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The American Conservative, March 12, 2007 | Go to article overview

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Weyrich and Lind Answer Their Critics

We appreciate the thoughtful responses James P. Pinkerton, John Derbyshire, and David Franke offered to our manifesto, "The Next Conservatism" (Feb. 12). But we would like to refute one theme common to them all: namely, "you can't go back."

Pinkerton writes, "Either you go forward, or you go backward. You can't do both. And more to the point, going backward isn't truly an option. ... true conservatives should realize that Americans don't want retroculture ..." Derbyshire says, "I am sorry to tell them, though, that 1957 is past and gone and will not come back. ... The business of conservatism is not to 'recover the America we knew as recently as the 1950s...'" Franke puts it thus:

I suspect most Americans my age would, at first impulse, wax nostalgic about 'the good old days' but in the end would choose to live in today's society. ... while society is in constant change, it rarely, if ever, makes a U-turn to an idealized past. ... Given freedom, very few people choose to return to an earlier lifestyle.

Until recently, all three commentators would have been right. American culture was future-focused. Virtually all Americans believed that the present was better than the past, and the future would be better than the present. It could be said this tenet was the basis of American civic faith and a necessary part of our centuries-old appeal to immigrants. Regardless of where our ancestors came from, or when, they expected that their lives and the lives of their children would get better because life in America steadily got better.

More broadly, a (sometimes blind) faith in the future and in progress, and a frequently counter-factual dismissal of the past, especially the Middle Ages, are central characteristics of the Modern Age. The prototypical Modern Man is Faust. He must move ever onward; he cannot tarry, much less turn back. That is the bargain Modernity made with ... well, we all know with whom Faust made his bargain with, don't we?

Retrocultural Appeal

But recently, Americans seem to be on to something old. We beg leave to offer, in the midst of all this philosophical conjuring, some empirical data. In January 1992, our organization, the Free Congress Foundation, sponsored a nationwide survey of 1,000 registered voters, conducted by Lawrence Research, on Americans' attitudes toward the past. The purpose of the survey was to see if there might be a basis in public opinion for retroculture, a theme we were beginning to explore. The results came as something of a surprise.

A majority (74 percent) said that in the past, our economy, our moral values, our environment, our community and family life, our pace of life, the quality of services, and the quality of our workmanship were better than today. A plurality (43 percent) thought our culture was better in the past. Only 25 percent found today's culture preferable.

Forty-seven percent of respondents thought their grandparents were happier than they; 29 percent believed their grandparents were not as happy.

While a majority thought life before World War II (up through the 1920s) was worse than life today, 61 percent said that life in the 1950s was better; only 20 percent said life in the '50s was worse than it is now.

We asked, "If you could choose the time and place where you would live, which one of these six alternatives would be your first choice?" A majority (58 percent) said, "A typical suburb in 1950." The contemporary alternative, Los Angeles in 1991, was chosen by only 6 percent. When asked for their second choice, a plurality (32 percent) chose a small town in 1900.

Fifty-six percent of respondents said they had a generally favorable impression of the Victorian period, which the survey defined as the years 1870-1900; 30 percent said they had an unfavorable impression.

In a striking turn from Americans' traditional optimism, 48 percent thought life in the future would generally get worse. …

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