On Liberal Nostalgia

One of the more familiar liberal dismissals of conservatives especially back during the Reagan era was that we want to take the country “back to the 1950s,” to the time of Ozzie and Harriett, Levittown, and the conformity of the “organizational man” in the grey flannel suit. The 1985 feature film “Back to the Future” seemed to fit the moment perfectly. Of course, Reagan couldn’t have brought back the 1950s if he’d wanted to, and in any case he was always much more concerned with the future than the past anyway–not that his opponents noticed or cared.
Today it is liberals who wax nostalgic about the 1950s, especially its high marginal tax rates and high rates of unionized labor. Hence the liberal agenda of returning to the 91 percent marginal income tax rates of that sluggish decade (as I noted here yesterday), and juicing labor union strength with things like card check and yesterday’s NLRB rule making to make it easier for unions to win elections, a rule-making that, if it goes into full effect, will likely have only a marginal effect on the long-term decline in unions.
Michael Barone notes the peculiarity of the liberal nostalgia in today’s Wall Street Journal, pointing out as he has done before that the post-war world of American dominance that rested on three “big units”–Big Government, Big Business, and Big Labor–was an artifact of the unique historical moment in the aftermath of World War II that cannot be recreated willy-nilly through new liberal exertions. That world is gone for good. But it is not just the liberal nostalgia for the economy of the 1950s that is odd. Barone notes:

The liberals who long to return to the Midcentury Moment seem to forget that it was a time of enormous cultural uniformity that stigmatized being unmarried or unchurched or gay. The huge menu of lifestyle choices from which we can choose today was a very short menu with very few choices then. [Barone leaves out mention of race relations here, and the lingering blot of Jim Crow segregation in the Democratic-run South.]

Indeed it was the social conformity of the 1950s that used to be the cornerstone of liberal criticism of that decade. Now it is seemingly a glory of the time.
One other thought should be mentioned. Back in the 1950s, according to a well-known opinion poll series, public confidence in the federal government ran high, often near 80 percent. Since the 1960s the number of Americans who tell pollsters they have confidence in the federal government to do the right thing has fallen below 20 percent, with only occasional blips up I the aftermath of 9/11 and other extraordinary times. There are lots of explanations and factors involved, but James Q. Wilson once pointed out that in the 1950s, what Americans saw from the federal government was a record of tangible success at big enterprises–we’d won World War II, built the interstate highway system that facilitated the growth of the new suburbs, and sent a generation of veterans to college with the GI bill. But starting with the Great Society, Vietnam, crime, inflation, and Watergate, we have seen mostly a record of failure and disappointment. You might say the trouble for liberalism began when it forsook civil engineering for social engineering. Would that it could get back to the old-style liberalism that built things like water projects and highways, instead of recycling centers and high-speed rail to nowhere. That would be “shovel-ready” that we can believe in.

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