Many of this year’s prominent candidates are also surprisingly nationalist on immigration, playing off concerns about declining wages. “I do believe we must gain control of our borders,” Webb said during a debate. “We also must gain control over corporate America’s use of illegals. This, along with the Iraq war, has been the major failure of this administration.” ~David Brooks, The New York Times

It cannot be a good sign for the GOP that prominent Democratic candidates are able to articulate genuinely conservative sentiments on the war, corporations and immigration more ably than their opponents.  With the rise of candidates such as Ford and Webb the Dems may be beginning to understand that, to be successful, their coalition has to be broad enough to include those who, like Webb, have Confederate ancestors and are proud of them and what they fought for and those, like Ford, who express a natural affinity with believing Christians because they are themselves church-going folk.  What Brooks seems to miss is that as Democrats have become more skeptical of “free trade” once more, so has the nation.  Economic populism should work politically because, in spite of a perfectly respectable economy according to the numbers people in the country do seem unusually anxious about their economic prospects.  When the left-liberals do not engage in cultural warfare, whether in the courts or elsewhere, that rallies ordinary folks to oppose them, and Democrats start to sound more like the common man they purport to represent on cultural questions, the appeal of Red Republican rhetoric diminishes significantly.

What is a progressive globalist (a name Brooks invented to refer to the squishy cosmopolitans who have made up the political leadership of both parties) to do in an age when nobody seems to care much for globalisation and globalism?  There is always the attack on the dumb nostalgics:

And yet Democrats have reason to worry long term. This message is based on a sort of economic nostalgia, what The Economist called a “rose-tinted version of the 1950’s and 1960’s” — when the middle class prospered, families cohered, America dominated, unions thrived, Islam was invisible and immigrants were Irish and Italian.

That’s odd.  This sounds remarkably like the ”nostalgia” that has motivated most conservatives and Republicans since the 1960s.  It is commonplace to hear evangelicals talk about ”taking back” the country, which has more than its share of nostalgia.  Perhaps there is a real element of nostalgia in this “rose-tinted” view, but it is also based in a recognition that, on the whole, those conditions were better for large swathes of the country than the conditions we have today.  Conservatives used to know this and say as much.  Except perhaps for enthusiasm for strong labour unions, can you think of anything in that list that the average conservative or Republican voter would find undesirable?  Even if it were actually impossible to recover some measure of that old order, that does not make its appeal any less powerful.  To remind the voter of how things were–or how we remember them to be, which often is virtually the same thing–is to tap into their discontent with the way things are, and the discontent is considerable.  If Democrats could acknowledge voters’ importance of anxiety about social and moral disorder in a genuine way, best of all if they actually shared this anxiety and valued the same kinds of things that the voters valued, they would recapture a lot of middle-class voters who have written them off as the party of decadence and cultural rot.    

If there is one thing that reading about Bolingbroke and the Opposition has reminded me of, it is that the “politics of nostalgia” do not seem nostalgic to the people who espouse them, but seem to be the very stuff of principle and common sense.  Wanting to restore the ancient constitution or “the good old days” is not just some hopeless dream cooked up by poets and oddballs–though it may ultimately be out of reach–but is the natural and healthy response of people who are seeking a restoration of order in deeply disordered times.  If people want eunomia, they may respond favourably to those who offer them the nostalgic vision of the way things used to be when there was more eunomia to be had (or people at least think that there was, which is effectively the same thing as far as its impact today is concerned) and a promise to bring them back.  This was one of the principal appeals of Populism and La Follette’s Progressivism: to go forward to the “good old days.” 

Brooks continues:

This nostalgia is certainly common today. In their must-read book, “Applebee’s America,” Doug Sosnik, Matt Dowd and Ron Fournier quote an anxious Michigan voter: “This is going to sound silly, but I wish things were like they were when we were growing up. … I wish I could go back in time. We had stable lives. Mom could stay home, and we could afford it. Life was slower.”

But nationwide, and in the decades ahead, can a politics that evades the modern realities of Islamic extremism and the skill-based global economy really be the basis of a majority movement? I doubt it.

Certainly nostalgia alone won’t cut it.  Even nostalgia and criticism won’t do it by themselves.  There does have to be a positive alternative offered up.  However, the more things in the present differ from the memory of how much better things used to be, the more powerful the appeal to the past will be.  The more chaotic, uncertain and dangerous the present, the more people will want to return to something more like a previous era–even if that era was in some respects just aas chaotic and dangerous in reality–and the more willing they will be to follow those who paint that picture of the old days.  

But there is nothing that says return to the past must evade present realities.  Usually the return to the past comes about because people come to believe, rightly or not, that imitating the way things were done in the past when things seemed to have been better will tend to reproduce the same happy consequences.  Perhaps it does not always provide a handy solution, and sometimes it might be genuinely misleading, but it is almost always in the search for a solution for modern problems that people seek solace and answers in the experience of the past.  Again, real conservatives have always known this.  For Brooks it is a sort of baffling phenomenon that appears to him as an obstacle for the political success of Democrats.  Unfortunately, this sort of nostalgia could have limited appeal, but not for the reasons Brooks gives–we are a people cursed by an inclination to optimism and a stunningly naive confidence that there really is such a thing as progress.  If the ”good old days” are gone, it is only to make way for the better days to come–this is the fatuous assumption of so many.  On the whole, progressives in the Democratic Party are the worst offenders in this regard, but they have lately been joined by a great many Republicans.  Typically, the party in power is always more inclined to prattle on about optimism and the future, because they think that they control what the future will be, but there are built-in tendencies to think in this way across the spectrum. 

Incidentally, I love some of these euphemisms we have today, such as “skill-based global economy.”  What is the “skill” of labourers in Indonesia?  Their “skill” is to live in a poor country with a low cost of living and limited labour regulations.  There are skilled, educated workers in other countries, yes, who work for less than our skilled workers, and to this extent there is a “skill-based global economy,” which is to say that there is a global economy.  No one denies this, and no one is “evading” the reality of it.  Critics look starkly at the reality of it, see its deleterious effects on American workers and say, “What if we tried something that didn’t result in the death of American manufacturing?”  For some crazy reason American workers respond to this sort of thinking–obviously, they’re just being nostalgic for the olden times.  You know, the time back when they had stable jobs with decent wages.