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White working-class nostalgia, explained by John Wayne

the duke

1973 was a pretty grim year in the US. The Watergate scandal reached its peak. The Vietnam War entered its final throes. The turbulent cultural revolutions of the 1960s had everyone raw-nerved and exhausted.

Into that environment of mistrust and malaise came a remarkable cultural document, a spoken-word album issued that year by Marion Morrison, better known to Americans by his stage name, John Wayne.

The album was called America, Why I Love Her. Over simple backing tracks, Wayne — an Oscar-winning actor and already a fixture in the American mythos — lends his raspy gravitas to 10 poems by John Mitchum. They celebrate the simple virtues of American life and decry those who would divide or demean America.

It's kitschy as hell, but also oddly endearing in its total lack of irony or cynicism.

The album was nominated for a Grammy in 1974. Though it didn't win, the title track became quite well-known and is still played sometimes before local ballgames and other patriotic events.

The track that has always fascinated me, however, is "The Good Things." You can listen to it as you read the rest of this post:

(Told you it was kitschy.)

I've thought about this song a lot over the years. To me it represents the flip side of white resentment; it's white nostalgia, a yearning for something lost.

Though Donald Trump has made it easy to see white backlash purely in terms of anger and prejudice, I think it's a useful exercise, intellectually and empathically, to try and understand what reactionary white voters crave, what they feel is missing.

"The Good Things," like much white nostalgia, is about a world that never quite was, an idealized American past with the dirty bits brushed off: "men who love their wives / Who take their kids when they go fishin' ... A fireman who climbs a tree / And sets a little kitten free ... A policeman who helps you cross the avenue."

This kind of rose-tinted sentimentalism may strike many people — especially minorities and other subaltern groups who were excluded from that American idyll — as silly, even dangerous. But putting the grim historical realities aside, the nostalgia also reflects primal urges that are worth understanding, and honoring.

Post-war small-town in painter Norman Rockwell's "Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) 1967"
Postwar small town in painter Norman Rockwell's "Home for Christmas (Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas) 1967."
(Normal Rockwell Museum)

The psychopolitical spectrum

As I've written before, more and more psychological research indicates that Americans have not only sorted themselves by ideology, party, and geography — they have also sorted themselves psychologically. A psychological spectrum has mapped itself onto the US political spectrum.

One problem with discussing this spectrum is that the people who work at universities and run psychological studies, and the journalists who write about those studies, tend to cluster on one side of that spectrum. Our value judgments are woven into the vocabulary we use to discuss them. (I am guilty of this myself.)

To attempt to avoid that trap, I'm just going to refer to it as a left-to-right spectrum, with the proviso that it maps roughly, though far from perfectly, onto the current US left/right political spectrum.

Think of the spectrum as issuing from our sensitivity to threat. Those who are more sensitive to threat, to negative stimuli in their environment, lean to the right end of the spectrum.

How much does this bother you?
How much does this bother you?

They are likely to value order and tradition over chaos and novelty. They are more attuned to in-group/out-group distinctions and to the purity of the in-group. They prefer clarity to ambiguity, hierarchy to egalitarianism. (More on this research here.)

We typically refer to the source of the spectrum as "fear" and those who cluster on the far right side as "authoritarians." This has the effect of casting one whole side of the spectrum as fearful, rigid, and (implicitly) dangerous.

In her great piece on the rise of American authoritarianism, Amanda Taub mentions this in an aside:

More than that, this early research seemed to assume that a certain subset of people were inherently evil or dangerous — an idea that [political scientists] Hetherington and Weiler say is simplistic and wrong, and that they resist in their work. (They acknowledge the label "authoritarians" doesn't do much to dispel this, but their efforts to replace it with a less pejorative-sounding term were unsuccessful.)

Yeah, "authoritarians" does have a negative ring to it!

We could just as easily say that the left side of the spectrum scores high on "obliviousness to threat" and lament the political influence of dissolute far-left "libertines." (Indeed, many on the right do just this.)

Point is, it is worthwhile, when thinking about this stuff, to avoid the temptation to see one psychological profile as inherently good and another as inherently bad. Everything depends on context.

So I will refer to "left-siders" and "right-siders" rather than libertines (and quasi-libertines) and authoritarians (and quasi-authoritarians).

The kind of environment in which threat-sensitivity comes in handy.
The kind of environment in which threat sensitivity comes in handy.

"The Good Things" is about social order

Now listen to the song.

It is about living within a social order that makes sense. There is no ambiguity. Everyone knows their purpose, knows their neighbors, and has a common understanding of what America means. Consequently there is an ease and harmony to life. Because people know where they stand and feel secure, small acts of generosity and social solidarity are common.

Someone offers to help when your car breaks down on the side of the road. You buy a kid a soda. Police help people across the street. Everyone knows each other, knows that we are an Us, so there's a background level of trust and support.

They go to church on Sunday, the song says, and "never question why." To a left-sider, that line almost sounds like parody. But they don't question why because they already know why. They are rooted in the same traditions, share the same values.

This is something those on the left side of the spectrum can miss about the in-group/out-group sensitivity of right-siders. It's true that those defined as "out groups" suffer in communities like this, that right-siders are capable of great cruelty toward those defined as Them.

