Here is a blast from the not-so-distant past: the Republican president speaks the day after the Democrats win a bitterly contested presidential election.
Take it away, George W.:
No matter how they cast their ballots, all Americans can be proud of the history that was made yesterday across the country. Citizens voted in large numbers. They showed a watching world the vitality of America’s democracy, and the strides we have made toward a more perfect union…
It will be a stirring sight to watch President Obama, his wife Michelle and their beautiful girls step through the doors of the White House. I know millions of Americans will be overcome with pride at this inspiring moment that so many have waited so long for.
Yes, your eyes and ears do not deceive you. That was the same universe as the one we inhabit right now.
Perspective, especially historical perspective, is everything. Remember that when you recall how history — all history — is written retrospectively.
* * *
George W. Bush was a controversial figure in his own time, frequently vilified for being shallow, his hawkishness feared, his man-child gaffes laughed at as the mark of an idiot. His opponents saw him as a puppet of the conservative right, a patsy propped up by Fox News propaganda and its orbiting echo chamber of shock jocks. Internationally, he was viewed as a bumbler, a mere caricature of a politician.
Here was a man whose elevation to the US presidency signalled something scary about the decline of politics itself, quite possibly the worst president the country ever had — or could ever have.
And yet look. Compare George W. Bush’s 2008 morning-after speech to the slow car crash that is unfolding in America right now.
Perhaps the old days were great after all.
* * *
But of course, we need to be careful when evaluating the past. According to psychologists, there is an ever-present danger of postive hindsight bias. (Actually, let’s not give psychologists all the credit. The ancient Romans warned against it too. “Memoria praeteritorum bonorum,” they cautioned. “The past is always well remembered .”)
In short, “rosy retrospection” makes us all prone to nostalgic thinking. We have an innate habit of glossing over past travails and accentuating our history’s more positive aspects. It is an evolved coping skill, a means to preserve self-esteem in the face of our inevitable mortality, a way of coping with life’s slings and arrows.
This cognitive bias toward nostalgia is often exploited by marketers, manipulators, and politicians. The good old days are invoked as an ipso facto case for vintage thinking. “Make America Great Again” was a successful political slogan precisely because it resonated with this universal instinct to view the past as a better place. It both affirmed and tantalised, endorsing dissatisfaction with the here-and-now while offering vague promises of restoration.
However, while it is always wise to be wary of rose-tinted historiography, we should also guard against over-compensation. Just because we are biased to do down the present does not mean everything today is better than it was before. Presuming the present to be inherently preferable can be just as much of a logical fallacy.
Some processes — climate change, for example — really do deteriorate with time. Societal cohesion could very well be another.
Belief in declinism is not simply a political bias; dismissing it as such, however, often precisely is.
* * *
You thought Donald Trump was bad? Be careful about that. You haven’t seen what comes next. As hard as it might be to believe right now, you may well end up pining for the Donald one day.
Kids in cages might not actually be as bad as it gets.
History moves forward as well as back. It is best considered, and learned from, in both directions.
Brian Hughes is an academic psychologist and university professor in Galway, Ireland, specialising in stress, health, and the application of psychology to social issues. He writes widely on the psychology of empiricism and of empirically disputable claims, especially as they pertain to science, health, medicine, and politics.