Just When Was America Great?

A person’s age plays a role in when they think United States was at its peak—and Baby Boomers have a particularly dim view of the present.

Carlo Allegri / Reuters

Of all the themes powering Donald Trump's rhetoric, nostalgia is the strongest. Make America great again. We used to win. We're going to bring jobs back.

Republicans love a good bout of rocking-chair reminiscing. Others have noted the party's preoccupation with the word "restore," citing, among other things, Marco Rubio's newest book (American Dreams: Restoring Economic Opportunity for Everyone), Mitt Romney's super PAC ("Restoring Our Future"), and Glenn Beck's 2010 rally on the National Mall ("Restoring Honor"). When a party's central tenets include a strict interpretation of the Constitution and a commitment to traditional values, it can't avoid an existential yearning for days gone by. Trump has merely put a more populist spin on a longstanding impulse.

But does the public feel the same way? Attempting an answer, the New York Times recently wrote up a Morning Consult poll that asked more than 2,000 people to name the single year the United States was "at its greatest." The Times framed its analysis around the political candidates and their parties:

Republicans, over all, recall the late 1950s and the mid-1980s most fondly. Sample explanations: “Reagan.” “Economy was booming.” “No wars!” “Life was simpler.” “Strong family values.” The distribution of Trump supporters’ greatest years is somewhat similar to the Republican trend, but more widely dispersed over the last 70 years. Supporters of Ted Cruz picked best years that were similar to the party’s trend over all. The sample of John Kasich supporters in the survey was too small to detect any patterns.

As a group, Democrats seem to think America’s greatest days were more recent; they were more likely to pick a year in the 1990s, or since 2000. After 2000, their second-most-popular answer was 2016. Sample explanations: “We’re getting better.” “Improving social justice.” “Technology.”

This reporting would seem to bear out the Republicans-as-reminiscers narrative. But there’s another theory: What if people look most warmly on the years when they came of age? For many, the decade in which they spent their late teens and twenties is backlit with a soft glow of optimism and discovery, which tends to fade with the onset of children and male-pattern baldness. Republicans are older on average than Democrats. Could the partisan split the Times found simply reflect the demographics of each party?

In aggregate, Morning Consult’s data supports this trend. According to its survey, the plurality of people born in the 1930s and 1940s thought the 1950s were America’s best years; people born in the 1960s and the 1970s had a similar affinity for the 1980s.

But it’s worth a closer look. Using a slice of the raw survey data, I ran a multiple linear regression analysis, which attempts to calculate how much a collection of independent factors influences an outcome. In this case, the outcome was an individual’s pick for America’s Greatest Year; the factors were their age, their race, their education level, their gender, and their political party. (I threw out any response that named a date before 1930 as America’s best; very few people, save historians, are truly nostalgic for the 19th century, and these outliers skewed the sample.)

The result? It seems age does play a role in determining when a person thinks America peaked. For every 10 years a respondent’s age increased, their average America-Was-Greatest date dropped by three years. But race and party matter, too. Being a Democrat gave respondents an average bump of five years in their favorite dates, compared to Republicans; being black raised the average by more than eight years.

That said, the correlation is weak. Only 15 percent of the variability among the 2,000-odd favorite-year responses can be explained by these five demographic factors, which is laughably low by statistical standards.

Part of this might be due to a particularly tortured generation: The late Baby Boomers, or people born in the 1960s. While it’s not uncommon to think the U.S. is going down the hole—a third of registered voters think the country’s best days are in the past, according to the Morning Consult survey—the late Boomers are particularly misanthropic. Just over 38 percent say America’s best years are behind it, and only 41 percent think things will get better, the lowest spread of any generation (and tied with people born in the 1940s, like Donald Trump). What’s more, they absolutely hate the present: About half say things are worse today than they were in 2000, or even 2010, tracking closely with other Baby Boomers but no one else.

This population appears particularly friendly to Trump. Around 70 percent of Republican voters aged 50-65 recently reported feeling enthusiasm or satisfaction about a Trump nomination. And while it's hard to pin down exactly the era Trump wants to restore, his comments on manufacturing, China and Japan would seem to show a preference for the 1980s—which just happens to be the late Baby Boomers’ favorite decade.

When was America greatest? It’s a subjective question, and the data suggests the answer is more personal than generational. But Trump’s slogan seems to have particular resonance with one slice of the population, even as it speaks to the more general nostalgia.