All the time, in politics, we as Americans are sold a very particular version of our past by politicians. You know, the era of postwar prosperity in the 50’s and 60’s, complete with Greatest Generation, everyone going to church, more national unity and patriotism, nuclear families just about everywhere, businesses not saddled with pesky regulations, income taxes lower than ever in order for supply-side economics to operate at full clip, and old-fashioned family dinners serving to reinforce the era’s traditional values. The politicians I’m talking about here are solid conservatives, who harken back to a time before the goddamned liberals ruined everything. In some ways, they have a point. As a whole, American society was culturally more traditional, for the most part, though that also includes the racism, misogyny, homophobia, and xenophobia that the Judeo-Christian tradition seems so fond of. American society was more prosperous, religious, and patriotic than it had been ever before, due to a thriving economy and the radical redefinition of American values in light of the Red Scare. That redefinition, which happened because the Commies are atheistic and unpatriotic, so we have to be all about that God/’Murica life, led to such changes as the addition of “Under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance in 1954, and a surge in church attendance among Americans. Although we may remember these things about the 50’s and 60’s due to how unprecedented they were at the time, America hasn’t changed all that much in terms of patriotism and religiosity. 40% of Americans attend church regularly, down from the all time highs of the mid-50’s, but not by all that much, and cultural emphasis on religion, in reality, has remained constant over the past few decades. Patriotism has also dropped marginally, but it has also become more commercialized and in many ways politically visible, thanks in large part to 9/11. After all, does a nation in which presidential candidates tend to open their speeches with a statement that “America is the greatest country in the history of the world,” or words to that effect, really sound like one that’s lost the meaning of patriotism? In short, politicians see the 1950’s and 60’s, with their unprecedented levels of wealth, religiosity, and patriotism, as well as their traditional values, and impose on them much of the modern conservative agenda in order to validate their own beliefs for both the belief’s own sake and with the American people.
Let me explain. To hear conservatives talk about the economy in the 50’s, you’d think it had been personally designed by the lovechild of Ayn Rand and Ronald Reagan. The investing class, unburdened by income tax, were finally allowed to use their capital to create jobs for everyone else, leading to the booming economy. Again, this isn’t an explicit claim, but something that’s implied when conservatives talk about the negative effects of the income tax as well as how much better we had it back then. They have something of a point. The economy was booming, leading to unheard-of amounts of wealth across many strata of American life. However, this had nothing to do with taxes on the wealthy, at least not in the direction conservatives would like. Eisenhower, that conservative stalwart, cut top marginal income tax rates… from 92% to 91%. Yep, the highest tax bracket was at 91% until 1964, which, assuming we’re still trying to emulate the 50’s, means bad news for Reaganomics and good news for all those socialists who think that the current highest bracket (39.6%) is a little low. Businesses were indeed less regulated, but, again, not in the way you might think. Those regulations that we take for granted concerning worker rights, environmental protection, advertising, and product safety were all significantly weaker, true. Doctors advertised cigarettes, cars were deathtraps waiting to happen, and pollution was a word not close to being in the national vocabulary. I would sincerely like to know how any of these changes have made American society or business any weaker. Please. The diehard conservatives that read this blog, who exist mostly in my head, might argue that businesses came upon those reforms on their own, or that they would have if it weren’t for you meddling leftists. To that, I say bullshit, and that any claims concerning businesses’ tendency to act in favor of the consumer rather than themselves ought to be pointed back to the 50’s (and beyond), where historical fact, not any Marxist invention, demonstrates their overwhelming preference for pursuing profits at the expense of workers, the environment, and, in many cases, consumers.
In conclusion, the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, which are not harmful in and of themselves, have no place in modern political discourse. The economy was strong, as were conservative American values. Conservative politics, however, were nowhere to be seen, with income taxes mind-bogglingly high and deregulation only really causing harm. The fact that many people of that era shared conservative opinions on abortion, LGBTQ rights, and the family structure speaks more against social conservatives now than reinforcing their beliefs. After all, haven’t many parts of society advanced since them? Do social values from 60 years ago have any place in modern society? Isn’t the fact that these beliefs are 60 fucking years old more damning than flattering, in every possible sense of both of those words? The conservative, and, indeed, national memory of the “Golden Age” after WWII is also an upper-middle-class white male memory of that era. Women were considered far from equal to men, with their ideal place somewhere between the kitchen and the vacuum cleaner (though, again, I guess conservatives would argue that was good?). African-Americans were discriminated against across the country, north and south of the Mason-Dixon, and frequently caricatured in television and radio shows. The poor faced little prospects of better life, especially without the social welfare programs of the 60’s to help them out. But no, conservatives, you’re absolutely right. Let’s all go back to the 50’s, a simpler time when men were men, businesses controlled many aspects of American life and faced little opposition, women weren’t taken seriously, cultural dictatorship and hegemony reigned supreme, and millions of African-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. Let’s all jump back on the “the homosexuals are immoral and bad and probably Communists” bandwagon. Maybe add in a dash of overwhelming fear and paranoia which forged those hard-won American values, and we have ourselves an ideal society, right? Instead, we won key steps on multiple roads to equality, with important ones yet to come, regulated the downright toxic tendencies of big business, ditched the Bible-thumping insanity, won the Cold War, and seen the greatest technological revolution in the history of the world.