A powerful opinion piece appeared in today’s New York Times, written by Stephanie Coontz, a justly celebrated historian with impeccable credentials in the American left. Building on an argument from a book of hers from the early 1990’s she counsels the American intelligentsia to avoid the nostalgia trap. As she rightly suggests, “you can’t just stroll through the past, picking the things you like and skipping the ones you don’t, as if historical eras were menus.” She worries that we are beginning to forget the atrocities of the past and the value of hard-won advances in social policy achieved by feminists and civil rights and disability activists among others in a context of surging economic inequality. But as she inoculates us to the threats of nostalgia, she may also be blinding us to the challenge of our time: to blend arguments for what Nancy Fraser calls recognition and redistribution in a progressive social vision. Let me explain.
Looking back to early 1960s, it easy to see how the elderly, women, the disabled, and black people, among members of other groups, would look to opportunities they enjoy today, preferring them to what they would have enjoyed back then. As Coontz says, for many, the good old days were not so good. In that sense we have unambiguously extended social rights in favor of a broader conception of justice. But for various, complicated reasons the balance between capital and community seems also to have tilted in favor of the former over that same period. Most of us have seen the objective numbers of economic and wealth disparities, but what is most striking about this are not the features of the objective situation but rather of the moral case. Over the last thirty-five years (I pick 1978 as my mark for empirical reasons I discuss elsewhere) we seem to have lost the ability to see this transformation in unambiguously moral terms. As a political community, we are no longer in the habit of condemning the destructive effects of the market. There remain some unapologetic pockets of comradeship that once powered the Nader fringe, but as I demonstrate in my study of mainstream political talk on Meet the Press, outrage in the face of abusive class power is largely a thing of the past. Thought of in terms of conventional mindshare, class has been displaced by identity. If you care about how we once articulated outrage about economic inequality, you will have to risk the nostalgia label and look to the past, because few powerful examples are on display today.
As we imagine the bridge narrative of the future, it is no more nostalgic to look back at what we have lost in our capacity to imagine abusive power over the last half century than it is to look back to the horrors of slavery,