In a series of posts a couple of months ago, I criticized liberals who dismiss conservatives as the “Mad Men” party for promoting their own brand of nostalgia for the postwar era. I stand by those arguments. But watching the convention over the last two days has convinced me that they need refinement.
Contrary to the caricature, few contemporary Republicans simply want to turn back the clock. But many have embraced, probably without realizing it, an unstable fusion of optimism and conservatism in which the future is expected to be better to the extent that it resembles the past. For lack of a better word, call this tendency nostalgic futurism.
As a political force, nostalgic futurism probably goes back to Reagan, who was convinced both that America had gone terribly off the rails and that its best days were ahead of it. But it was on vivid display in Romney’s speech last night.
Romney’s basic claim is while President Obama thinks America is doomed to decline, he believes that the years to come will be better than than those that have passed. Yet the examples of improvement that he offers are all backward looking. The future America of Romney’s imagination “will restore every father and mother’s confidence that their children’s future is brighter even than the past.” It “will preserve a military that is so strong, no nation would ever dare to test it.” It will “return” to “bipartisan foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan”. And so on.
Romney even puts a nostalgic spin on his own promises of improvement. In a tribute to the astronaut Neil Armstrong, Romney observes,
I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer…To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we’d get there, it was only when we’d get there.
Consider how bizarre Romney’s nostalgic futurism looks in comparison to Kennedy’s genuine optimism. Although he acknowledged “our ancient heritage”, Kennedy asserted in his inaugural address that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans…” He didn’t promise to recover the spirit of, say, the Wilson Administration. Romney, by contrast, expresses his expectation for the future in a tribute to the America of his youth. His optimism is unconvincing because he seems unable to imagine, let alone embrace, the possibility that America’s role and resources might be different than they were more half a century ago.
Romney’s nostalgic futurism is less conservative than desperate. Rather than a confident resolution to face the challenges that lie over the horizon with the benefit of the wisdom of the past, it is a petulant and fearful demand that the future deliver the comfort and certainty of childhood. In an excellent post last night, Noah Millman describes Romney’s speech as cautiously infantilizing. I’d go farther: it is actively regressive.