In it for the long haul.

Photographer: Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/AFP/Getty Images

The Politics of Nostalgia Are Here to Stay

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg View. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a national affairs writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.
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A hankering for a past in which white supremacy and overt sexism were accepted features of daily life has made Donald Trump the most toxic presidential candidate since George Wallace. But the politics of nostalgia, which he embodies and advances, isn't a new package; Trump has simply wrapped it in barbed wire. And even if his campaign ends up short of the White House, nostalgia could still have a long political run.

The most profound demographic change in America is surely the rapid progression, fueled by immigration, to a nonwhite majority sometime near the middle of this century. That single fact explains much of U.S. politics right now, as Republicans seek to restrict (nonwhite) immigration and make it more difficult (for nonwhites) to vote while their nominee for president makes blatantly racial appeals for votes. 

There is, however, a second demographic wave not so much sweeping the nation as lapping at the shores of its retirement communities. Like Europeans and Japanese, Americans are getting older. And old people often like things the way they used to be. On a Chicago street corner, citizens hand out fliers demanding the return of their beloved, defunct Marshall Field's department store. The famed Wall Drugs in South Dakota entices travelers with the promise of a 5-cent cup of coffee -- just like the old days. 

Older Americans aren't just living longer; they continue to vote far more consistently, especially in midterm elections, than younger voters.

Brookings Institution demographer William Frey wrote earlier this year that baby boomers from 52 to 70 will make up more than a third of the electorate this November. And they're not fading very fast.

"In 2024, the entire Boomer generation will be ages 60 to 78, and will still be responsible for a projected 31 percent of all votes to be cast," Frey wrote. Americans who are 70 to 79 years old will increase by more than 50 percent during the next decade, and by more than 80 percent by 2035, according to Frey.

In presidential elections from 2004 to 2012, the Republican candidate won voters ages 65 and over by margins ranging from 8 points to 12 points, even as Republican candidates proposed curtailing Social Security and Medicare. A Pew Research survey last month showed Hillary Clinton dominating the contest among voters 49 and under, and Trump winning older voters, leading Clinton by 8 points, 47-38, among those 65 and older.  

The Republican Party was significantly dedicated to cultural nostalgia (and tax cuts for rich people) even before Trump came along. Ronald Reagan, the oldest man to serve in the White House, has been the text guiding Republican originalists for more than three decades. Yet there is nothing in the Reagan marginalia about how a culturally conservative, older, white party finesses a transition to youthful diversity.

The easiest route, as the Trump nomination confirms, is simply to stick with an aging, all-white coalition and pretend the 21st century took a wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Though this strategy seems surprisingly resilient at the moment, it looks to be a last stand, as Ronald Brownstein wrote in the Atlantic last week.  

It’s unlikely any future candidate will articulate their grievances as unreservedly as Trump. And it will only grow harder to construct a winning electoral coalition around his blue-collar base: although Census surveys show non-college educated whites as a larger share of all voters than media exit polls do, both sources show them declining on average by about three percentage points in each election since 1992. The minority and college-educated white voters most repelled by Trump’s insular message are inexorably filling the gap.

But replacing that shrinking coalition with a growing one may require changing more than GOP policies. Also at stake is the party's entire mythology about who is deserving of society's blessings and why. What happens when Republicans tell the racially resentful white males whom they have so assiduously cultivated that they're not actually the chosen people? Opportunistic conservatives -- or the occasional rogue wave such as Trump -- will find profit in telling the aggrieved that their claims on the national consciousness and identity remain exclusive.

Although Americans are growing more racially diverse as they age, whites will dominate the ranks of oldsters for decades to come. Maybe they won't have the clout to power candidates to the White House. But their nostalgia, in political forms both malignant and benign, is here to stay.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Francis Wilkinson at fwilkinson1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Katy Roberts at kroberts29@bloomberg.net