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The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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- Contains 9 key ideas
Evil Geniuses (2020) describes the rise of the economic right after the 1960s and the consequences of their policies today. From Milton Friedman to Ronald Reagan, it looks at the significance of some of the right’s central figures while also sketching a broader narrative that explains how the US has ended up as it has today.
Key idea 1 of 9
Since the end of the twentieth century, America has become more nostalgic – and stagnant.
America was once the land of tomorrow. Leaving the old monarchies and traditions of Europe behind, it looked toward new horizons. New religions, new inventions, and new enterprises all flourished.
The twentieth century brought radical change, too – think space travel, rock and roll, and the civil rights movement. But sometime at the end of the last century, this drive toward modernity began to slow down.
The key message here is: Since the end of the twentieth century, America has become more nostalgic – and stagnant.
Author Kurt Andersen first noticed this in 2007, when he came across a newspaper photograph from twenty years earlier. The photo showed some stylish-looking people standing around on a US city street. Studying their clothes and hairstyles, he noticed how similar they looked to people in 2007.
This led him to something of an epiphany. Looking at cars, fashion, music, and design in 2007, he realized how little things had fundamentally changed since 1987. Aside from mobile phones or computers, there was very little in 2007 that looked or sounded new.
By contrast, the twentieth century ushered in one radically new cultural era after another. Just think of the dramatic transition from 1955 to 1965 – the freedom-fueled music and fashion of the 1960s were worlds apart from the conservative norms of the 1950s. So what happened?
Well, quite simply, America has abandoned the new and embraced nostalgia. This turn toward nostalgia began as early as the 1970s. Just after the radical changes of the 1960s, a great chunk of the American public started to quietly long for the past – or, more accurately, an imagined past, where everything felt more familiar and stable.
This could be seen in the mass popularity of movies and TV shows of the period, like Grease, American Graffiti, and Happy Days, which were all set in idealized versions of the 1950s and early ’60s.
This desire for nostalgia in the US hasn’t slowed as we’ve moved further into the twenty-first century. Aside from technological advances, cultural change seems to be at a standstill. Fashion, music, and design are still repeating styles from different periods in the twentieth century. Retro is cool.
Why does this matter? Well, it reflects a broader impasse that goes way beyond fashion or music. It tells us that America is stuck in a time warp, both politically and economically. And with the problems the country faces, like inequality and climate change, it simply can’t afford to look backward.