When I search for the origins of today’s angry, backward-looking politics, I can’t help thinking of a specific August morning almost 50 years ago, on the final day of the Woodstock Festival. That bleary-eyed Monday became famous for Jimi Hendrix’s mournful, self-questioning rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner. What we tend to forget is that a larger crowd stuck around to cheer on the band that played immediately before him, the 1950s-nostalgia act Sha Na Na. While a black American guitarist’s subtle protest tunes would have an artistic influence, those renditions of the corny hits of barely 10 years earlier were already, in 1969, becoming a far greater commercial and political force within the baby boomer generation – one that would only grow more potent over the next half century.
The desire to return to a safe, clean, happy, prosperous, non-existent 1950s has long been a potent political impulse among this cohort, often overwhelming any desire to build a better world today. In many countries, a plurality of voters who were alive (if only infants) on that 1969 morning want nothing more than to turn back the clock to some vague moment just before things got interesting.
We’ve heard a lot of it this summer. U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly exhorted his government to return to the closed-border and mass-deportation policies of the Eisenhower era, or to the high-tariff, closed economies that made life expensive in those years. He is touring the country calling for an implausible return to coal mining and heavy manufacturing. His “Make America Great Again” slogan, he tells interviewers, refers to the late 1940s and 1950s (when, he says, “we were not pushed around, we were respected by everybody, we had just won a war, we were pretty much doing what we had to do”) – although he never quite clarifies whether his idyll is found in that era’s economic isolationism, its nuclear terror or its racial exclusion. It works: Three-quarters of Republicans believe life has become worse since the fifties (and seven in 10 Democrats believe things have improved since then).
British Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet, as they tear themselves to pieces chasing an ever-more absolute divorce from the European economy, keep reminding voters that the goal is a return to a postwar Britain of class-segregated schools, closed borders and state-heavy industrial policies of the 1950s (a time when Britain was impoverished and terrified). Her government has recently endured a scandal involving the deportation of hundreds of British citizens who arrived from India and the Caribbean in the 1950s.
This nostalgia for an age that never existed is perhaps even more powerful a force, absurdly so, in the countries that were communist in the 1950s – often drawing on the same political images and ideas.
The Polish journalist Witold Szablowski, in his newly translated book Dancing Bears: True Stories of People Nostalgic for Life Under Tyranny, writes of “the guy with the wacky hair” who had “entered the race for one of the highest offices of the land” and won, because he “promised to turn back time, and make things the way they used to be. In other words, better.” He’s referring to guys such as Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski (and his handpicked Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki) in Poland and of course Vladimir Putin in Russia – all of whom have obtained power by promising a return to a time when their countries were isolated from Europe and the West, supposedly free from ethnic and religious minorities, and lacking uncertainty or change.
Mr. Putin is alone in explicitly calling for a return to the time of Stalin and Khrushchev (although Stalin’s practice of denouncing the press as “enemies of the people” has caught on elsewhere). But his Polish and Hungarian counterparts imitated him in casting the past three decades of openness and pluralism as a time of emerging threats, with European institutions, Muslims and Jews identified as their source. Last weekend, Mr. Orban urged his followers to set the clock back to a time before the liberation and “spring” movements of 1968: “We can wave goodbye not only to liberal democracy,” he told a crowd of admirers, “but also to the entire elite of ’68.”
Mr. Szablowski, shocked by this turn in his home country, then saw it repeating over here: “It turns out that fear of a changing world, and longing for someone who will relieve us of some of the responsibility for our own lives, who promise that life will be the same as it was in the past, are not confined to Regime-Change Land. In half the West, empty promises are made, wrapped in shiny paper like candy.”
We could respond by reminding people that there is little to admire in that anxious, restricted, shell-shocked decade. Or, far more effectively, by offering real proposals to make the future, not an imaginary past, a better time.