As the 104th Congress winds down, we are seeing the
sudden end of something that was quite recently new: America's first nostalgiocracy.
Admittedly, as I write, Bob Dole has been reminding us how
much better we used to be. But I'll bet this Presidential election turns less
on memories of past glory than expectations of future prosperity. And even
if the whole Congress returns to office as the 105th, many of its members
have already traduced the past-pointing principles on which they were elected-fiscal
prudence, a balanced budget, an empty pork barrel. In a now-notorious memo,
Newt Gingrich himself early this year spun his own movement out of his party's
backward-looking posture by declaring certain costly federal projects good
for America. Concerned with his own party's future, the speaker recanted his
faith in the ideal of diminished government. And, facing tight races all over
the country, the Congressional majority has been using government machinery
it once condemned to seek re-election-even to the point of voting for harbor
dredging, unneeded VA hospitals, the minimum-wage boost. Contract with America
has been replaced by contact with reality.
How soon they forget. The Republican nostalgiocracy spread
its wings on the winds of the popular discontent that followed government's
prolonged inability to cope with what we might call "Man on the Moon"
problems: "If this nation can put a man on the moon, it can certainly
eliminate the poverty that afflicts under 10 percent of our population."
As Robert Samuelson describes in The Good Life and Its Discontents, for 50
years, the American popular consciousness felt entitled to a government that
could solve its dilemmas. When certain problems resisted solution, faith in
that government ebbed. "Our attitudes are shaped more by unattained ambitions
than actual achievements," Samuelson writes. "We seem to have lapsed
into a selective view of the American condition and into tortuous self-criticism."
Into this defile of national despond rode the Republican Revolutionaries
with a new agenda. Instead of promising us a debugged future, the Republican
majority promised us a return to a sanitized past, in which historical events
and attitudes were transformed into more useful commodities called "examples"
and "virtues." This Spirit of '94 presented the past through a nostalgic
filter that excised awkward facts of previous eras and reconfigured the rest
toward a brighter tomorrow. The Republicans then rode the promise to power.
How distant it now seems, that short season just after the
Republican right edged the Democrats out of the House and Senate, when Newt
Gingrich's white-thatched bulk regularly filled the covers of our news weeklies
and put the president in the shade. When the Contract with America was said
to be the most important Republican document since The Conscience of a Conservative.
(As of September, the hardcover "Contract'' was being remaindered at
$5.95 at the Nixon Library in Yorba Linda, CA). And when Gingrich vowed that
after this Congress's first year (in January of AD 1996), America would be
a "different country" and the '60s "a fading force." His
bi-polar prediction exposed his agenda's schizophrenia, but it was also an
easy call: Everything changes somewhat in 12 months, and annus mirabilis 1968
would undeniably be a year further off.
We certainly can't say the movement did no damage: A vengeful
welfare bill just got our president's signature simply because it was a little
less spiteful than the first proposal. Yet in Fall 1996, Pink Floyd and the
Beatles are still the top two groups on Los Angeles' local all-time-top-rockers
charts, while hardly anyone remembers the words to the Contract with America-let
alone how to dance to it.
Nor is it easy to recall just what the "Revolution's"
aftermath was supposed to be. More memorable today is the Republicans' new,
improved, and easier American past, in which the 18th century founding fathers
became a Disneyoid cadre of homogeneous piety and ambition, and the 19th century
an era notably lacking social and economic disruptions. The worthy poor were
set on the road to solvency by either their rectitudinous country neighbors
or their neighbors' pious urban surrogates. And that was the way things went
until the correct path of individualism was undermined by such big-government
bullies as Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
To bolster its paraphrase of history, the nostalgiocracy created
its own canon, starting with William Bennett's public-domain chap-book, The
Book of Virtues. The Gingrich syllabus in turn became a tool for, in historian
Alan Bullock's phrase, "the invention of tradition." Thus, in his
introduction to one of the most successful books on the list, Marvin Olasky's
Tragedy of American Compassion, Charles Murray, best known as surviving author
of The Bell Curve, tells us, "[T]he problems of America's social policy
are not defined by economics or equality, but by the needs of the human spirit."
Such needs as these, he adds, are not met "by egalitarian systems, let
By maintaining that in a society adequately permeated by religious
fervor, social and economic inequities could disappear, Murray completes a
record nostalgic broad jump that lands him square in the 13th century. Olasky,
less of a medievalist, confines the role of the human spirit to the 19th century
task of helping one's fellow man.
I must admit that something deep inside me finds this notion
very appealing. This is not just because I live in Los Angeles, where the
evidence of social decline and growing economic disparity is widely ignored,
and where cuts in social-service budgets are plotted asymptotically against
the rising need for those services. It is also because, like a great coach,
Olasky never tires of assuring me that I am capable of making a personal,
one-on-one improvement in someone else's life. Like most of us, I have long
doubted this, and it is good to be told otherwise.
