Tag Archives: Michael Leppert

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 dictionary.com 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…”

Contrary to Popular Belief

Contrary to Popular Belief is the title of the just-issued book based on Michael Leppert’s blog about Indiana government, for which I was honored to write the Foreward. As he does in his blog, Leppert offers a thoughtful and informed window into state government.

If timing is really everything, the book should hit the big time, because (among other things), there are numerous observations of Indiana’s Governor, who is now a Vice-Presidential candidate on the “Mango Mussolini” ticket. (I stole that description from John Oliver.)

There are insights into Pence’s contract with Real Alternatives, observations about the departure of Lieutenant Governor Ellspermann (arguably the only truly competent member of the administration), about the Governor’s efforts to prevent resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana, the “news” bureau disaster dubbed Pravda on the Prairie, the anti-abortion bill funeral requirement that sparked “Periods for Pence,” and of course, RFRA. Among others.

As I wrote in the Forward, Contrary to Popular Belief is an effort by one of Indiana’s most thoughtful, perceptive and informed observers to break through our cynicism, to avoid the constant hype and agitprop coming from entrenched interests, and to engage in what has come to be seen as an almost subversive act –actual communication about the ways in which our state and local governments function. Such communication, unfortunately, has become rare in our polarized age, especially when its focus is at the state level.

There are many valuable observations in the pages of this book, but there are three insights that I think are especially worth emphasizing. First, and perhaps most obvious, is a very personal and candid look at the reality of lobbying—a reality far removed from the popular image of nefarious characters in pin-striped suits working to subvert democracy in order to enrich their corporate masters. Such individuals undoubtedly exist, but they do not represent the legions of policy advocates who see their job as informing the legislative process and ensuring that contending points of view are adequately represented.

The second observation is related to the first: to the extent our democratic system fails to work, it is because all points of view are not equally or even adequately represented—and the reason that is so, the reason democratic institutions do not work as well as they should—is less likely to be the result of individual malfeasance than it is of systemic influences. One of the great virtues of this book is its author’s rejection of the impulse to paint “them” (insert your preferred nemesis here) as the source of all our problems, and his illumination of the ways in which our state and local governments actually work.

It turns out that there are many diligent and well-intentioned political actors on both sides of the aisle who actually want to improve the lives of Indiana citizens. Sometimes they agree on the best way to do so; sometimes they don’t. Making good policy, it turns out, is more complicated than simply electing those you believe to be the “good guys.”

And that brings me to what I personally believe is the most important insight Leppert shares: the fact that “the average person in Indiana now knows far too many trivial tidbits about high profile government types in Washington, D.C. and less and less about their state legislators, mayors and city councilors.” Americans—and Hoosiers—are dangerously ignorant of the governing systems within which they live and work, and the ways in which those institutions structure and affect their own daily lives.

The book is available on Amazon.