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Longing, Nostalgia, and Golden Age Politics: The American Jeremiad and the Power of the Past

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  12 February 2009

Andrew R. Murphy
Affiliation:
Rutgers University—New Brunswick. E-mail: armurphy@polisci.rutgers.edu

Abstract

I assess several politically powerful ways of drawing on the past in the search for solutions to problems in the present. To probe these dynamics, I turn to the American jeremiad, a longstanding form of political rhetoric that explicitly invokes the past and laments the nation's falling-away from its virtuous foundations. I begin by focusing on the Christian Right's traditionalist jeremiad, which offers both nostalgic and Golden Age rhetoric in its assessment of the United States' imperiled national promise. I argue that, despite differences in the historical location of their ideals and the significant rhetorical power that they bring to political life, such nostalgic and Golden Age narratives represent a constraining political ideal, one ultimately incapable of doing justice to an increasingly diverse American society. I argue furthermore that there is another strand of the American jeremiad and conclude by sketching a different way of drawing on the past, a progressive jeremiad epitomized by the thought of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Such a jeremiad is also deeply rooted in the American tradition and offers a far more promising contribution to a diverse and pluralistic American future.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © American Political Science Association 2009

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