Can the GOP Escape From 1955?

Stu McKay, 19, left, Andrew Hornsby, 20, and Taylor Wright, 19, all with the college group Young Americans for Freedom, rolling posters of Ronald Reagan while attending the 40th annual CPAC in National Harbor, MD, March 15, 2013. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

In his new biography of Roger Ailes, Zev Chafets writes that Ailes longs for America when it was “its natural, best self, which he locates, with modest social amendments, somewhere in midwestern America circa 1955.” Chafets does not say what those modest social amendments might be, but it got me thinking about the nature of conservative nostalgia.

Mitt Romney lost in part because his was a vision of Father Knows Best America in a time of Modern Family. Romney, by all accounts a devoted family man, could not seem to wrap his mind around the reality that families today come in a vast variety of configurations. His views on gay rights, women’s rights, and immigration (on which even Newt Gingrich accused him of wanting to divide families by deporting grandmothers who have lived here for decades) seemed hopelessly out of touch rather than charmingly retro. Meanwhile, Barack Obama cruised to reelection on a one-word slogan: Forward.

The Republican National Committee has, commendably, performed an autopsy on the carcass of its 2012 campaign. To its credit, the GOP seems to recognize that it doesn’t just need to moderate, it needs to modernize. You know a party is in trouble when its “celebrities” are has-beens like Hank Williams Jr., Charlie Daniels, and Ted Nugent (who, to be fair, had a big hit—in 1977). As the authors of the GOP report put it: “At our core, Republicans have comfortably remained the Party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next. Ronald Reagan is a Republican hero and role model who was first elected 33 years ago—meaning no one under the age of 51 today was old enough to vote for Reagan when he first ran for President. Our Party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones. We sound increasingly out of touch.”

The far right howled when the autopsy was released. No shock there. Did you really think people who deny evolution are going to adapt? The report shines a light on what so many Republican politicians refuse to see: a bridge to the past is a bridge to nowhere. Back in 2008, Sarah Palin—an expert on bridges to nowhere—paraphrased Ronald Reagan: “We’re going to find ourselves spending our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children about a time in America, back in the day, when men and women were free.” Of course, what she was referencing was Reagan’s 1961 speech opposing the creation of Medicare. Well, a baby born the day Reagan gave that speech would be in her 50s today. And Medicare has been on the books for 47 years. Is that 50-something a serf because her father has a Medicare-provided pacemaker? Is her mother enslaved by the free annual mammograms provided by Obamacare?

To be a conservative today is to fear tomorrow. But most Americans don’t want to go back to 1955. There was no Medicare—and one in four seniors were impoverished. There was no integration in the South—and Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi. Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of a bus. There were no oral contraceptives, much less abortion rights. The Supreme Court was 100 percent male, 100 percent white. The Senate was 100 percent white and 99 percent male. There were some good things that happened in 1955: rock and roll is generally thought to have been born that year, with Bill Haley and His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock”; the Salk vaccine was approved; and Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California.

Of course, I rather doubt Roger Ailes would like to pay 1955’s top marginal tax rate of 91 percent. I also doubt that my right-wing friends would like to see the labor movement return to its 1955 strength. The AFL and the CIO merged in 1955, and membership in unions was about 300 percent higher than it is today.

Seems to me a few things were better, many things were worse. I was not yet born, but I don’t think I’d trade our messy, imperfect, Obama-led democracy today for Mr. Ailes’s supposedly halcyon days of 1955. The truth is, as Carly Simon said back when I was young: “These are the good old days.”