But conversely, there's a fellow feeling within those communities, within their Us, that can be immensely healthy and comforting. Especially for those who lean rightward, it is of great succor to know where they stand, what their role is, what other people's roles are, and what values We all share. It orders their world and roots them in it.

This helps explain why conservatives test happier than liberals and religious people report higher well-being than the non-religious: A defined social order, and a clear place in it, can bring contentment.

religion and happiness (Gallup)

A researcher on a similar study said of the happiness of the religious, "the sense of belonging seems to be the key."

A sense of belonging, and the social solidarity it brings, helps explain why a state like Utah, with such a high degree of racial, ideological, and religious homogeneity, is so well-run and produces such good health and welfare outcomes. It helps explain, more generally, why more homogeneous countries tend to have more robust social safety nets. The more ethnic and racial diversity increases, and the more economic inequality increases, the more that sense of belonging becomes fractured along tribal and class lines.

I grew up in a small, mostly white Southern town. I know how ignorant and mean such communities can be toward those they perceive as outsiders. But I also know how good and decent people can be toward one another, and how fortifying it can feel to know that you have a place in the community and that the community will be there for you if you need it.

For many people, those social bonds, that Us, is constitutive of identity, and when such communities are degraded by economic and demographic forces, those people can feel as though they are being erased.

Small town main street, Anywhere, US.
Small-town main street, Anywhere, US.

The psychological polarization of the American people

In the US, there's no separating all of this from racial politics.

The communities that experienced the halcyon period of postwar social and economic stability were predominantly white communities. The disruption of that settled postwar order, through globalization, automation, bad economic policy, and all the rest, has largely been experienced as the disruption of a settled white order.

And so it was inevitable that the right-sider backlash to those disruptive changes would be mostly a white backlash, that some whites — the ones who most crave order and clarity — would blame their dislocation on outsiders: immigrants, minorities, and meddling elites.

Combine psychological polarization and racial polarization, and you get a Republican Party primarily animated by angry white right-siders. That's what Trump has so rudely exposed to the world.

Trump greets supporters in Alabama
Trump and his adoring whites.
Mark Wallheiser/Getty Images

As Taub chronicles in her piece, Trump has united all those on the far-right end of the psych spectrum. As I said, the two spectrums do not map perfectly, so this is an unconventional political coalition, drawing some independents and nonvoters, repelling some Republicans who lean more toward the center or left.

The Trump phenomenon has only reinforced the sense among many left-leaners in the media that the conservative base is driven by racism. But I think the uptick in open racial hostility is an outgrowth of a more generalized aversion to change and suspicion of outsiders, coupled with an acute sense of being besieged and a difficult-to-articulate ache for the loss of an established order.

After all, it's difficult to appreciate just how fast things have changed for America's white working class.

Over the past few decades, the US middle class has shrunk. Wages have stagnated, manufacturing jobs have left, unions have all but vanished. The white working class has lost pensions and health care benefits it once took for granted. Depression, suicide, and prescription drug abuse are on the rise among middle-aged white Americans. Almost all jobs created since the recovery have gone to college graduates.


White working-class Americans are getting married less and report having fewer close friends. Their social capital is draining away, along with their jobs, their savings, and their dignity. (Much more on all this here.)

Meanwhile, as of 2011, the majority of infants born in the US are nonwhite. Since 2010, racial and ethnic minorities have accounted for 91.7 percent of all population growth in the US. The share of the US population that is foreign-born is four times what it was in 1970, having risen from 4.7 percent then to 13.1 percent in 2013.

In a little over a generation, right-leaning, working-class whites went from defining America — being the standard, the base model, the hard-working, self-reliant American dream made flesh, about which kitschy songs are written — to being, in their view, an embattled minority.

Their social values are mocked and rejected by mainstream pop culture, and they are condescended to and dismissed by elites. Rightly or not, they've come to view immigrants, other ethnicities, and often liberals as competitors in a zero-sum fight.

They are pissed off and panicky about it, and while we need not accept the uglier forms the backlash takes, we should still acknowledge the unique angst that results when the communities that most value order are struck by the most dislocation.

Justifiably upset.
Justifiably upset.

The US political left should honor the need for stability

Liberal policies can counteract the disruptions of modern life. Things like free universal day care, portable health insurance, higher wages, affordable college, protection from predatory lending, and a universal basic income can help ensure that families and communities are resilient enough to survive shifting economic conditions.

Such policies won't eliminate racial resentment in the US. Racism has its own life, outside of economic insecurity, and calls for its own remedies. But they can at least speak to the need for order and stability ("the good things"), honor it as legitimate, and perhaps ease some of the socioeconomic stress that exacerbates racial tensions.

America has always been dynamic. It is the world's grandest ongoing experiment in polyglot, multi-ethnic, pluralist democracy. It should never close itself off to change or pretend change can be reversed.

But white working-class Americans (like all Americans) should be offered some shelter from those changes, some sense that they will be okay, that they are still part of the American Us, no matter what.

They deserve that. They are not hicks or proto-fascists for wanting it. And if they don't get it, Trump happens.

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