The 100-mile view
How nostalgia infects politics, obscures choices
By Rick Holmes
July 7, 2017
It was a stormy summer afternoon, and Hogback Mountain was enshrouded in fog.
The sign on the long-closed restaurant advertised “100 Mile View,” but on that day no one could see more than 10 feet. I stopped at the overlook anyway, and stared into the fog.
Just before pulling away, I saw a sticker on the guardrail. “I Miss America,” it said, on an outline of the USA.
That sign has haunted me in the weeks since. Who put it there? Does it date from the Obama administration, expressing some “take-back-America” sentiment? Or is it of a more recent vintage, a cry of liberal angst over the election of Trump? Is it about politics or something deeper?
What is it about America that the person behind the sticker misses, I wondered. What is it we miss about America? I’ve got my list, and I bet you’ve got yours.
I miss seeing kids playing pick-up games at the park during summer vacation. I miss the days when we didn’t let “stranger danger” ruin childhood.
I miss elections where candidates tried to appeal to the center, not just fire up the base.
I miss the America that had a functioning Congress, where decisions were made, deals were struck and leaders treated each other with respect.
I miss an America where everything wasn’t turned into an over-hyped controversy, where people, media and parties didn’t find so much profit in driving us apart.
I miss a time when the American president was the leader of the free world, when America was respected by other nations, in part because we stood for something besides self-interest.
I miss the America where schools taught grammar, civics and the proper use of the word literally.
I miss the America where facts were facts, authority figures had authority and where science and expertise counted for something.
I miss civility. I miss the days when politicians would pay a price for crudeness at the polls and when kids in public places knew better than to drop f-bombs in front of old people and young children.
Other people miss the time when you didn’t have to press “1” to speak English, when people weren’t so quick to take offense at an off-color joke, when you could light up a cigarette pretty much anywhere you liked.
A lot of us miss the days when Americans were united, when neighborhoods and the country felt we were all in this together. “If the three musketeers were with us today,” a friend told me, “their motto would be “all for one and all for one.”
Oh, how we miss the good old days. That’s what makes nostalgia such a potent ingredient in politics. That’s why slogans like “Make America Great Again” have so much appeal.
One thing I’ve noticed about the good old days: Ask people when those halcyon days were, and they’ll usually cite the decade when they were young. There’s a reason the good old days tends to coincide with childhood. We were kids back then, blissfully ignorant of the problems of the adult world.
Take the 1950s, the decade when the boomers were kids. No decade has lasted so long in the public imagination as the good old days. That’s when America was innocent and full of possibility (like those boomer children) and united. At least that’s how things seemed in the family sitcoms that have come to define that era. For lots of real-life American adults, things weren’t nearly so rosy.
Another thing about the good old days is they really weren’t so good. Reliable statistics show the streets are much safer today than when most of us were growing up. Religious and ethnic tension and discrimination against minorities have been more the rule than the exception throughout our history. Vicious, partisan media coverage is nothing new.
But some of the things we miss about America are worth enumerating, studying and debating. If there’s a way to restore real things that have been lost – economic mobility, manufacturing jobs or civics education, say – let’s talk about the policies that might bring them back.
The 100-mile view of America shows more than nostalgia for times that maybe never were. It shows the distance traveled, and how far we have to go. It shows the choices yet to be made and, if only the political fog would lift, the road to a better place.
After all, the question isn’t what we miss from the past. It’s what we wish for the future.