The Way We Never Were

One of my all-time favorite non-fiction books is Stephanie Coontz’ The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. In it, Coontz debunks several of the persistent myths that continue to distort contemporary politics. (I think my favorite chapter is the one titled “We always stood on our own two feet,” in which she details several early important government programs that “small government conservatives” conveniently ignore.)

I thought about “The Way We Never Were” when I read a recent column by Jennifer Rubin, addressing the notion that today’s divisions are deeper than they’ve been–that the times we occupy are worse than those of the past. She titled her essay, “Get real and read some history. The past was worse.”

Nostalgia is a powerful political tool. Wielding nostalgia for a bygone era — one that is invariably mischaracterized — is a favorite weapon for fascist movements (Make America Great Again), harking back to a time before their nation was “polluted” by malign forces. In the United States, such nostalgia none-too-subtlety appeals to white Christian nationalism. Even in a more benign form (e.g., “Politics didn’t used to be so mean,” “Remember the days of bipartisanship?”) plays on faulty memories. If you really go back to study U.S. history, you would find two things: The past was worse, and conflict has always been the norm.

Economically, Americans were a lot poorer, even as late as 1960, when there were roughly 400 vehicles per 1,000 Americans, about half of today’s car ownership rate.

Tom Nichols has written extensively on the politics of false memory. “Times are always bad. Nothing gets better. And the past 50 years have not been a temporary economic purgatory but a permanent hell, if only the elites would be brave enough to peer through the gloom and see it all for what it is,” he wrote. “This obsession with decline is one of the myths surrounding postindustrial democracy that will not die.”

Given all the hand-wringing about crime and crime rates, for example, it is bracing to look at the actual data: It turns out that crime was considerably higher in the 1970s. Not only crime rates, but “poverty, child mortality, deaths from virtually any major disease, workplace injuries, high school dropout rates, etc., were all much worse in the 1950s. Also, kids got polio, Jim Crow was in full swing, gays had to be in the closet and no one had cellphones, home computers or microwave ovens. Very few people had air conditioning or could afford to fly.”

Troubling as the gap between the rich and the rest is and remains, income inequality has been on the decline since 2007. Rubin traces America’s history since the 1930s and The Great Depression–through World War, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the riots of the 1960s, the political assassinations, the Vietnam War….

You get the point. Though those who rail against modernity, urbanity, pluralism, tolerance and personal freedom in service of an authoritarian perch would like to turn back the clock, a perusal of history suggests now is the best time to be alive.

And what about the myth of America’s former bipartisanship? She reminds us that– “from the get-go”– politics in America was vicious. Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams, et al all assumed the worst of one another:

Jefferson, watching the government amass power and assume state debt, concluded that Hamilton’s Federalists were royalists and corrupt financiers who had been plotting ‘to betray the people’ since independence.” In turn, “Federalists, conversely, thought Republicans ideologically deranged to the point of near-treason. Blind infatuation with a hostile (and anarchic) France, faith in state sovereignty, Luddite opinions on public debt — all of these seemed like symptoms of a deeper mania among Jefferson’s followers.”

The founding era was followed by slavery, Civil War, Reconstruction, and racial segregation.

You can flip through the history of presidential insults, devastating feuds and congressional violence. None of this suggests we ever enjoyed a sustained halcyon period of unity. To be certain, we had brief interludes when World War II united the country and when the ideological gaps between the parties were not as vast. However, we “got things done” mostly when one party (in modern times, usually Republicans) got wiped out in elections, leaving Democrats to construct the New Deal and the Great Society. Republicans vilified Democrats every step of the way (even testing out a coup against Franklin D. Roosevelt).

What we have not had before is a president who rejected democracy, attempted to retain power by force and wound up indicted on 91 criminal counts. So yes, four-times-indicted Donald Trump was worse than every president who preceded him.

As both Coontz and Rubin remind us: Nostalgia– especially nostalgia for a time that never was–is the stuff of snake-oil salesmen.

That said, we need to protect that progress–and democracy–this November.


  1. Thank You Sheila. Todays post reminds me of Ronald Reagan and how he railed against the federal government — especially when it helped other people. He somehow had forgotten how his dad worked for a New Deal branch. FDR put food on Reagans table and I guess he could never forgive him for that.
    Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Fair work condition, Labor rights, Black, Gay and Womens rights — all passed with virtually NO help from the Republicans. The record on this stuff is pretty clear.

  2. “Nostalgia is a word we use
    to color what one borrows
    from half-remembered yesterdays
    and unfulfilled tomorrows”

    –J. Allan Lind

  3. It’s interesting, by the way, to consider that one of the major targets for attack are the very scientific and technological advances that have so unambiguously made life better. Vaccines would be the poster child for that…

  4. We’ve always been divided into thirds. One third wants progress, one doesn’t, and the last third believes that their lives don’t change, no matter who is in charge, so they don’t care. That last third can occasionally be persuaded to vote, if they think something might endanger them. Any look back at history, clearly shows division.

