One of the central slogans of President Obama’s re-election campaign is one word: “Forward.” It created an interesting contrast, then, when Mitt Romney spent a fair amount of time last night looking backward. NBC’s First Read had a good take on this, calling it Romney’s version of “nostalgic optimism.”
If you could sum up the majority of Romney’s acceptance speech it would be with these two words: nostalgic optimism. Per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill, Romney used the word “restore” three times (” Now is a time to restore the promise of America”). And he vowed to “return” to the foreign policy legacy of Truman and Reagan.
And the message of nostalgic optimism – to the time of his father and mother – was typified by this line: “I was born in the middle of the century in the middle of the country, a classic baby boomer. It was a time when Americans were returning from war and eager to work. To be an American was to assume that all things were possible. When President Kennedy challenged Americans to go to the moon, the question wasn’t whether we’d get there, it was only when we’d get there.”
Matt Yglesias picked up on this, too, noting that Romney, born in 1947, said that “we went to bed knowing that we lived in the greatest country in the history of the world.”
It seems as if this kind of nostalgia comes up periodically. Romney complained in January that, by expanding public benefits to more Americans, President Obama is pushing the nation towards a society “that would have been unrecognizable to our parents’ generation.” House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) also lamented not too long ago the notion that Democrats are “snuffing out the America that I grew up in” during the 1950s and 1960s.
I’ll give these Republicans the benefit of the doubt and assume they’re talking about economic, not cultural, issues. After all, the America that Romney and Boehner grew up, and find themselves nostalgic for, was deeply repressive and discriminatory for women and minorities. I’ll hope that when GOP leaders long for a bygone era, this isn’t an area in which they hope to turn back the clock.
But that raises a larger point: what does Romney understand about this era he’s so fond of? More specifically, does he realize what kind of economic policies were in place at the time?
I’ve written periodically about this over the years, in large part because I’m fascinated by the right’s narrowly-focused hindsight.
What’s striking is to realize how extraordinarily liberal the country was, economically, during this era that Romney remembers so fondly. In the 1950s, the top marginal tax rate was 90% (nearly triple today’s figure); union membership was 30% (more than quadruple today’s figure); the Republican Party, which still had plenty of liberals, endorsed all kinds of progressive ideas (spending projects, living wage); and the economy was heavily regulated – airlines didn’t even set their own prices.
Harold Meyerson explored this in even more detail a while back, emphasizing conservative activists’ misguided understanding of what it is they think has gone wrong.
When the Tea Partyers get around to identifying how America has changed and to whose benefit, however, they get it almost all wrong. In the worldview of the American right – and the polling shows conclusively that that’s who the Tea Party is – the nation, misled by President Obama, has gone down the path to socialism. In fact, far from venturing down that road, we’ve been stuck on the road to hyper-capitalism for three decades now.
The Tea Partyers are right to be wary of income redistribution, but if they had even the slightest openness to empiricism, they’d see that the redistribution of the past 30 years has all been upward – radically upward. From 1950 through 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent of Americans – effectively, all but the rich – increased from 64 percent to 65 percent, according to an analysis of tax data by economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Because the nation’s economy was growing handsomely, that means that the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent was growing, too – from $17,719 in 1950 to $30,941 in 1980 – a 75 percent increase in income in constant 2008 dollars.
Since 1980, it’s been a very different story. The economy has continued to grow handsomely, but for the bottom 90 percent of Americans, it’s been a time of stagnation and loss. Since 1980, the share of all income in America going to the bottom 90 percent has declined from 65 percent to 52 percent. In actual dollars, the average income of Americans in the bottom 90 percent flat-lined – going from the $30,941 of 1980 to $31,244 in 2008.
In short, the economic life and prospects for Americans since the Reagan Revolution have grown dim, while the lives of the rich – the super-rich in particular – have never been brighter. The share of income accruing to America’s wealthiest 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1974 to a tidy 23.5 percent in 2007.
Even Romney’s extended riff on the moon in his speech last night seemed disjointed – NASA would struggle to survive Romney/Ryan budget cuts, and the Apollo mission was a massive government project, dependent on the kind of taxpayer spending the right now opposes.
What I’d love for Romney to explain is how America achieved greatness, and Americans “assumed that all things were possible,” when we had such a big government and extremely high taxes.