But Olasky's account is so completely removed from the overall
history of post-Civil War America, and so grounded in anecdotal accounts of
Victorian charities as to be anti-statistical. He's at his best in his telling
critique of the Great Society's failure to motivate people out of poverty
via unearned stipends. Olasky's proposed remedies to impending 21st century
difficulties, however, are based on those volunteer charitable solutions whose
limited viability, as he carefully avoids acknowledging, ended with the 19th
century. Can we as a nation really get anywhere aboard the stranded deckhouse
of that stately Victorian vessel whose hull we scrapped to fight World War
One? Olasky thinks so. He asks us to take responsibility for-to feel compassion
for, literally, to feel with-our erring and downtrodden neighbors, and show
the world that we are good enough, patient enough, mature enough, to make
them better. I not only want to be that way, I want people to think I'm like
that, and thanks for offering me the chance, Marvin. But even after one's
lit one's own candle, it's still looking pretty dark out there in the new,
reduced world of federal welfare reform. And looking around me in my community,
I see that actually, there are myriad virtuous volunteers working for the
agencies that dispense tax-supported largesse.
Like the professional caregivers Olasky attacks, I grew up
with faith in the power of government to solve all problems. It is now obvious
to most of us that government is not very good at eradicating some things,
particularly people problems based on traits whose elimination would involve
changing human behavior (though this failure may not, on a larger moral landscape,
really be such a bad thing). Yet it is still clearly pretty good at eradicating
others-hunger, river pollution, smallpox.
This distinction was apparently not part of the intellectual
equipment brought to office by the new Republican majority. After (presumably)
reading their Olasky, the soldiers of the Fighting 104th gave lip service
to the "points of light" concept, then did their best to destroy
the welfare system altogether. They had neither intention nor plan to rebuild
two centuries of the ethical basis for social outreach as they determined
to annihilate what had succeeded it. Nostalgia in practice provided the impetus
to destroy a faulty remedy to a great need without replacing the remedy.
At the focus of the Gingrich nostalgia system lies what the
speaker terms "the Great Society counterculture model," a propaganda
construct that unites for the first time the major antagonists of a generation
past. The "model,'' says Gingrich, remained in 1994 a malignancy desperately
in need of uprooting.
It's here that the nostalgic rehistorification process gets
really "weird" and "strange," to use two favorite Gingrich
words. Lacking a factual basis, it wants an alternate past, a history of "als
ob," as Jorge Luis Borges calls it in his fable, "Tlon Uqbar, Orbis
Tertius," wherein a marvelous encyclopedia of an imaginary Earth transforms
our planet into its own world. To have really succeeded, the official syllabus
created by the agents of the Contract With America/Republican Revolution would
have had to do the same thing-transform our real history into its own world.
It would not only have had to rebuild the distant past, but to remake the
Vietnam War as a virtuous conflict, to reorder things so that the Grateful
Dead, Tom Hayden, and Abby Hoffman really took over the minds of men like
Stewart Alsop, Scotty Reston, and the memberships of New York's Century Association
and Boston's Myopia Hunt Club, thus changing the East Coast elite into the
stooges of Haight Ashbury. This ultimate reification of nostalgiocracy was
beyond even the abilities of Gingrich, that feckless backwoods historian who'd
also taken upon himself the additional weighty tasks of "renewing American
civilization" and restoring "the bourgeois system which has dominated
the country for 200 years."
Now our national Atlas has shrugged. Someday perhaps, real
historians, who specialize in telling us why what didn't happen didn't happen,
will chronicle how in 1996, the dawn of a new age flared out like last year's
A recent Los Angeles Times offered special tours of Eastern
Europe for those "nostalgic for the Cold War." Long after they cease
to threaten us, we indulge ourselves (on costly CDs) with the bottom-feeding
pop Top 40 hits we disdained for cool jazz in the 1950's or punk in the 1970's.
In the end, nostalgia is often only the indulgence of fading memory, the long
afterimage of a distant perception.
But if nostalgia for most of us means retroactive sentimentality,
there are places where it might be positive. For instance, in the 89 nations
worldwide-nearly half the membership of the United Nations-where standards
of living, according to a recent UN report, have sunk below 1970 levels. In
Venezuela, Ghana, Haiti, or Liberia, nations where prosperity peaked in 1960,
a yearning for when things were better, a past without starvation, even before
one was born, may be the only way to remember that life can be better.
For the rest of us, nostalgia's fleeting gratification is pretty
empty. I shuddered when I read about the Cold War nostalgia tour. And yet
I can think of one thing to be nostalgic for then. Something you might call
the level of commitment by people who risked freedom by defiance. One of these,
the poet Andrei Andreyevich Voznesensky, in 1978 invented "Nostalgia
for the Present": a kind of in-living and savoring of the now. Give it
a shot, Newt.