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Personal Growth

The Myth of ‘Returning’ to American Greatness

Liberals and conservatives unite when thinking of America’s Golden Age — a fictionalized time whose history we constantly rewrite. 

During his announcement for a 2016 presidential run — the packed room apparently filled in by actors paid in cash — Donald Trump referenced his campaign slogan: Make America Great Again. While I have little faith the man will officially file to run for the presidency, his sentiment has been echoed by every candidate rushing toward next November, left, right, and center. 

While Americans of my generation often pay lip service to such a return, the idea of a “golden age,” or, more exclusively in this country, “manifest destiny,” resides as much in the past as it does in the future. This is not in any way an American invention, however. Cultures worldwide have long yearned for an era that never really existed.

In his classic work on the topic, Myth of the Eternal Return, religious historian Mircea Eliade discusses this psychological craving:

The crude product of nature, the object fashioned by the industry of man, acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality. The gesture acquires meaning, reality, solely to the extent to which it repeats a primordial act. 

America’s primordial act is its founding myth: one nation, indivisible, in which every citizen is afforded the same opportunity of living the dream, i.e., fulfilling their destiny — a good job, family, house, economic security. Work hard and prosper. God promised it.

As we stare into an uncertain future, a previous Eden beckons, a notion at the foundation of many religious traditions. In Christianity, it goes down in a garden; in India, it’s decided in ages. Today we’re living in the Kali Yuga (age of vice), the worst of all; all we can do is bide our time until the Satya Yuga (era of truth) returns.

Past is always prelude to a better existence. There was once a perfect time, but it’s not now. It’s easy to understand why politicians would exploit such a desire when positioning their brand of politics as an imagined catalyst for transformation. If they’re perceived as a leader of that charge, your vote is guaranteed.

I’m not surprised when a Trump waxes poetic about the past. America has to suck right now for him to make it better. Yet I see this idea presented in numerous situations, “better days” always aligning with the desires of whoever is pontificating at the moment.

In the past week, I’ve noticed at least three examples:

  1. The Charleston shooting. Nine African-Americans shot dead in a church by a white racist. I read that we “need to get back to where we were” in terms of racial relations.
  2. Minimum wage increase. A national push for a $15/hour minimum wage. Attached to the plea is the tagline “we need to take our power back.”
  3. Lesbian Yogurt. One Million Moms, a chapter of the American Family Association, is angry at Greek yogurt company Chobani for creating an ad that features two lesbians sharing a bed. They want American sexual values to “return” to better days.
  4. I was born in 1975. Given that shortly before my birth African-Americans and women were not equal citizens makes numbers one and three moot points. How could there have been a “golden age” when most of the population was barely considered to be human beings?

    As for number two, minimum wage work has always been challenging. I’m hard put to find any era in America where the common worker had power. Given the number of blue-collar jobs that will be lost thanks to automation and technological innovation, the future does not look much better. Instead of facing what’s to come realistically, we offer religious escapism disguised as hope: things were good, once, but we’ve gone astray. We’ll get back to where we were.

    Progress is wonderful, and, truth be told, we’re making a lot of it. The outpouring of grief and sadness regarding the Charleston murders far outweighs indifference, which would not have been the case less than a century ago. Raising the minimum wage here in Los Angeles is having national repercussions. As for lesbian yogurt eaters, I’m pretty sure One Million Moms is really only three women with laptops and too much time anyway.

    Point being, we don’t need to imagine the past to see where we’re going. Looking backward stunts progress — creationism in schools anyone? Americans like to believe we move the world forward, and in many ways we do, at least in popular culture, social issues, and technology. Logic and the sciences are different stories. Our impact is softened when we longingly invent a history with no basis in facts.

    Anytime someone mentions bringing America back — liberal, conservative, or otherwise — be prepared for a sales pitch. What they’re saying is “I want my agenda to be reality.” As Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States:

    The historian’s distortion is more than technical; it is ideological; it is released into a world of contenting interests, where any chosen emphasis supports (whether the historian means to or not) some kind of interest, whether economic or political or racial or national or sexual.

    I would add spiritual to that list, for the notion of a perfect divine age precedes all others. In that yearning for a fictionalized time that isn’t now, we lose so much of who we are, unable to comprehend why things aren’t working out exactly how we want them to.

    Image:  Cheryl Casey /


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