Talking Back

Political nostalgia is essentially conservative. It looks backward. It assumes an Edenic earlier time, one in which things were fairer, cleaner, safer, more wholesome. In the nostalgic mind, the American past is more American.

Nostalgia assumes that today’s ills somehow did not exist until today, that the good times we’ve tucked away in the back of our memory banks were taken from us by nefarious agents, usually invading hordes or darker forces.

Political nostalgia rules this political moment. And it’s not just Republicans. We hear it from Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well, in the phrase “take our country back.”

“Take our country back,” a phrase meant to have a revolutionary feel, to set up a clear line between where we need to go and the people preventing us from getting there, is the theme of the 2016 election so far, with everyone from Sanders and Clinton to Donald Trump and others on the Republican side shouting it from the podium.

But “take our country back” is far from revolutionary. It is nostalgia masquerading as political action, a phrase that looks to the past for a lost Eden that has never existed.

To say “take our country back” implies not only that that someone stole it from us, but that we had ownership in the first place. We haven’t, and that is part of the problem with the phrase.

Historically, the United States has never been a true democracy or even a completely representative one. It is one that has always favored the rich, the white and the male – whether it be in the form of property-ownership requirements, prohibitions against blacks and women participating in public life, corporate personhood, the conflation of money and speech, gerrymandering and so on.

Even under President Franklin Roosevelt, the closest thing we’ve had to a social democrat in the White House, not everyone was aided by the New Deal. To keep the Southern coalition in the Democratic column, programs like Social Security and other aid programs were drafted to exclude blacks.

None of this is new, which raises an important question: If we are to “take our country back,” who is it that we are to take it back from? The answer to this question, of course, depends upon which candidate and which set of supporters are speaking.

When Donald Trump and most of the other Republican candidates shout that they are going to “take our country back,” they are talking about taking it back from blacks, Latinos and Muslims, from women and namby-pamby liberals, from Obama and Clinton, from the Hippies – name your bugaboo and the phrase fits. On the right, it contains echoes of Nixon and his law-and-order platform, of Wallace, Goldwater and Reagan.

When Sanders, Clinton and liberals use the phrase, they are talking about taking the nation back from the banks, from the oligarchs, and so on – which assumes, of course, that these groups stole something that we at one point owned. Historically, as I said, this is false. The vast swath of Americans has never been in charge, have never had ownership or control.

This is not to dismiss the real change being proposed by some of the candidates. Sanders, in particular, is right that the nation is ruled by an oligarchy, that the middle class is under siege, that the working class and the poor have little chance to do more than survive. He is right that we need a more robust minimum wage, that we need paid sick leave, family leave, universal health care, regulation of the finance industry, etc.

He is right that we need a real revolution, one that dismantles our casino economy, that equalizes power, that views each person’s humanity equally.

But we should not fool ourselves into thinking that there was a time when things were significantly better, a time when the bad guys we now face did not exist. And we have to be careful not to rely on the same language as conservatives, whose nostalgia manifests itself in scapegoating and even violence. We have to talk about the promise made at the time of independence that everyone had the inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — what the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. called “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” But we also need to acknowledge, as King did, that the United States has always been in default on this note, that the reality has never matched the rhetoric and there is no past time to which we should aspire.

Our rhetoric matters. We have to look ahead and not backward. Progressive change is based on progress, on making us better, on moving forward.

Political nostalgia is the exact opposite of this.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email,; blog,; Twitter, @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism; Instagram, @newspoet41; Facebook,

From The Progressive Populist, December 15, 2015

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