The awkward truth of 'make America great again'

Story highlights

  • Stephanie Coontz: Candidates often invoke need to return to rosy version of earlier era
  • She says inequality, sexism, regulation and taxation were also part of that reality
  • Coontz: It's better to look forward to meeting big challenges of America's future

Stephanie Coontz teaches history at the Evergreen State College and wrote the newly revised "The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)For all the hand-wringing about how we've never seen a presidential primary season like this before, in fact, it bears a remarkable resemblance to that of 1992. Back then, we had a flamboyant millionaire, several crusaders demanding a return to "traditional" families, calls for a wall to keep out immigrants and of course another Clinton and Bush (although the 1992 Bush candidate didn't crash and burn so early).

That same year I published a book titled "The Way We Never Were," warning against the dangers of imagining we could recapture a largely mythical golden age anywhere in the past.
Stephanie Coontz
One big difference, though, was in 1992, nostalgia was the stock in trade of social conservatives pining for the supposedly idyllic families of the "Father Knows Best" era. Today, by contrast, liberals and moderates are also jumping onto the nostalgia bandwagon, harking back to the political bipartisanship of earlier days. Donald Trump says "make America great again," and Hillary Clinton counters with an appeal to "make America whole again."
    But just exactly what era do they have in mind? And how many of their followers would actually like to live in the conditions that prevailed then?
    No question, it is tempting to look backward. Listening to the drumbeat of attacks on Planned Parenthood raises wistful memories of 1964, when two former presidents, Republican Dwight Eisenhower and Democrat Harry Truman -- no kidding -- were honorary co-chairs of that organization.
    And speaking of presidents who wouldn't pass today's political litmus tests, how many contemporary politicians would dare echo Eisenhower's lament that "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed"?
    Instead of using the cop-out "I am not a scientist," Eisenhower, a World War II general, brought a full-time science adviser into the White House and funneled millions of dollars into improving science education. Later, President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Air Act, declaring it was "now or never" to start saving the environment.
    Even President Ronald Reagan, Sen. Ted Cruz's idol, overruled his Cabinet advisers to help secure passage of the Montreal Protocol on Substances That Deplete the Ozone Layer, which enforced the phase-out of chlorofluorocarbons such as that used in refrigeration, air conditioning, foam plastic, aerosol production and more. After leaving office, he also defied the National Rifle Association to help pass the Assault Weapons Ban of 1994, since expired.
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    As for campaigns that pine for rosier economic times, in today's economy who wouldn't miss the job and income trends that prevailed from 1947 through the late 1960s? Manufacturing jobs were plentiful for young men without a college degree, and each cohort of men aged 25 to 29 earned more than three times as much as their fathers had made at a similar age. Since 1980, young men have earned less, on average, than their fathers at the same age.
    But idealizing the era when America was the economic powerhouse of the world, bipartisanship reigned and male breadwinner families were the norm requires overlooking much else. Nostalgia is never random. We cherry-pick the past, highlighting what we like and leaving out the things we don't, even if they were closely intertwined.
    So when Trump says let's "make America great again" and Clinton says let's make it "whole again," they neglect to mention how much the prosperity of the postwar era depended on a system of regulation and taxation that neither of them shows any inclination to reinstate.
    In that era, fully 30% of the workforce was unionized, compared with 11% today. Public spending on transportation and water infrastructure was three times higher than today. The airline, trucking, rail and banking industries were tightly regulated. Corporate taxes were twice as high in relation to national income, with top-earning individuals facing much higher tax rates than today. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of business interests 42% of the time, compared with more than 60% in recent years, a study found.
    Many Bernie Sanders supporters, and some Trump ones, would welcome a return of those features. But in that era of rising real wages for male blue-collar workers, manufacturing was so dominant that wages for service work -- such as health care aides and fast-food workers, now among our fastest-growing occupations -- could be kept low without threatening the living standards of most American families.
    What's more, female white-collar workers could not earn enough to support themselves. A black or female college graduate working full time, year round, earned less than the average white male high school graduate. And almost a third of the elderly were poor.
    In the foreign policy realm, the bipartisanship of that era is what let Presidents Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy secretly help overthrow the popularly elected leaders of Iran, Congo and Guatemala, launch the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba and kick off our disastrous involvement in Vietnam.
    Hillary Clinton may laud Henry Kissinger as an old-style diplomat who "transcends partisan differences," but that's precisely what allowed him to sanction the 1973 coup against Chile's popularly elected president, Salvador Allende, and give explicit consent to Argentine's "dirty war," in which 30,000 people were killed.
    And bipartisanship certainly did not extend to political dissidents, especially a socialist such as Sanders. Thousands of people were blacklisted for their beliefs.
    Presumably Clinton is not referring to the Eisenhower-Nixon era when she says we need to "make America whole again." But it's hard to claim even that America was "whole" during Bill Clinton's administration, when Democrats and Republicans alike were fanning racially charged fears of "super-predators" and "crack babies," financial deregulation was all the rage, mass incarceration was accelerating, gays and lesbians were denied basic civil rights, and the Confederate flag still flew over state capitols throughout the South.
    There is much we can learn from past eras, but we must be as honest about their limits and failures as their successes. Looking backward for models will not move America forward to meet the unprecedented demographic, technological, climatological and ethical challenges we face today.