  5. My family was watching a retrospective of the 90s the other day. We would yell at the TV when the narrator would solemnly intone “it was a time of great change” or something evergreen.

  6. Peggy Hanson, your statement of being divided into thirds reminds me of this quote from Will Rogers: “There are three kinds of men; some learn from books, some learn from observation, and the rest have to pee on the electric fence for themselves”…

  7. My wife and I watched the movie “The Boys in the Boat” yesterday. It was a reminder of how people lived before and during WWII.

    The Depression ended when the government put everyone to work and saved our liberal democracy and economy by defeating global enemies.

    It also gave a glimpse of Hitler’s Germany with their demigod worship.

    Now our demigod has adopted Hitler’s strategy of the Big Lies, not singular but plural, massive, endless performances telling folks that they’ve been and continue to be robbed of their dignity by “elites” like us, here and now.

    Frankly, I don’t feel elite. I feel fortunate to have been born to the son of European immigrants and his Daughter of the Revolution wife during the second war to end war.

    They were Republicans who both worked for and enjoyed employment because of the GOP.

    Now, my end game seems to repeat the years I was born into. Suddenly, the Trump problem reflects Germany’s Hitler and Italy’s Mussolini’s problems compounded by Japan’s oil demand problem now as the Middle East’s oil supply problem.

    I walk around dazed by a repeat in global history in the country I gave so much of myself to and received so much in return.

  8. When you force the issue, most people who believe the world was better yesterday are actually talking about a period in time when they, themselves, believed in Santa Claus. It really is a child-like view of the world where they were too sheltered or too unaware of reality.

  9. “Economically, Americans were a lot poorer, even as late as 1960, when there were roughly 400 vehicles per 1,000 Americans, about half of today’s car ownership rate” Since when is car ownership the accepted measure of wealth?? Gimme brakes. Try home ownership?

  10. Snake oil. Republicans gargle it. They take their dose of oil from the B.S. snake every day. Why? Because (1) their corporate paymasters tell them to and (2) because they have no other guidelines.

    All the other stuff said, it’s mostly always been about the Benjamins. Slavery and the divisiveness of it between the southern economy and the northern morality created the most dramatic and deadly division in our history. Why? Because money (cheap/free labor) was more important than country unity, morality or just about anything else.

    That part of our history hasn’t changed much. But the Republican representatives of this country are even more corrupt and much more stupid than in previous episodes of writing around the snake of democracy.

  11. James: I love this quote! We could certainly benefit from having Will Rogers around today!

    TLentych: Excellent and accurate observation!

  12. What Sam said!
    If one wants nostalgia about a never-time, try the Garden of Edan.
    But, sadly, it seems that not has always been a cheap, but effective, trick to tell/convince people that “It used to be better, and THESE people are ruining it for us!”

  13. Here is another good quote relevant to today’s situation:
    “The truth has no defense against a fool determined to believe a lie.” Mark Twain

  14. Many of us know the opportunity and sheer terror of having raised kids.

    We know that consequences teach them a lot, but our job was to teach them to avoid consequences too awful to bear for the entire family.

    Or the entire country.

  15. As dark and bleak as things may seem right now with all the upheaval in the world I try to lean into things that are about the goodness of people. I have started to read “The Light We All Carry” by Michelle Obama and am enjoying it.

  16. I well remember reading Stephanie’s effort many moons ago. It was and remains an eye-opener. She was, as I recall, on a non-Ivy faculty of Evergreen State College in Oregon, but her contribution to the public weal surpasses the contributions of many of our Ivy writers and politicians who prey on our imagination of days gone past, days that never were.

    I see the central theme of her book being played out just today when BLS has noted that last month’s new hires greatly surpassed economists’ estimates while Republicans are telling us we are in the midst of a recession. They lie; we are in a Biden Boom. Increased employment, of course, not only puts more money in the hands of the formerly unemployed but increases tax revenues to government while reducing social welfare payments and enhancing aggregate demand, the Keynesian measure for economic growth, which all economists define as the holy grail, from the Chicago School to and including left wing think tank economists.

    I think it is fair game for politicians to cite economic progress or failure to support their claims of need for change in policies, as FDR did in adopting New Deal policies that helped end The Great Depression. I do not think politicians or anyone else should lie about the data clearly contravening their claims, and that they should pay a price for such false claims at the polls.

  17. Please fact check before you edit…”income inequality has been on the decline since 2007″
    Per the census bureau in September, 2023: “Income inequality declined in 2022 for the first time since 2007.”

