Lexicon Valley

I Went Looking For “The Good Ol’ Days.” It Took Me Back 5,000 Years.

Define “again” again?

Photo by Justin Merriman/Getty Images

This essay is adapted from the Pessimists Archive podcast, a show about technology and the history of unfounded fears. Subscribe on iTunes, or listen to the full audio version.

Why Donald Trump won will be debated for generations, but we can all agree on one thing: Nostalgia is powerful. Just consider the elegance of “again” in “Make America Great Again.” It says that today’s changes ruined a glorious yesterday—that a golden age is ours to reclaim. “People want to believe that they are part of the greatest nation, that redemption is around the corner, that a perfect nation in which no suffering happens is possible,” says Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. He calls tales like these “nostalgia narratives,” and says their appeal is their simplicity. “They identify clear villains in the causing of suffering,” he explains—which makes them the favored argument of demagogues.

But nostalgia narratives contain a fatal flaw: They harken back to real times. Real times full of records and histories. Real times that can be cross-referenced against the “golden age” story being told about them. So I began wondering what would happen if I did the fact-checking—looking into each generation’s tale of better bygone times, to see if anyone, at any time, really felt they were getting it right.

I started making calls. It took me back 5,000 years.

First, today. During the campaign, the Daily Show sent a bunch of correspondents to a Trump rally to ask when America was last great. One guy said the 1980s. Another said 1913, when we passed the 17th Amendment. (Correspondent: “So, back when women couldn’t vote?”) And then, of course, someone said the 1950s—the most popular answer. A recent survey by the nonprofit organization PRRI found that 51% of Americans believe our way of life is worse than it was in the 1950s.

But did the people of post-war America believe they were living in a golden age? No, says Doug McAdam, a professor of sociology and political science at Stanford University, and author of Deeply Divided: Racial Politics and Social Movements in Post-War America. Despite our current romanticizing of that time, tensions were high—about race, class, the threat of nuclear war, a political system that Americans felt had failed them, and a culture sapped of energy. “People talked about how mindless the students on college campus were, only tracking towards a conformist, consumer-oriented way of life, without soul,” says McAdam. “So there was a lot of commentary on the deadening conformity.”

McAdam says that many people in post-war America pointed to the ’20s as a better time. But the newspapers of the 20s reflect a culture full of anxiety and nostalgia. Radio, recorded music, and the automobile were reshaping American life, causing people to fear that our fundamental humanness was under attack. This 1923 New York Times headline sums it up nicely: ‘AMERICAN LIFE IS TOO FAST’. The story goes on to quote then-Secretary of State Charles Evan Hughes, who spoke for a generation of intellectuals when he said, “It is the day of the fleeting vision. Concentration, thoroughness, the quiet reflection that ripens judgment are more difficult than ever.” Two years later, the dean of Princeton University would declare that “The general effect of the automobile was to make the present generation look lightly at the moral code, and to decrease the value of the home.”

Certainly, those aren’t the words of people living in a golden age. So where to next? The characters in Downton Abbey, who lived in the 20s, all sat around wistfully recalling the late 1800s. It was a time of progress in America as in England: We’d built the transcontinental railroad, the frontier was conquered, and cities were booming. But there was also a fast-spreading disease—something frightening called neurasthenia. An abbreviated list of symptoms: chronic headaches, insomnia, constipation, chronic diarrhea, impotence, amenorrhea, low spirits, constant anxiety, and chronic back pain. “Basically any type of condition that made life somewhat unpleasant was attributed to neurasthenia,” says David G. Schuster, author of a book called Neurasthenic Nation.

At the turn of the century, people believed that “nervous energy” kept us physically and mentally vibrant. But as life became busier, faster, and noisier, there was a pervasive fear that all our newly busy lives sapped our nervous energy. And when this happened, the thinking went, we got sick. “I think some people might have identified as neurasthenic because they were unhappy with some aspect of their life,” Schuster says. “Neurasthenia gave them a word to describe that: It’s not necessarily their fault, but they are a feather floating on larger breezes of modernity.”

Which is to say, neurasthenia was a nostalgia narrative transformed into a disease.

