Misplaced Nostalgia for the “Good Old Days”

The bygone days of American greatness evoked by Trump and Sanders are largely based on myth.

A lot of the anger expressed by supporters of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is based on the feeling that our current situation is worse than it was in the past: Trump talks about “losing to China, Mexico, Japan, and other nations” for decades while one of Sanders’ favorite lines is that “the middle class is disappearing.”

While it is certainly true that the public has a decidedly negative view on “the way things are going in the country today,” (to borrow the wording of a recent poll by the Pew Research Center), it is less well known that these feelings of decline are a consistent feature of the American political landscape. For example, in 1999, a year in which we had had seven straight years of strong economic growth, only 55 percent of Americans told Pew that they were “satisfied” with the state of affairs, while 40 percent were dissatisfied. On the flip side, during the late 1980s, which were also a period of modest economic strength, Americans were evenly split between satisfaction and dissatisfaction. Pew reports that somewhere between 15 and 30 percent of the population have been satisfied with the current state of the country since 2006.

This persistent strain of anxiety and pessimism among Americans has often been used by politicians – including Trump and Sanders – to justify their quests for the presidency. President Ronald Reagan in fact staked his path to the presidency on the question, “Are you better off today than you were four years ago?” That campaign also witnessed much discussion of the “misery index” – the combination of the rates of inflation and unemployment.

Yet too often, perceptions of American decline and nostalgia for the “good old days” are grounded in myths, not reality.

Certainly we are better off today than in the 1970s, which were actually quite tumultuous with growing rates of inflation and uneven economic growth. In fact, a new term had to be created – “stagflation” – to explain this phenomenon.

And as for the 1950s and 1960s, the nostalgia evoked by the likes of Trump and Sanders is again based on a myth on how good the middle class had it. In 1959, the overall poverty rate was 22 percent while the elderly poverty rate was 35 percent; even in our weak economy, the comparable numbers today are 15 percent and 10 percent.
Moreover, while many low-educated white males had good paying blue collar jobs in the 1950s and 1960s, this leaves out women, African Americans (who would eventually riot in over 100 cities from 1963 to 1968), and many rural whites. In terms of earnings, women in 1959 earned just 45 percent of men and Blacks earned 53 percent of Whites – the comparable ratios today are 75 percent and 73 percent. As for poverty rates in 1959, 56 percent of Blacks were in poverty as well as 18 percent of Whites and 33 percent of Americans in rural areas. Today, the comparable poverty rates today are 26 percent for Blacks, 10 percent for Whites, and 14 percent for rural Americans – still not great but a far cry from the 1950s.

This brief tour of past conditions is not meant to imply that people don’t have a reason to be anxious today. Globalization has led to many disruptions, and the Great Recession that began in 2008 was very deep while the recovery has been very slow. An August 2015 poll by Pew reported that 30 percent of respondents had been deeply affected by the recession and still hadn’t recovered.

So why does the past continue to enjoy such a glow?

First, the 1950s and 1960s felt very different because they were preceded by 15 years of war and depression. There was a sense that growth was going to continue for a long while. Second, the privileged status of White men, especially those without a college degree, has been reduced as their earnings and incomes have had the lowest relative growth of any demographic group in recent years.

Many fact checkers (here, here, and here) have started to respond to some of the statements by Trump and Sanders about economic decline. Further, the recent study cited by Sanders and others that proclaimed that the middle class was shrinking failed to note that most of the decline was driven by people moving up to incomes above the top level of its definition of middle class.

The bottom line is that many people have mixed emotions about their economic circumstances. On the one hand, 60 percent of people say that they have a higher standard of living than their parents at a similar age (only 15 percent that they worse). On the other hand, we’ve been through a long period in which disruptive change has hurt many people, as well as a financial crisis that – while brief – plunged many Americans into a period of long-term financial uncertainty. Thus, they are responsive to politicians saying how bad things have become relative to a calmer past, oblivious to the problems that existed then.

Even though they are on opposite sides of the political spectrum, Trump and Sanders stir up people’s emotions with claims of economic decline based on a misplaced nostalgia for an America that never actually existed. This leads both to make grand promises that have no chance of being adopted.

Stephen Rose

Stephen Rose is a Research Professor at the George Washington University Institute of Public Policy. A well-known labor economist, he is the author of Social Stratification in the United States, first published in 1979.