The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite social science books is a 1993 “golden oldie”– The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap by Stephanie Coontz.  Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families.

The book was a methodical survey of the stories we tell ourselves about the American past, accompanied by copious data debunking them.

Think women were “purer” at the turn of the last century? How do you explain the substantial percentage who were already “with child” when they married? Did our brave and entrepreneurial forebears always “stand on their own two feet”? Coontz enumerates the numerous government programs–frontier mythology to the contrary– that they relied on. Etc.

Nostalgia may not be accurate, but it’s powerful. There’s no denying the attraction of a past viewed through rose-colored glasses. It always amuses me to hear my contemporaries longingly reciting the virtues of the 1950s; even when I was growing up at the time, I realized that life was really good if you were a middle-class white Christian male. Otherwise, not so much.

What made me think of Coontz’ book and my own formative years was a recent blog post by Michael Leppert, in which he made several astute observations about the politics of nostalgia.

“A sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time” seems to be a dominant part of the politics in charge today. The definition of “nostalgia” perfectly captures at least half of every debate in America right now…

Leppert traced that “sentimental yearning” to our current political scene.

The tedious breakdown of what happened in Alabama this week fascinates political nerds like me, but probably numbs the brains of most. We know, for example, that 30 percent of those voting were African-Americans which is three points higher than their share of the population there. We also know that they almost entirely voted for Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Doug Jones. Or did they vote against his bigoted Republican opponent? Either way, it tells a tale.

The tale is this: they voted for the future. They triumphed over people who voted for the past.

Leppert argues that this contest between tomorrow and yesterday will define the politics of 2018, and he notes that, in retrospect, the same thing probably could be said of the 2016 election.

“Make America Great Again” was a powerful sales pitch for a swath of folks who felt increasingly ignored. The mantra itself is asking for support for the way things used to be, as if that is possible. More importantly, it expresses a pessimism about our collective future that is hard to comprehend….

The past won in 2016 in many ways. So much of what we have seen in Washington this year comes from that perspective.  Throwback health and environmental policy early in the year was followed by an uncreative and backward looking tax bill.  All of it has been based on a sad view of tomorrow that couldn’t be more un-American.

I predict those who run on a platform of the future will sweep in 2018. Because forward is the only direction civilization ever truly goes.

As we get ready to “ring out” 2017–a year I’ll be happy to leave–I devoutly, passionately hope that Mike Leppert is right, that the future will win out over nostalgia for the way we never were.

My grandmother had a saying: “from your mouth to God’s ears…”


  1. “God’s ears.” Nostalgia for the time when the gods justified our tribe’s prejudices, privileges.

  2. I wish people would quit voting for the person they’d like to have a beer with or the plain talking one. The world is far too complex for such simple thinking!

  3. I deleted my original comments because “nostalgia” is not what comes to mind of my growing up years for a number of reasons; beginning in my teens I began to see that “nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors” and “things are not always what they seem”. As an adult I learned that the majority of white middle-class Christian families of my friends were hiding the same dark secrets I had hidden from them for decades. “Make America Great Again” has meaning only to those who want to return to “those thrilling days of yesteryear” where racism, bigotry, sexism and religious isolation from the public were the way of life. Where physical, emotional and sexual abuse of children was considered “a family’s business” and not to be interfered with…in many of those “white middle-class Christian” families. Where, by the end of the 20th Century, unwed mothers were abundant in our high schools and accepted by society as the “norm” as well as acceptance that the fathers had no place in the lives of the children they helped create. That includes, to my embarrassment, my own family. The children are loved for the most part but we see the criminal statistics in neighborhoods where love and nurturing were in little evidence.

    This past week, at long last the final week of this endless 2017, MSNBC has been rerunning the nightmare of 2017 repeatedly; will we ever recover from the “deconstruction” of our government, democracy, loss of civil and human rights, the shameful behavior of the president and his minions can never be thought of in a “nostalgic” way by any thinking person.

    What is there of value from this year to carry with us into 2018; will the fear and disgust strengthen us and send us to the polls to vote for change and salvation of what little is left of our self-esteem as Americans and reestablish strong diplomatic relations with our allies? Or; will the Republicans and their 1% continue dragging us into a war of egos between two foolish men culminating in actual nuclear war? I have been saying that the next “boots on the ground” war may well be on our home ground. “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.” Any nostalgic thoughts on the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, anywhere in the Middle East and all of those violent uprisings not declared to be war?

    “The past won in 2016 in many ways. So much of what we have seen in Washington this year comes from that perspective. Throwback health and environmental policy early in the year was followed by an uncreative and backward looking tax bill. All of it has been based on a sad view of tomorrow that couldn’t be more un-American.”

    Sheila’s quote above is the nostalgic memories we are leaving our descendants unless we refuse to accept the current presidency, administration and Congress and force our way back to following the meaning of the Constitution of the United States of America and the Bill of Rights.

  4. Forty years of Neoliberalism under the hands of both political parties in this country. Union participation down to 12%. The DNC is owned by Wall Street who just flooded trillions into the Federal banking system to buy back (clean up) all the fraud done by Banksters after Bill Clinton repealed Glass Steagall for his new friends. Trump hired the same Goldman Sach’s shysters to his cabinet to slash federal regulations and they just looted the Treasury another $1.4 trillion.

