What Old, White Conservatives Miss About America

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Their nostalgia isn't necessarily bigoted. The main reason people feel wistful for less racially enlightened times is that everyone romanticizes childhood.

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Is the nostalgia white conservatives feel for the America of their youth rooted in racism, as Matthew Yglesias contends? Or is Reihan Salam right to "resist and resent" the notion that American conservatism is rooted in racist sentiment, a view that he says is held by many on the left? Those are the questions at issue in the recent back-and-forth between these two Atlantic alums, both of whom are unusually sharp observers of American politics and culture. Salam kicked things off by writing a column for The Daily that includes this provocative paragraph:

American conservatives are overwhelmingly white in a country that is increasingly less so. As the number of Latinos and Asian-Americans has increased in coastal states like California, New York and New Jersey, many white Americans from these regions have moved inland or to the South. For at least some whites, particularly those over the age of 50, there is a sense that the country they grew up in is fading away, and that Americans with ancestors from Mexico or, as in my case, Bangladesh don't share their religious, cultural and economic values. These white voters are looking for champions, for people who are unafraid to fight for the America they remember and love. It's unfair to call this sentiment racist.

Yglesias responded as follows:

This puts me in a mind of House Speaker John Boehner's explicitly expressed view that the problem with President Obama is that he and the 111th Congress were "snuffing out the America that I grew up in." As I said at the time, on its face it's difficult to make sense of that. John Boehner was born in 1949. Does he feel nostalgic for the higher marginal tax rates of the America he grew up in? For the much larger labor union share of the workforce? The threat of global nuclear war?

It's difficult for me to evade the conclusion that on an emotional level, conservative nostalgists like Boehner are primarily driven by regret at the loss of social privilege by white men. In Boehner's defense, I often hear white male progressives express nostalgia for the lost America of the 1950s and 1960s and think to myself "a black person or a woman wouldn't put it like that." But progressive nostalgics do at least have the high-tax, union-dominated economy and egalitarian income distribution as the things they like. But from a non-bigoted conservative point of view, what is there really to miss about the America John Boehner grew up in? The tax rates were high, but at least they didn't let Jews into the country club?

Thought-provoking arguments on both sides.

What I'd ask Salam is whether he thinks the character Clint Eastwood plays in Grand Turino was racist. He seems like a good test case, in that he was understandably alarmed by a changing cultural landscape that made his neighborhood less safe, but he also erroneously presumed, based on the skin color of his neighbors, a larger gulf in cultural values than was justified by reality. (I'd say that he was a bit racist, but that he wasn't deserving of the full stigma usually attached to the term -- one can be racist without being Bull Connor or David Duke, and the lack of specific term for that is a real obstacle to frank racial conversation in the United States.) 

As for Yglesias, I am in concurrence with his strong belief that America is a much better place today than it was in 1949. With few exceptions, to think otherwise signals a lack of cross-racial empathy, at minimum. But I resist the idea that there is nothing save white privilege for John Boehner to wistfully miss. He's a conservative Catholic. As a kid, he lived in a country where religion played a larger role in public life; divorce, premarital sex, and cohabitation were stigmatized; a comparatively larger share of social welfare spending came from private charities; abortion was much less common; and city bureaucrats would never dream of shutting down a kid's lemonade stand. All good things if you're a conservative Catholic, aren't they?

Of course, all this presumes nostalgia is rational. 

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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