The Myth of the Golden Years

Whether economic times are good or bad, the lament for the old days of factories and mills never changes.

llustration of black-and-white photos of factory workers set against a red background
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Tom Nichols is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and the author of the book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within on Modern Democracy.

“You’ll want to read this,” my wife said, handing me the Sunday Boston Globe. The cover story that week in late September 2020 was about a 62-year-old woman who had colon cancer that had metastasized. She died in a local hospital; her husband was also in poor health and could not take care of her at home. After she died, he moved into an area facility. Reading of someone so close to my own age succumbing to a highly preventable disease was a bit unsettling.

The dateline, however, was the reason my wife had given me the paper. The story was from my hometown in Massachusetts, and the facility where the husband now lived was down the street from my childhood home. When I was a boy, we joked, far too easily, about “putting” people there when they got old. In later years, the joking ended when my father had to stay there briefly as his health began to fail. My brother then passed through its doors on his way to the final stop in a VA hospital. The couple in the story had struggled for survival in the neighborhood where I grew up, and one of them, as the Globe put it, had experienced “the kind of death all too typical for people who work hard jobs for modest pay,” dying “too young … and too hard.”

This kind of story makes you question whether you live in a truly good society. How can two people who spent a lifetime in a rich and technologically advanced country, in a region known for being at the cutting edge of medical discoveries, die in the gray twilight of working poverty?

Critics of liberal democracy—and especially those who advocate for its replacement with illiberal alternatives—have seized upon this kind of suffering to make their case against the injustices of the modern world. Whatever successes liberal democracy might have enjoyed in the storied past, they would argue, it has since been defeated as a system of government by a slew of traumas. Some of us now live in the best of times, while the rest live—and die—in the worst of times.

In this telling, liberal democracy is no longer a tolerant, secular, rights-based system of government—if it ever was. Instead, it is an economic and cultural free-fire zone in which atomized, unconnected human beings are easy prey for elites who are better educated, better organized, and better connected than the helpless masses scattered across the globalized landscape. Worse, these global elites are not truly “liberal” or tolerant; in order to sustain a planetary version of the Hunger Games, they stamp out wrong-think on any number of issues, whether abortion or climate change, to prevent ordinary citizens from challenging the rules of the new economic killing fields.

The tale of the lotus-eating elites destroying the honest and authentic life of the hardworking commoners is a hell of a story, and it is rooted in the reality of actual human suffering. But as a criticism of liberal democracy, it is not new and it is not true.

Central to these criticisms is a nostalgia for an idealized past that always makes the present seem terrible. Some of this is manipulation by political charlatans. But sincere concerns come from some political and economic elites, especially those who are products of a class transition and advancement through education and relocation. They are concerned about the anger of the “forgotten places” where they grew up.

In a 2020 interview, for example, the political scientist and Russia expert Fiona Hill, the daughter of a British coal miner, noted that democracies like the United States and the United Kingdom made the same mistake as the old Soviet Union. They relied too much on heavy industry early in their history and then failed to replace those jobs with anything else later. “Liberal democracy,” she said, “hasn’t been delivering”:

If I go back to my home town, it’s still no better than it was when I was growing up in terms of opportunity. The shops are boarded up in the main street. Nothing new is coming in. There’s just no kind of sense of optimism. And when I visit my relatives here in the US in Wisconsin and other places, there’s a lot of sense of: the rest of the world is kind of moving on and leaving us behind.

The American scholar and entrepreneur Ian Bremmer grew up in poverty in a housing project in Chelsea, Massachusetts. In a classic American success story, he headed to college far from home and later earned a Ph.D. at Stanford. Today he is a political scientist who leads Eurasia Group, an influential risk-analysis firm.

This post is excerpted from Nichols's recent book.
This post is excerpted from Nichols’s recent book.

Bremmer, like Hill, is concerned. “Back in Chelsea,” he wrote in 2018, “in my old neighborhood, people are angry. They no longer believe that hard work and education are enough. They don’t see a path, and they feel they’ve been lied to. My brother voted for Donald Trump, and if my mother were alive, I bet she would have too.” Bremmer feels that uncritical faith in “globalism” as an ideology has made political and economic elites insensitive to the complaints of ordinary citizens.

