The Politics of Nostalgia

Richard Tanne's Southside With You, a compelling cinematic depiction of the first date of Barack and Michelle Obama (played brilliantly by Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter), is on one hand a smart romance in the vein of Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise trilogy or James Ponsoldt's The Spectacular Now. It's a quiet, simple love story that captures the innocence, awkwardness and impermanence of the early days of relationships. Southside is a snapshot of a couple of lawyers in 1989 Chicago who two decades later would be ruling the free world in the White House. That's the obvious hindsight angle that makes the film interesting as narration of a particular moment in history. There are also important lenses of race that make the film decidedly relevant as a commentary on where we were and where we are in America on that front. Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing makes an important cameo in the film and black identity is front and center.

But I also think Southside is a piece of political nostalgia, an homage to a more innocent and purer form of politics, especially in light of the nasty, jaded, apocalyptic state of politics in 2016. Southside is as much about exploring the nascent political passions of Barack and Michelle as it is about capturing their romantic attraction to one another. Tanne does a brilliant job infusing bits of background, personality and ideology into these characters (even a passing mention of religion), providing glimpses of what ultimately inspired them to enter politics.

The idealism of Southside's Obama-era political reminiscence (epitomized in a community organizing scene where young Barack flexes his impressive rhetorical muscles to rally a crowd around the politics of common good compromise rather than zero sum aggrievement) is a good example of what Yuval Levin describes in The Fractured Republic as the "exceedingly nostalgic" political life of contemporary America. Levin's excellent book sees today's political gridlock and cultural malaise as byproducts of the "stranglehold of midcentury nostalgia on our common life."

Though Southside's nostalgia isn't based in midcentury America, it is an idealistic looking back nonetheless. Like so much of the political discourse and cultural artifacts of contemporary America, it opts not to grapple with present challenges as much as to pine for the glory days, or at least to temporarily retreat into an rosy conjuring of them.

In his book Levin situates political nostalgia within a broader cultural narrative in which the constant innovation and rapid cultural change of the 20th century has slowed in the 21st, where now "an extraordinary number of our most prominent cultural creations are homages to the experience of the past two generations."

Think of Stranger Things, for example. The show captured the most buzz of perhaps anything in American pop culture this summer, and yet its appeal is largely if not wholly derived from its recapturing of 80s pop culture in the vein of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King and Winona Ryder.

Meanwhile 8 of the top 10 films at the box office this summer, and 7 out of the top 10 grossing films of the 21st century, were either sequels or franchise films. From Fuller House to The Get Down, Narcos to The People vs. O.J. Simpson, Everybody Wants Some to The Nice Guys, everywhere you look it seems pop culture is finding inspiration more in the recent past than in the complicated present.

Levin observes that pop culture innovation is less dramatic as it was in the last century: "If you were shown photos of Americans on a city street in 1955, 1975, and 1995, you would have no trouble telling which was which. But distinguishing 1995 from 2015 by looking at clothing, art, music, or design would not be easy at all."

Why is this? Levin suggests the culprit is the expressive individualism and technology-amplified consumerism of our society, in which everything can be narrowcast and tailored to individual tastes and preferences:

"The solipsism inherent in our expressive individualism propels this culture of nostalgia: if everything is set up to give us what we want, it will all tend to give us what we already know, since our desires often just aren't very imaginative. Our culture as a whole will, like each of us, tend to become what it already is."

What is ironic about Southside is how perfectly it demonstrates the nostalgic whirlpool of our nation's arrested development in 2016 while simultaneously appealing to the notion of change as one of Obama's primary trademarks. Indeed, though Obama campaigned on change and carried a message of a new sort of politics, the reality of America in the Obama era has been one of unprecedented division, sluggish economic growth, and (above all) nostalgia for the past rather than hope in the future. That we have a "nostalgic for the early Obama" movie already, even while he is still in the White House, is case in point.

There is a lot of complexity to deal with in American today and much of it will require new models and new thinking. Yet we are stuck in the past. Some are dreaming of a vaguely "great again" America of yesteryear. Others are mournfully basking in the glow of the progressive promise of the young Obamas. Is there anyone who would take up the challenges of our world with truly forward-thinking gusto and outside-the-box innovation? I truly hope so.