  18. Purely anecdotal observation from someone who was a child and young adult during the 1950s and early ’60s.
    My parents were among the working poor, were not college educated, employed when they could find a one, in low wage jobs. At times we had no working vehicle, no TV, and knew almost no other family that had more than one vehicle. We used public transportation almost daily when it was available, otherwise we walked. The recession of 1957-58 significantly impacted our neighborhood in an industrial city where layoffs hit hard and long. Unions saved lots of families from eviction/utilities cutoffs. Eating out was so rare as to be memorable, vacations were for the rich, air travel the stuff of dreams only. While our neighborhood was integrated to some degree, the greater city was strictly segregated. My high school class had one Black member who spent years completely ignored by peers, seldom talked to, and certainly never included in any extra curricular events. Hispanic students were marginalized until the Cuban missile crisis brought asylum seekers into the school. For a while, politics gave them some privilege.
    High school graduates were expected to be adults, get a job, if lucky, go to college, or get married/start a family. Girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were shunned or went “to visit an aunt” for a while. Backstreet pregnancy termination was dangerous, often fatal and definitely illegal.
    Women had to have a male co-signer to get credit of any kind. McCarthy hearings and blacklists were real. Unions went on strike for higher wages and safer working conditions.
    It was not the golden age of comfort and security that so many fantasize today.

  19. Do the conflicting claims about income inequality perhaps derive from different ways of measuring it? Comments?

  20. Sharon–the answer is yes. If you pose the question on google, you will find a wide variety of responses from agencies that purport to measure economic matters. There is also a difference between global measures and measures of the U.S. economy. I was using a measure reported by Jennifer Rubin in the article being discussed.

  21. Lester, you take a single sentence from a Census Bureau communication to ‘refute’ the statement about income inequality. What you failed to acknowledge is the author goes on to discuss the complexity of the data and its limitations.

    It’s sloppy thinking on your part as is Ruth Marcus’ blanket statement. It all depends how the umpire defines the strike zone. After tax or pre-tax? Post or pre-government transfers?

    I was an Econ undergraduate and later earned an MBA. I try to avoid making sweeping statements about a complex issue like income inequality.

    I do have a few more general comments. Income inequality was too high in 2007 and it remains too high today. From my perspective several factors play an outsized role: the top 1/10th of 1% earners have truly incredible incomes today in relation to the rest of us. Many own hedge funds which earn fees that are treated as capital gains for ax purposes, not as ordinary income. It’s legal but very unfair. Our tax system is not as progressive today as it was in 2007. Thank the Republican Party and TFG for that.

  22. Gerald—the Evergreen State College is in Olympia, Washington (Washington being the Evergreen State). It’s a great book—I read it some time ago, so I don’t remember it all, but I do remember it debunking the “Leave it to Beaver” “Father Knows Best” kind of view of the past—there have always been working mothers outside of the white suburban world that some of us remember growing up in. Heck, I grew up in that mostly white suburban world, but my mom worked for most of that time.

  23. Michael – touche’ . Of course, it ain’t income that really counts, it’s wealth, so…In the third quarter of 2023, 66.6 percent of the total wealth in the United States was owned by the top 10 percent of earners. In comparison, the lowest 50 percent of earners only owned 2.6 percent of the total wealth.

    Going far back…”The richest 1 percent of households held only 8.5% of total income in the late 18th century.” Just sayin’

  24. Michael Wright > The ridiculous definition of fees made by hedge and equity funds and treated as capital gains rather then ordinary income is known as “carried interest” and politicians on both sides of the aisle talk about its repeal during their promises while electioneering but no one rises to the task after the polls close. I have been complaining for years that this is wrong and costly to our treasury, suggesting that if such commissions are to be treated as capital gains then shoe store salesmen and others who are paid by commission should have their incomes treated as capital gains as well. I have failed to attract attention to this public larceny.

    I wonder if the reason why this repeal doesn’t happen has to do with, uh, campaign contributions, and that rich hedge fund operators are far more generous than shoe salesmen and consider such contributions simply as the price to be paid for continuing this legalized theft of our tax money. This situation is not the only one giving rise to theft by definition in the IRC, of course, but it is in my opinion the most glaring one, and should be corrected. I recognize, of course, that politicians who are not correcting this tax giveaway are failing to do so for a reason, i.e., it is a source of big time contributions to their cause(s)to promise its repeal for the vote on the stump but then conveniently forgetting to follow through when elected. Perhaps it’s time to “repeal” their time in office.

  25. Miriam > I erroneously guessed Oregon as the situs of Evergreen State College but of course it is sited in Washington. I missed it by a state for want of a google. Tsk! Mea culpa. GES

  26. Today’s comments make as fine a read as Sheila’s article. Thank you to all that contribute to this forum.

  27. Thank you all for sharing your provocative responses to Shiela’s writing.

    This one, however, needs a closer…will someone who happens to know it please post the citation for “Stephanie’s book?” Or, her last name or even just the name of the book in question?

    Thanks so much!

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