I grew up in Chicopee, a Massachusetts factory town much like Chelsea, but a few hours to the west in the Connecticut River Valley. I also lived through a city’s decline. But when Bremmer notes that the people back in Chelsea feel “lied to,” I think of my own youth just 10 years earlier and 90 miles to the west in a similar city and I wonder: “Lied to” by whom? And about what, exactly? Education and hard work—and more than a little luck—formed the path to a professional career for working-class kids like me and Bremmer and Hill.

They still do. When was this fortunate time when people back in our respective hometowns felt that the system was fair, or that times were good, or that the “elites”—back in the ’60s and ’70s, old Protestant white males who were practically selected before birth to attend fine universities—were somehow invested in the success of the lower classes?

The ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s are remembered now with sepia-toned nostalgia, but mostly by people who could not possibly remember any of it at all. Younger Americans hear tales from aging relatives of affordable homes and safe streets in Los Angeles, or of guaranteed union jobs waiting in Youngstown or Gary, but these are now like legends passed down through the generations. Not many Americans want to think very much about what it would actually mean in social or economic terms to go back and live in those Kodachrome moments in their minds.

Although we are all ruled by confirmation bias, I am hard-pressed to recall when the adults around me as a boy in Chicopee were talking about the healthy economy and the promise of opportunity. What I recall, mostly, is anxiety among our neighbors about jobs, even among the dwindling number of union households. Health care was cheaper, but health was more fragile. When my father had a mild heart attack in 1974, he was confined to the hospital for weeks instead of a few days, and his company allowed him to retire as “disabled.” Cancer was so terrifying that the word was not spoken aloud or mentioned in obituaries. Many elder-care facilities were Dickensian warehouses for the old.

Rosy memories of the economic condition of the working class before the 2000s seem to be tricks of memory rather than reflections of reality. In thinking about the way Bremmer and I grew up, I was reminded of the memoirs of the writer Andre Dubus, who arrived in Haverhill, another Massachusetts mill town, in 1972 with his recently divorced mother. The town had been named the “Queen Slipper City of the World” because, at the turn of the century, it was known for making a lot of the country’s shoes.

By the time we moved there in the early seventies, it was a town of boarded-up buildings, the parking lots overgrown with weeds and strewn with trash. Most of the shops downtown were closed too, their window displays empty and layered with dust and dead flies. It seemed there were barrooms on every block—the Chit Chat Lounge, the Lido, Ray and Arlene’s—and they were always full, the doors open in the summertime, the cackle of a woman spilling out of the darkness, the low bass beat of the jukebox, the phlegmy cough of an old man born here when things were good.

Dubus’s memories, including the routine scenes of alcohol abuse (a disease that gripped my mother for years), are more evocative to me than I am comfortable admitting. Dubus and I are about the same age, and, like him, I was part of an early-’70s postindustrial life that we would now generalize as a “culture of despair.” My father, for a time, left the family home because of my mother’s drinking, and she nearly died. My boyhood was spent playing in abandoned buildings and coal yards, and my early teenage years could well have ended in jail. The world of 40 or 50 years ago is not a better time in my memory; it was an era that seemed, at least to me, crowded mostly with dead ends and very few avenues out.

Later, I had a front-row seat for the effects of industrial decline when a giant employer left our town and put thousands out of work. The Uniroyal tire company, one of the biggest employers in the entire region, began shutting down its operations at the end of the ’70s. The American car industry had been in a slump for a while, and the few customers who were buying cars wanted radial tires, not the older-style bias-ply tires made at “the Uniroyal,” an aging and inefficient complex of buildings built in the 1870s. Negotiations between the city, the unions, and the company failed, and by 1980 the factory was set to close.

That summer, my mother—who had finally recovered from her addiction just a few years earlier—was nearing the end of her first and only term as a local alderman. (Mom had won in an upset against a local ward boss a few years earlier on a promise to enforce zoning laws after she got angry about a drug market openly operating down the street from our house.) She did not enjoy the job and she knew her chances of surviving a rematch were slim, but she had spoken well of the integrity and competence of the mayor, a fine man named Robert Kumor. I was already working two jobs that summer, but full of temerity (and more than a little boredom), I went over to city hall and asked Bob if I could get some hands-on, if unpaid, experience. Like many overworked and understaffed public officials, the new mayor was happy for the help, and he took me on with the condition that I couldn’t reveal executive business to my mother over on the legislative side of the city government, a promise Mom and I both respected.

