The Paradox of the Nostalgic Progressive

As quoted by Steven Hayward in The Age of Reagan: The Fall of the Old Liberal Order: 1964-1980, political philosopher Michael Oakeshott once wrote that “politics is an activity unsuited to the young,” because:

Everybody’s young days are a dream, a delightful insanity, a sweet solipsism. Nothing in them has a fixed shape, nothing a fixed price; everything is a possibility, and we live happily on credit. There are no obligations to be observed; there are no accounts to be kept. Nothing is specified in advance; everything is what can be made of it. The world is a mirror in which we seek the reflection of our own desires. The allure of violent emotions is irresistible. When we are young we are not disposed to make concessions to the world; we never feel the balance of a thing in our hands—unless it be a cricket bat. … Since life is a dream, we argue (with plausible but erroneous logic) that politics must be an encounter of dreams, in which we hope to impose our own.

Perhaps that’s one explanation why so many liberals, as they get up in years, have both a surprising nostalgia for the past, and a “you kids get off my lawn” crankiness about contemporary society. This, despite that fact that liberalism, or progressivism, or simply the left, has been the dominant political philosophy – at least in Washington, academia and the media – for the last 75 years or so. Here are but a few examples we’ve rounded up of this trend in action. Back in November, a brief profile of a then-new biography of Kurt Vonnegut at NPR was titled, “Kurt Vonnegut Was Not A Happy Man. ‘So It Goes:’”

Vonnegut's public persona was often at odds with the actual man. "He read the signs of what was happening in the country," Shields says, "and he realized that he was going to have to be a lot hipper than a nearly 50-year-old dad in a rumpled cardigan to be a good match with what he was writing about."

As a former public relations man for General Electric, Vonnegut knew how to construct an image, a public version of himself who readers could believe had written books like Cat's Cradle and Breakfast of Champions.

"I don't mean to persuade anybody that Kurt was a cynic," Shields says. "Just the opposite." But Vonnegut was more of a reactionary than a radical, someone who showed up for a meeting with the band Jefferson Airplane dressed in a Brooks Brothers suit and wingtip shoes. Someone who was deeply scarred by his experiences, and longed for the older, gentler America of his pre-war childhood.

As Kyle Smith noted at the time:

I think when you’re famous people call you “irascible,” but if not, you’re just a jerk. Also in the new biography of him: Vonnegut carefully constructed his hip image, using lessons he learned as a PR man for G.E. (Did Vonnegut and Reagan overlap there at all? Seems like they must have.)

In addition to the professional similarity with the Gipper, the late Vonnegut shared a love of American nostalgia with a much more unlikely source – someone, like Vonnegut, also deeply unhappy with contemporary America:

Back in 2006, when he was writing The Conscience of a Liberal, [Paul] Krugman found himself searching for a way to describe his own political Eden, his vision of America before the Fall. He knew the moment that he wanted to describe: the fifties and early sixties, when prosperity was not only broad but broadly shared. Wells, looking over a draft, thought his account was too numerical, too cold. She suggested that he describe his own childhood, in the ­middle-class suburb of Merrick, Long Island. And so Krugman began writing with an almost choking nostalgia, the sort of feeling that he usually despises: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional moment in our nation’s history …”

Krugman remembers Merrick in these terms, as a place that provoked in him “amazingly little alienation.” “All the mothers waiting to pick up the fathers at the train station in the evening,” he says, remembering. “You were in an area where there were a lot of quiet streets, and it was possible to take bike rides all over Long Island. We used to ride up to Sagamore Hill, the old Teddy Roosevelt estate.” The Krugmans lived in a less lush part of Merrick, full of small ranch ­houses each containing the promise of social ascent. “I remember there was often a typical conversational thing about how well the plumbers—basically the unionized blue-collar occupations—were doing, as opposed to white-collar middle managers like my father.”

In his review of Woody Allen’s Midnight In Paris, Bruce Bawer noted perceptively that the Woodman, like Krugman is also another New York arch-liberal at odds with contemporary society:

While Allen likes to think of himself as a standard-issue Manhattan liberal, the sensibility of his films (whether he realizes it or not) is largely conservative.  Over and over he makes it clear that he despises pretty much everything that came out of the 1960s, and one after another of his films is an exercise in cultural nostalgia for the pre-Sixties world.   His pictures’ musical scores testify to his obsession with the Great American Songbook.  (Recall, for example, the sequence in Hannah and Her Sisters in which Dianne Wiest takes him to see a punk rock band that he hates, joking that “after they sing, they’re gonna take hostages” – after which, in order to give her a taste of “something nice,” he takes her to the Carlyle to hear Bobby Short perform Cole Porter.)  Just as The Purple Rose of Cairo and Radio Days are love letters to the 1930s and 40s – and both very charming ones, at that – Midnight in Paris is a love letter to the 1920s.

Nostalgia for the mid-century past isn’t just rooted to liberals on this side of the Atlantic, of course. “London is no longer an English city, says John Cleese. Is he right?” Ed West (no relation) of the Telegraph asked last year:

Cleese also spoke about the shift in British attitudes away from a “middle-class culture” and the emergence of a “yob culture”.

He said: “There were disadvantages to the old culture, it was a bit stuffy and it was more sexist and more racist. But it was an educated and middle-class culture. Now it’s a yob culture. The values are so strange.”

He added that he preferred living in Bath to London because the capital no longer felt “English”.

“London is no longer an English city which is why I love Bath,” he said. “That’s how they sold it for the Olympics, not as the capital of England but as the cosmopolitan city. I love being down in Bath because it feels like the England that I grew up in.”

More after the page break.