AMSTERDAM — A specter is haunting the affluent societies of the West. Across the rich countries, and across the political spectrum, there is an unstated but palpable longing for a return to the 1950s.
This ’50s nostalgia takes different forms on the left and on the right. For progressives, the backward-looking wish is for the shared and growing prosperity when unions thrived and could enforce a relatively egalitarian social contract. Democrats in the United States and Social and Christian Democrats in Europe created systems of social insurance — they were more robust in Western Europe — that were largely endorsed by political conservatives.
On the right, ’50s nostalgia takes the form of a quest for order, social homogeneity, religious faith — or, at the least, public respect for traditional values — and strong families, sometimes defined as a return to old gender roles and a less adventurous approach to sexuality.
Neither side fully acknowledges its own nostalgia, partly because everyone wants their 1950s a la carte. The left, for example, will not brook any retreat from gender, racial or ethnic equality, any abridgement of sexual freedom or civil rights, any re-imposition of cultural conformity. The right wants no revival of inhibitions on the rambunctiousness of liberated economies and hails the decline of unions and their capacity to get in the way of labor-market dynamism.
And nostalgia for the 1950s can also split the left and the right, or create a kind of political schizophrenia. Globalization, for example, is often applauded by the left for obliterating nationalism and giving rise to an expansive and less parochial consciousness. Yet the left can also disdain the power that globalization confers on multinational corporations and the way it undercuts the bargaining clout of workers who must now compete with each other across national boundaries.
The right, particularly the more economically libertarian in its ranks, likes the way globalization diminishes the ability of national governments to enforce rules, taxes and bureaucratic inhibitions on the market. Yet many traditional conservatives dislike the free flows of immigration that globalization has let loose. They long for a firmer sense of national identity, and the kind of solidarity more homogenous societies can foster.