With Trump out of office, Republicans would prefer life in the 1950s, survey shows

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Correction: A previous version of this story misstated when Social Security was passed into law and Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), the name of the organization that did the study.

Forget iPhones and the existence of the Dallas Cowboys.

A recent survey released by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that only 29 percent of Republicans say that American culture and way of life have changed for the better since the 1950s.

The number is a leap down from 2020 when 46 percent of Republicans said American culture and way of life had changed for the better since the 1950s, but is only two points off from what Republicans said in 2016, before Donald Trump was elected President.

“It is notable that Republicans have gone up in their views during the Trump administration at the end at the height of his presidency and just a year later they have dropped down to where they were when Trump was running for President back in 2016,” said Robert P. Jones, the founder of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of "The End of White Christian America".

“Clearly they thought Trump was taking it back to a version more consistent to the vision of the country that was more consistent with the 1950s.”

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The 'golden age' for white, Christian America

Politically, culturally and demographically white, protestant Christians did hold the most sway in American culture and way of life, Jones pointed out. And, of course, over time that’s changed but the nostalgia for those who reflected that demographic continued to grow. Jones pointed to a quote from his book, "The End of White Christian America."

"In its heyday, a set of linked institutions reinforced White Christian America’s worldview across generations: the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), the Boy Scouts, the Masonic Lodge, and the local country club with limits or even outright bans on membership for Catholics, Jews, and ethnic minorities,” he wrote.

"White, Christian America had its golden age in the 1950s, after the hardships and victories of World War II and before the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. June Cleaver was its mother, Andy Griffith was its sheriff, Norman Rockwell was its artist, and Billy Graham and Norman Vincent Peale were its ministers.”

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Northwestern University professor Kevin Boyle said one thing that was striking to him about the survey results is that “presumably huge numbers of Republicans who answered the question didn’t live in the 1950s.”

But for a certain portion of the population, he said, life was pretty good especially in the latter half of the decade.

“It was a really positive time because what it reflected was their values, their sense of how the world should look, a strong sense of stability and security that they had never had before,” he said. “So for the white middle class, for the upper end of the white working class, there were a lot of things that were positive of the 1950s.”

Paul Croce, a professor at Stetson University, said a lot of the allure of the 1950s was that there was a spirit of cooperation in politics and across communities, trust in institutions and each other and an economic boom, which garners a lot of nostalgia.

A 'stability' built on unquestioned power dynamics

But even that, he says, keep in mind wasn't perfect.

In this 1950's photo released by the National Archives, a black man included in a syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala. For 40 years starting in 1932, medical workers in the segregated South withheld treatment for unsuspecting men infected with a sexually transmitted disease simply so doctors could track the ravages of the horrid illness and dissect their bodies afterward. Finally exposed in 1972, the study ended and the men sued, resulting in a $9 million settlement.

"While, yes, these were positive things, they were built on unquestioned power relations," he said. "You are trusting that pastor, that businessman and that politician and you're deferring to their power and you had a society where it took a Civil Rights movement to start in this period. They were just beginning to ask questions like maybe it isn't a good idea to have second-class citizenship for different races."

As a historian, he said, he looks back at the spirit of cooperation, trust and economic boom as something "built right on top of some things that weren't too pretty."

Minorities - particularly Blacks - and women also faced discrimination. The poverty rate for Blacks was 50 percent, according to Boyle. Jim Crow laws still existed in the South and the north was segregated by a number of other forces.

And of course, everything even for the privileged class wasn’t perfect, Boyle points out. Not only did their sense of security rest on racial exclusion and discrimination but it also rested on America building up its military and the memory of a world war that killed 60 million people.

At the end of the 1950s, more than 15% of residents in seven southern states plus Hawaii had completed less than five years of elementary school, this graphic from the 1960 U.S. Census shows.
At the end of the 1950s, more than 15% of residents in seven southern states plus Hawaii had completed less than five years of elementary school, this graphic from the 1960 U.S. Census shows.

“It rested on racial exclusion but it also rests on the economic benefits that came from a giant military state that made the world unsafe,” he said. “That made peoples’ worlds unsafe.”

Sixty three percent of Democrats who participated in the survey think American culture and way of life has changed for the better, which is about the same as it was in 2020.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: American unhappiness: Republicans prefer life in 1950s, survey shows