    All of this to benefit the Donor Class (1%).

    From all accounts that I’ve read, Doug Jones was a horrible candidate. Flawed. A center-right instrument of the Donor Class with lots of talking points.

    Black America had a POTUS from Chicago. He gave great speeches. He was nothing more than another instrument and did nothing for black Americans. Meanwhile, the screws turned on those families. More black kids now in prison than ever before.

    Watch Louis Farrakhan talk about Obama. Or Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow.

    The corporate takeover of the political class is complete. It was completed long ago and the propaganda media kept it together.

    Spend several hours on Twitter talking with independent journalists doing the work of the free press. Then go watch two hours of broadcast media. It’s mind-numbingly boring. Completely superficial. The television paints a picture of America which doesn’t exist.

    There is also a huge disparity in worldviews of young people versus the aging Boomers. Technological advances have launched them into another dimension while our government serves their Donors. They are watching the looting occur. They are also the first generation who will not have it better than their parents.

    So much for the nostalgic American Dream. Turn on the TV and you get bland news, weather, and sports or mind-numbing political propaganda.

  5. I have been a fan of Coontz for lo these many years. It is important that we destroy myth because it takes up a lot of room in the public consciousness that could be better applied to all we have left, i.e., the future, and Sheila is right to emphasize that reality. She is also right that 2018 will be a year in which the future unfolds. We need to prepare for our future not only in the hard sciences, automation and the like, but our future in the social sciences as well. Readers of this blog are going to be pleased with the outcome in November, 2018, as we lay Republican mythology to rest and construct our own new world of pragmatic realism. Yes!

  6. While some wait impatiently for the next revolution, those of us who have been through the last one (1968) will gladly see a slow crawl forward, as long as the direction is forward.

  7. Longing for the good old days was present in the 1950s, too. My mother sometimes exploded in wrath at people who expressed that sentiment. She would start with “You can have the good old days”, and then she could smack the fantasy in the face with a barrage of unpleasant facts of life belonging to the 20s, 30s, and 40s. In the sense of being deliriously married to our sweet fantasies, we are still living in the good old days.

  8. What I’m afraid of is the that we won’t be nostalgic enough and fall for the self flagellation of woe to all of us, Trump owns us now.

    America was never perfect and we all have always known that. Perfect also isn’t required or we wouldn’t have made it this far. Let’s end the pity party.

    Good enough is good enough. We just have to clear out the present infestation in DC and return to good enough.

    Our choice is between two flawed parties but only one is positively predatory – selling what we are off piece by piece to the donor class.

    Obama ended Cheney’s crash and lifted America back up. We can do it again but for now it has to be done with the resources we have not the dream team.

    We can clean up the DNC over time but this is an emergency. If we wait for perfection we won’t have any context for it to play out within.

    As mom used to say in the good old days “stop crying or I will give you something to really cry about”. Republicans running rampant.

  9. Yes, progress is the only solution to our survival and the survival of democracy. The illusion and delusion of our country as presented by the most ridiculous person this country has ever produced, is a con job that must be rejected outright by the VAST majority.

    We also have to look for candidates at every level that will light up even the most backward trailer park. Good luck with that.

  10. This is too funny. Considering your constant pining for a Republican Party that was “supposedly” principled and responsible. The GOP was always a bastion of bigotry and hostility to those outside of the donor/business-class. The Way We Never Were…..Indeed.

  11. It’s not the people of the trailer parks that are voting. For the most part,they’re not voting at all. It’s the affluent/college/educated/Caucasian/suburbanites that are the Republican base. I guess it makes one feel superior to denigrate the lower class, than to admit the real problem lies with the attitudes of those that look as if they’ve just stepped out of the average American television commercial. Then again,Vernon’s posts are always invariably full of hatred.

  12. Aptly titled post, Sheila. The earliest Europeans who set foot on these shores sought to bring back salvation to a people who had “lost their way.”
    The Great Awakening onward aimed at getting “back” to that elusive era when it wasimagined people were holy and lawful.
    Literature and art romanticized the earlier time of a pristine wilderness and times that we’re somehow better mainly because they were safely tucked away in the past.
    I’m sure that others recalled Faulkner: “The past is never dead, it isn’t even past.”

  13. William,

    The world has enough intellectual dwarfs around without you playing Mr. Judgemental. You do not understand allegory, irony or metaphor, so mind your word choice.

  14. Vernon,that hate is eating you up, soon there won’t be nothing left of you. Keep on hating people to your own detriment.To be honest,once you’re gone,it really won’t be much of a loss.

  15. William,

    You are obviously the one with anger issues. You hate for the sake of hating. I’ll be here long after you’re sucking rocks somewhere hot.

  16. “To say that the future will be different from the past is, to scientists, hopelessly self-evident. I observe regretfully that in politics, however, it can be heresy. It can be denounced as radicalism or branded as subversion. There are people in every time and in every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed.” (Robert F. Kennedy, Greek Theater, Los Angeles, Calif., March 24, 1968).

Comments are closed.