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?