I was, among my duties, assigned to a small task force dealing with the Uniroyal closing. Aside from joining the mayor at meetings with the company (an experience I found both fascinating and harrowing), I also kept hours in a small office where men—almost all of the endangered workers were men—could come and get forms and explanations of how to file for unemployment benefits. I was at first quite proud of myself for wrangling an internship, even if the only pay was experience and free coffee, but now I found my cheeks flushing with discomfort every day. These workers were old enough to be my father and grandfathers. One by one, they came to my little cubbyhole in city hall to tell me that they didn’t want forms; they wanted a job. They would ask me why all this happened. At 19 years old, I had no idea what to say. As I recall, I tried to be encouraging. I smiled nervously a lot.

I left to go back to college. The tire jobs never came back. Different groups proposed various plans for the abandoned Uniroyal property, but today it is still a ghost, waiting either to collapse or to be demolished. Later, I worked on the Commerce and Labor Committee in the Massachusetts State House, where I learned how similar stories played out in the other cities and towns of the commonwealth, like Bremmer’s Chelsea and Dubus’s Haverhill, as New England continued its shift away from manufacturing and toward the high-tech and medical industries that were turning Boston from a rambling collection of college campuses and dangerous neighborhoods into a technology boomtown.

Today, my hometown is doing considerably better. The population loss that began in 1970 was halted some 30 years ago, and new businesses took over many of the abandoned lots. But the empty hull of the Uniroyal is still a reminder that the “forgotten towns” were forgotten a lot earlier than the dawn of the 21st century.

And yet this reality never seems to matter in political debates. Whether economic times are good or bad, this lament for the old days of factories and mills—jobs that were long gone before some voters were old enough to cast a ballot or were even born—never changes.

Any prediction that my city or any other like it would come back from the purgatory of the ’70s would have seemed a reckless bet. But the anti-globalization (or more accurately, the anti-globalism) narrative—one that opportunistic politicians increasingly link to hot-button cultural resentments—is that stories of recovery are never indicative of positive change. They are just stories. Times are always bad. Nothing gets better. And the past 50 years have not been a temporary economic purgatory but a permanent hell, if only the elites would be brave enough to peer through the gloom and see it all for what it is. This obsession with decline is one of the myths surrounding postindustrial democracy that will not die.

To recognize honestly and with compassion that liberal democracies—and the people who run them—can produce awful outcomes is not an admission that democracy is hopeless; rather, it is the societal self-examination that is among the greatest duties of a citizen and a sign of virtue itself in a democratic society.

The reality of suffering, however, is the cudgel used by populists and illiberal elements of both the right and the left to attack the foundations of modern democracy. Liberalism thrives in the center, between the extremes, where negotiation and compromise and trust must rule the day in order to produce consensus and solutions. But the center—a place that discourages performative anger and drama, and instead is filled with the boring necessities of deliberation and trust—is difficult ground to defend when the pain of other human beings is mobilized in the battle for power.

What we should have learned from the experience of the last 50 years is not that democracy has failed but that voters and their elected representatives have joined forces in a game of rising expectations, immediate gratification, and very little accountability from anyone at any level. Unfortunately, to borrow from Yeats, the “worst are full of passionate intensity” as they try to convince their fellow citizens that the existence of suffering invalidates the liberal democratic ideal. This is an immense and cynical lie.

The history of the past century has been a story of increasing liberty and prosperity. Even with the reversals, mistakes, and corruption among the democracies, the autocracies have been the systems that have faced the need to change or perish. They are the regimes that have failed to provide for their citizens, whose successes have been unsustainable, and whose citizens have repeatedly risen to destroy them.

For anything to work at almost any level of government, citizens first have to accept that they live in a community. They have to begin with an assumption that finding common ground for solutions, however imperfect they may be, is possible. They have to believe that other human beings are sensible and amenable to goodwill. And they need to be honest about the past, and to dispense with false nostalgia.


This post is excerpted from Tom Nichols’s book Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault From Within Our Modern Democracy.