelt to the American collectivism of his cousin Franklin before sliding back toward libertarian independence and social disintegration.

The curve that they present is striking. It charts a significant upward trend toward economic equality, political comity, social fraternity, and cultural solidarity that culminates in the mid-century before stopping and turning around. The peak of this curve happens in — surprise, surprise — the late 1950s and early ’60s. We’ve been on the downswing since then.

In terms of income and wealth, our society hit peak equality in the late 1960s. And this is not only true in terms of the gap between the very top and the very bottom: economic historians Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey Williamson have shown that inequality decreased even within the middle and lower classes during the period between 1913 and around 1970. Additionally, black Americans experienced the fastest wage growth and the smallest black-white wage gap during the late 1950s and early ’60s. The increasing economic equality of this time was what made the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act conceivable political programs. And it is a tragedy of history that the trend to greater equality stalled and reversed after the successful passage of these acts.

Generational economic progress follows the same curve. According to economist Raj Chetty, “Children’s prospects of earning more than their parents have fallen from 90 percent to 50 percent in the past half century.” Labor economist Yonatan Berman’s work indicates that intergenerational economic mobility was at its absolute height in 1965. The progressivity of the tax rate follows the very same curve, climbing to a top corporate tax rate of 53 percent in the late 1960s before sliding back down.

Today, after decades of tax slashing, and thanks in particular to the steep cuts of President Donald Trump, the top corporate tax rate is now the lowest it has been in eighty years. Social spending on the poor, not surprisingly, followed suit: a steady climb to a peak in the 1960s, decline thereafter. And so too with the minimum wage, which peaked in 1968, the same year that wealth inequality reached its lowest level in recorded history. Union membership began its ascent in the 1910s, reached a high plateau in the 1940s, remained at that level until about 1966, and has been steadily declining since then.

Economic Equality Jibes With Social Cohesion

Social trends exhibit a similar pattern. Membership in civic and fraternal associations more or less steadily climbs from the late nineteenth century to a peak in the 1960s. At that time, according to Putnam and Romney Garrett, a significant majority of Americans, cutting across race and gender lines, were part of one or more of these groups — the United States had one of the highest rates of civic involvement in the world. Even church membership follows the I-we-I curve, despite popular representations of a steady decline since the advent of enlightened modernity. The apex of church membership and attendance was not in the mid-nineteenth century, but a century later.

Putnam and Romney Garrett also highlight a range of cultural and political markers that follow the same curve. In literature, the individualism characteristic of the 1920s, captured in the novels of the Lost Generation, eventually shifted to the socially inspired films of the 1940s, like those directed by Frank Capra. There was a gradual move from capricious and isolated individualism to a culture emphasizing solidarity. Putnam and Romney Garrett demonstrate this shift through changes in language. The use of the phrase “common man” reached its peak in 1945. More fundamentally, the word “we” hit its highest use in the mid-1960s and plummeted thereafter. Since then, in literature, “I” and “me” have taken its place.

The social cohesion and economic equality of the era was good for society, as is clear in any number of vital statistics. For instance, according to the US Congress Joint Economic Committee, “deaths of despair” were at their absolute lowest in the early 1960s, a level not seen before or since. Similarly, homicides decreased from high levels in the 1900s to their lowest in the early 1960s, marking the least deadly period on record.

The Pew Charitable Trust’s recently released seventy-five-year retrospective on their hometown of Philadelphia underscores this point. One of the most striking and depressing findings is that 1960, the city’s most populous year, was also one of its safest, with only 150 murders out of 2.1 million people. In contrast, 2021 saw 562 murders, in a city that had shrunk by 500,000 people. This means that the per capita homicide rate has increased from 7.2 homicides per 100,000 people per year in the 1960s to 32.74 in 2021 — an increase of over 350 percent.

All of this should demonstrate that all those dishwashers, computers, cars, and microwaves aren’t doing much for our social and civic health. In fact, some consumer goods actually reflect the social backsliding of our time. The proliferation of car ownership is obviously tied to the socially deleterious expansion of commute times and the atomizing push toward ever sprawling suburbs. And by now it seems clear that the great proliferation of smartphones, far from driving social progress, has done little other than douse society with a powerful antisocial solvent.

Can the Past Be Prologue?

Whatever else nostalgia for the mid-century represents, it is hard to argue that popular affection for the period is merely aesthetic, subjective, or simply reactionary. There were aspects of society that were functioning better. For the Left, this is an especially important point to absorb for a few reasons. Firstly, studying periods when society appeared to be, in some profound respects, healthier can teach us a lot about the characteristics of a thriving society. Secondly, by acknowledging, rather than denying, that some aspects of social life might have been better in the past, we can better understand the vast political divide we face today. Such an acknowledgement doesn’t imply endorsing conservative politics or policy positions. Ironically, it is conservatives who have been caught shrieking about the so-called “Fifteen Minute City” idea, seemingly unaware that mid-century neighborhoods were essentially all fifteen-minute cities.

Of course, Yglesias is right that we cannot simply go back to the social world of the postwar era. But why should we avert our eyes? It is true that the United States, much of Europe, and parts of Latin America made remarkable social progress in the years following World War II — arguably achieving more progress at a faster rate than at any other time, either before or since. It is also true that the increasing saturation of consumer goods and the unceasing marketization of everything, cited by liberals as a demonstration of the steady march of progress, coincided with the broad decline of social life. And, therefore, it might be true that what a society needs in order to flourish is not exactly synonymous with what individuals may want to buy in the capitalist marketplace.

Understanding the mid-century era can help us break free from the frighteningly narrow vision of the future that prevails today. After all, envisioning a better society becomes easier when we are aware of our past achievements and, even more so, when we understand the ambitious possibilities our predecessors imagined.

Nostalgia is not always a dead end — indeed, it’s one of the reasons this magazine is named Jacobin.