Next January, just in time for a potential presidential bid, Marco Rubio will publish a book. It’s called American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone.
Call me a killjoy, but I don’t think Senator Rubio can make good on his subtitle. Creating “economic opportunity for everyone” is hard enough in a country of 316 million. Restoring it is a metaphysical impossibility. To restore something, it must have existed before. And never in its history has America offered “economic opportunity for everyone,” not even in the Edenic days of President Reagan.
Why would Rubio make such an absurd promise? Because conservatives love the word “restore.” In 2007, when he was planning his own presidential bid, Mike Huckabee wrote a book subtitled 12 Steps to Restoring America’s Greatness. (It’s available for one cent on Amazon.) In 2010, Glenn Beck organized a rally on the National Mall entitled “Restoring Honor.” In 2012, Mitt Romney’s supporters established a Super PAC called, paradoxically, “Restore Our Future.” Later that year, the Republican platform promised the “Restoring of the American Dream” and the “Restoration of Constitutional Government.” This June, Ted Cruz pledged to “Restore the Great Confident Roar of America.”
Progressive politicians sometimes use the word too. But as believers in progress, they’re more willing to acknowledge that the bright future they’re promising never existed before. When President Obama invokes America’s past, for instance, he’s less apt to celebrate previous eras than to celebrate the people in those eras who struggled to overcome its injustices. That’s why he talks so much about the civil-rights, women’s-rights, and labor movements. Conservatives, by contrast, want to conserve. Their problem is that they can’t call for conserving things as they are, since that would mean expressing satisfaction with Obama’s America. So they call for restoring the virtues that existed in some prelapsarian America: before the Progressive Era, before the New Deal, before the 1960s, or at least before Obama.
Specifying exactly when that golden age existed can be perilous. In a 1976 campaign speech entitled—what else—“To Restore America,” Reagan declared, “I would like to be president because I would like to see this country become once again a country where a little 6-year-old girl can grow up knowing the same freedom that I knew when I was 6 years old, growing up in America.” Reagan was 6 years old in 1917, when women and most African Americans could not vote, when socialists and labor organizers were being jailed, if not lynched, for opposing America’s entrance into World War I, and when governors in Reagan’s native Midwest were making teaching German a crime.
Here’s the problem. Unlike Reagan, today’s Republicans are generally shrewd enough to avoid identifying exactly which previous age they wish to restore. But for African Americans, Latinos, women, and gays and lesbians, idealizing any previous age means idealizing one in which they enjoyed fewer rights and opportunities than they do today. Pledging to “restore” America appeals to many older, straight, Anglo, white, and male voters, because it’s a subtle way of saying Republicans will bring back the good old days. The GOP’s problem is that to win back the White House, it must make inroads among Americans who know the good old days weren’t all that good.