Martin: Political nostalgia - the good old days

Martin: Political nostalgia - the good old days

January 14th, 2014 by David Martin in Opinion Columns

Few things bother me more than my athletic limitations. No lie: There was once a time when my physical prowess included more impressive feats than walking and chewing gum at the same time. Sadly though, those days are far behind me.

The greatest exercises in frustration for me are my random attempts at playing basketball. I'm getting worse by the week. On days when my game is particularly bad, I comfort myself by reminiscing about my high school glory days. Okay, "glory days" might be a stretch, but whatever.

After a recent showcasing of my athletic incompetence, I came across an article in the Scientific American that had me laughing at myself. Last year, Clay Routledge of North Dakota State University published a study called "A New Science of Nostalgia," which aimed to "offer a new perspective on this old emotion." Of his many findings, none rang more true to me than this one: "Nostalgia allows people to use experiences from the past," (memories of being able to hit jump shots regularly) "to help cope with challenges in the present," (my aching back and falling self-esteem).

While that passage helped put some context around my weakened sports psyche, the rest of the article contained numerous observations that brought politics to mind.

Since 2008, there has been a noticeable increase in the popularity of retro GOP apparel and memorabilia amongst conservatives. The Ronald Reagan era seems to get the bulk of the spotlight -- I've seen everything from Reagan/Bush T-shirts to "Party like it's 1980!" drink koozies. And while the general trendiness of all things vintage may drive a portion of consumers to this swag, I think we can apply Routledge's science to examine why it has grown so prevalent.

Let's be honest. After the 2008 elections, the Republican Party was in really rough shape nationally. We all remember the conversations about the looming death of the GOP. That's when I started seeing Republican yesteryear garb all over the place.

Banished to the political margins, conservatives turned to memories of their glory days as a soothing balm. One of nostalgia's psychological benefits, Routledge says, is that it "reminds people that they are loved and valued" and that it "boosts positive self-regard and promotes the feeling that life is full of meaning and purpose."

To an entire party that was in the corner licking its wounds, nostalgia was a helpful dose of medicine. Ah, yes, the 1980s. When Republicans ruled the roost, conservative concepts like trickle-down economics were popular and many Democrats voted Republican. Like me thinking back to when I could actually hit a free throw, right-wingers convinced themselves of their worth by remembering healthier days.

But nostalgia isn't just about the rearview mirror. Routledge points out that it also "makes people feel energized, inspired, and optimistic about the future." In short, those fond memories can also encourage the disheartened that they can reclaim those past glories.

That's probably why I keep making a fool out of myself on the basketball court, and it's also a big factor leading to increased drive on the right. Thanks to that energy, as well as the inept and increasingly unpopular Obama administration, it isn't too far-fetched to think the GOP can gain the triple crown by 2016. Yes, it'll take some serious cosmic alignment. But it's possible that while retaining House control, conservatives can pick up a slim margin in the Senate -- they'll almost surely close the gap, at least -- and reclaim the Oval Office.

I'm curious to see if this nostalgia-fueled resurgence can yield election results more successful than my shooting percentage, but in the meantime I think I'm going to start a T-shirt business. Only time will tell, though, whether my first run of shirts will feature the Reagan/Bush or Clinton/Gore ticket.

A civic engagement advocate and history teacher, David Allen Martin writes from Chattanooga.