The people of the late 1800s wanted to return to purer, quieter times, so Schuster says they romanticized the decades before the civil war. But according to Harry L. Watson, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the people of antebellum America were busily debating their fallen nation. A common complaint went like this: “The republic that the framers had created in the 1770s and 80s and 90s had decayed,” says Watson, “and somehow we’d strayed away from the will of the founders, and we ought to get back to it.” Today, of course, that’s a Tea Party rallying cry. But when Andrew Jackson led this charge, some of the founding fathers were actually still alive—and refuting it. James Madison essentially said, “I am a founding father, and you’re wrong about what I meant.” It didn’t work. But even back then, Watson says, facts took a backseat to what felt true.

So, antebellum America romanticized revolutionary America. And who were the revolutionaries romanticizing? “Jefferson would talk about the ancient Saxon constitution of England as being far superior to anything that existed in his lifetime,” Watson says, “and bemoan that we couldn’t seem to get back there. Benjamin Franklin said similar things.”

This is a hefty temporal jump: The Anglo Saxons inhabited Great Britain from roughly the years 500 to 1066. And though they may have written a hell of a constitution, the Vikings gave them little time to celebrate it. “You’re living in this world in which these brutal pagan invaders are constantly destroying your crops, killing your family, wrecking the religious institutions that define your life,” says Andrew Rabin, a professor of English at the University of Louisville, “and so there is this strong nostalgia for an age before the Vikings came.”

Nostalgia, in fact, was central to the Anglo Saxon worldview. Their poems often contained what’s called an “ubi sunt” passage, which is when the narrator would start talking about how to Make The 10th Century Great Again. The poem “The Wanderer” contains a nice one, translated by Rabin from Old English: Where has the horse gone? Where is the rider? Where is the giver of gold? Where are the seats of the feast? Where are the joys of the hall? Alas for the bright cup, alas for the mailed warrior, alas for the splendor of the prince.

These poems don’t refer to a specific golden age, and we don’t know much about the Anglo Saxons before the Vikings arrived. But the Renaissance thinkers, who would come along four centuries later, romanticized the ancient Romans. And the Romans romanticized, well, earlier Romans.

The Roman historian Tacitus captures the mood. He records the empire from its beginning, in 509 B.C. (which he says was full of glorious heroes) to his time in about 100 B.C. (which he keeps apologizing for). “He’s constantly saying, ‘I’m sorry for telling you about yet more murders that the autocratic emperors have committed against their own subjects, and more rapes, and more sexual perversion, and more records of excessive dining, eating, and, you know, sumptuary practices,’” says Alex Dressler, an assistant professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But Romans before Tacitus said basically the same thing, Dressler says. The more money and power the Romans acquired, the more they felt like their nation was getting indulgent and lazy, and therefore the more they looked backwards to a time before they got what they wanted. The wanting, it seems, mattered more than the having.

So let’s just skip to the beginning—to Mesopotamia, when humanity began writing for the first time. Eckart Frahm, a professor of Assyriology at Yale University, says a curious trend shows up in the old cuneiform tablets: At the beginning of writing, around 3500 B.C., nobody pens anything nostalgic. But after about two centuries, as records pile up and scholars read what their ancestors wrote, that changes. “Then,” he says, “there is this idea that there must have been an age where things were really perfect.”

There it is. As soon as we started telling our own story, we became seduced by it.

Of course, this can’t come as much of a surprise. Nostalgia seems hardwired, as human as fear and love. But having combed through 5,000 years of history to confirm an absence of the good ol’ days, what can we do with this information? Can these facts ever sway someone who looks backwards in longing, even if they aren’t sure exactly where they’re looking to? Levonovitz, the religion professor, says that’s not the right way to think about it. “Nostalgia narratives are often born of great pain,” he says. “And when you walk up to someone who is in great pain, and you rip away from them the key story that is keeping them from just dissolving into a puddle of suffering, you’re messing with people.”

Which loops right back to Make America Great Again. The again was never meant to be a specific moment in time; it’s an arrow pointing any which way, to whenever someone felt better, or remembers feeling better, or assumes they might have felt better. Which means forward thinking Americans have their work cut out for them, pointing to a future that’s worth embracing over the past. “We either have to be patient and work slowly at the parts of the narratives that are most pernicious, and work gently and tactfully and lovingly with the people who believe them,” says Levinovitz, “or we have to be damn sure that when we rip that narrative away, we have something awesome to fill its place.”

It’s a hard story to tell, and it won’t be accomplished just by disproving the golden age. But if we can all be a little more aware of the stories we tell, and why we tell them, then at least that’s a start.