— Anand Giridharadas (@AnandWrites) April 1, 2016
New York Times staffer and author of The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas Anand Giridharadas posted the above to Twitter this morning.
You never want to ascribe too much meaning to a single point, especially one made on Morning Joe, but the implications here are not only pretty clear, but pretty striking, particularly on the Republican side. Of course conservatives think things were better 50 years (or 100 years ago, or 25 years ago, depending on the personality and age of the person in question). That's pretty much the definition of conservatism, isn't it? That it "stands athwart history, yelling Stop," or at least begging, Slow Down.
So it's not surprising that supporters of the two candidates who inveigh against political correctness, want to make the country more homogenous by kicking out (mostly Mexican) illegals and stop immigration more broadly, and invoke American Greatness like they're being paid by the mention are fonder of the past than the present.
More interesting to me are the barely optimistic responses by supporters of Sanders and Clinton. Even they cannot muster much fun feelings about the present. Are they too young to remember 50 years ago or too senile not to remember? Either way, there is simply no reason to believe that life was better in 1966, despite an absolutely killer year in music (more on this in a moment).
To be fair, the presumption that those good old days were a) much better than today and b) gone for good is such a feature of the American psyche that it predates the founding of the country. The settlers in New England were convinced that things were going to shit about 15 minutes after docking at Plymouth Rock. By the late 1600s, pastors were already proposing "half-way covenants" to second-generation puritans who were drifting into secularism and a generation before the American Revolution we were already "sinners in the hands of an angry God."
Throughout the 1990s—those glorious, go-go years when even those of us who didn't become tech gazillionaires saw our wallets fatten up and our life possibilities expand geometrically!—Reason published a never-ending stream of rebuttals (like this and that) to people proclaiming the death of the American Dream and invoking that old, horseshit-covered chestnut that "this next generation may be the first to have a lower standard of living than its parents…"
So to me, what's most striking to the chart above isn't the spread between Trumpists and Clintonistas (though it is stunning, to be sure), it's that only a bare majority of the latter feel things are better now than they were 50 years ago.
In such a tepid response to the present, you see the failure not of America to deliver on the promise of a better, richer, freer life for those of us lucky enough to wash up on these shores before they are barricaded against foreign people and foreign goods (all the remaining Dem and GOP candidates are to varying degrees protectionist against both), but the failure of politics and the two major parties.
I don't mean to scant the authenticity of respondents and their feeling of despair, but c'mon already and get a grip. By orders of magnitude, we are all richer, smarter, and better off. We are more educated, we live longer, we smell better, we DIE LESS. In terms of lifestyle and speech, we are freer to express ourselves; we are objectively less racist, homophobic, sexist, and generally uptight. There are many serious problems in today's world and this country: We document those several times an hour at Reason.com, in fact, and offer ways to remedy many of them.
As Matt Welch and I argued in The Declaration of Independents, in most aspects of our lives—our personal lives, cultural lives, work lives—things are in fact improving. It's in the areas of our lives governed by politics that things are stagnant, declining, or barely improving. The only large parts of our lives that haven't gotten obviously better over the past 50 years include areas like K-12 education (where we spend about 2.5 times as much money to achieve exactly the same results), government spending (the government spends vastly more money per person and is succeeding mostly only in bankrupting future generations via old-age entitlements and dampened economic growth), and foreign policy (in 1966, we were in Vietnam; in 2016, we're everywhere but Vietnam).
You leave the hothouse sphere of politics—harder and harder to do, for all sorts of reasons—and most people suffer not from too few choices and opportunities but too many. That's where our lives should be lived, far away from the madding crowd filled Team Blue and Team Red tribalists who vote on what kind of food we can eat, dope we can smoke, sex we can have. Party identification is "at or near historic lows" not because America has failed but because politics and politicians and partisanship have failed. Once we fully understand, accept, and act on this and create a government that is smaller, more effective, and less intrusive, who knows? We might actually start realizing that the present beats the past but pales in comparison to our future.