What Old, White Conservatives Miss About America

Their nostalgia isn't necessarily bigoted. The main reason people feel wistful for less racially enlightened times is that everyone romanticizes childhood.

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Is the nostalgia white conservatives feel for the America of their youth rooted in racism, as Matthew Yglesias contends? Or is Reihan Salam right to "resist and resent" the notion that American conservatism is rooted in racist sentiment, a view that he says is held by many on the left? Those are the questions at issue in the recent back-and-forth between these two Atlantic alums, both of whom are unusually sharp observers of American politics and culture. Salam kicked things off by writing a column for The Daily that includes this provocative paragraph:

American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don't share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It's unfair to call this sentiment racist.

Yglesias responded as follows:

This puts me in a mind of House Speaker John Boehner's explicitly expressed view that the problem with President Obama is that he and the 111th Congress were "snuffing out the America that I grew up in." As I said at the time, on its face it's difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war?

It's difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgists like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner's defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself "a black person or a woman wouldn't put it like that." But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up in? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn't let Jews into the country club?

Thought-provoking arguments on both sides.

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What I'd ask Salam is whether he thinks the character Clint Eastwood plays in Grand Turino was racist. He seems like a good test case, in that he was understandably alarmed by a changing cultural landscape that made his neighborhood less safe, but he also erroneously presumed, based on the skin color of his neighbors, a larger gulf in cultural values than was justified by reality. (I'd say that he was a bit racist, but that he wasn't deserving of the full stigma usually attached to the term -- one can be racist without being Bull Connor or David Duke, and the lack of specific term for that is a real obstacle to frank racial conversation in the United States.) 

As for Yglesias, I am in concurrence with his strong belief that America is a much better place today than it was in 1949. With few exceptions, to think otherwise signals a lack of cross-racial empathy, at minimum. But I resist the idea that there is nothing save white privilege for John Boehner to wistfully miss. He's a conservative Catholic. As a kid, he lived in a country where religion played a larger role in public life; divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation were stigmatized; a comparatively larger share of social welfare spending came from private charities; abortion was much less common; and city bureaucrats would never dream of shutting down a kid's lemonade stand. All good things if you're a conservative Catholic, aren't they?

Of course, all this presumes nostalgia is rational. 

But almost every older American one encounters is nostalgic for the era of his or her youth. Hasn't it always been so? (For one thing, they were young back then!) One of the magazine pieces I found most rewarding to report concerns a senior center in Harlem, and the elderly black people who frequent it.

Here's the beginning of the piece:

On West 151st Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, an unobtrusive sign in a small park provides one version of neighborhood history: "Convent Garden lies in the heart of the Sugar Hill section of Harlem," it says, "so named because of the 'Sweet Life' of its residents during the first half of the 20th Century." When I read the sign, I wondered whether local elders shared its romantic notions of the past. The lives of older people are almost always more interesting than they imagine, or so I've gathered from countless conversations with senior citizens, and lost youth typically causes them to lament the fading features of a golden past.

Is that a human trait, I wondered?

Do black people whose youthful memories include lynching and segregation, and whose children and grandchildren inhabit a more equitable, less bigoted society, nevertheless share the senior citizen's sense of nostalgia?

They do!

In that senior center, I encountered a bit of racism from some residents who complained about the Dominican immigrants who'd moved into the neighborhood over the years. Certainly you can tell a story about immigration, gentrification, and a relative loss of black privilege in West Harlem.

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For the most part, however, folks had fond memories of youth, lamented that cultural institutions like the Savoy Ballroom no longer existed, complained about rising crime especially when perpetrated by members of their own racial group, and offered all the standard grandparent complaints too: the kids these days, with their informal dress, lack of respect for elders, affinity for talentless musicians, etc.

Older white conservatives are the same way. Yeah, some are racist in ways that make me uncomfortable. Others aren't racist at all. And among both groups, there are a lot of senior citizens who think the country of their youth is slipping away.

And they're right!

America is radically more socially liberal than it was in 1949. Its television programs are cruder and filled with violence. Its out-of-wedlock birthrate is skyrocketing. Attitudes toward drug use are significantly more permissive. Far fewer businesses shut down to observe the Sabbath. Children are much more likely to be placed in daycare while both parents work outside the home. Gays are allowed in the military. College orientation now includes free condoms. Whatever one thinks of all these changes, it seems to me that Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement were major enough events that, based on them alone, America should be deemed better today, even in the eyes of folks who think other stuff has gone in the wrong direction.

But that doesn't mean that older white people -- or older black people -- must stop being nostalgic about less racially enlightened times, or that their wistfulness is grounded in racism, or that it's even possible for a human being to rationally evaluate the overall system of norms into which he was raised, to rationally compare them to prevailing norms many decades later, and then to judge which period was better and have it alone determine his emotional reaction.

Which brings us back to Boehner. No, Obama isn't snuffing out the America of his youth, but the fact that the House speaker claimed otherwise isn't a reflection of racist nostalgia so much as it is another example of a prominent Republican exaggerating the supposed radicalism of Obama's domestic agenda and economic policy. "Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in?" Yglesias asks. "For the much larger labor union share of the workforce?"

Seriously?

What are the chances that Boehner believes his own hyperbolic soundbite? Or that his genuinely felt nostalgia for the America of his childhood is informed by rationally comparing marginal tax rates when he was 9 to public policy today? Do people feel nostalgic for abstract public policy?

They do not.

Image credit: Reuters

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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