After months of ruminating on the thoughts of various pundits, partisans and political scientists about what motivates the Tea Party movement – Is it political or spiritual, racist or classist, inspirationally patriotic or childishly petulant, xenophobic or just Barack-naphobic? – I may have stumbled onto an overlooked, or at least neglected, factor: It’s nostalgic.

This flash of insight, if that’s what it is, came by way of an unexpected source, a forwarded email of the sort I get every month or so from an acquaintance who’s my age.  It wasn’t political, not overtly anyway, and it was as innocuous in intent as a vanilla milk shake at the Frosty Treat.

“I have no idea who put this together,” my childhood neighbor prefaced the email he passed along, “but it’s wonderful!!!”

What followed was a series of images from the 1950s, many of them doctored to a picture-postcard heavenly-ness: A filling station with a two-toned ’55 Chevy parked by its plump, friendly pumps. A gaggle of 12-year-old boys in jeans and plaid shirts playing sandlot baseball without an adult in sight. A milkman making a home delivery. A rotary telephone. An S&H Green Stamp store.  Good ol’ Howdy Doody, the original “Cowabunga” kid, in his wooden, freckled glory.

Underneath the photos were captions reminding email recipients of a time when “navels were oranges, and Peyton Place was porn,” when “only girls wore earrings, and three was one too many,”  when “gay meant fancy-free,” and when “We’d never heard of microwaves, or telephone in cars, and babies might be bottle-fed but they were not grown in jars.”

“If you didn’t grow up in the ‘50s,” it concluded, “you missed the greatest time in history.”

Having done a goodly portion of my growing up in that era, having played endless hours of unsupervised baseball (and football and dodge ball and kick-the-can), having watched the Doodyville gang religiously on a black-and-white Philco and chugged many a mug of whole milk with a Twinkie chaser, I would be lying if I said I didn’t remember the 1950s  as a pretty special time, a time of innocence and promise. Our country, relatively unscathed by World War II, was booming.  Wages for blue-collar workers like my father were inching up, and expectations, brought so low by the Depression and wartime rationing, were still modest. It was an unusual, seductive blip in time.

I also feel honor-bound to add that being white and male probably made those times seem even better — not that I was aware of my advantages or, for that matter, that the world had ever been any different. What was, was, and I didn’t question it.

Is it any wonder then that the biggest component of the Tea Party movement is middle-aged, white men,  baby boomers who grew up in that seemingly charmed era?

When Tea Party activists – or their emerging spokesman, Glenn Beck, who fittingly bears a resemblance to emotional, tearburst-prone ‘50s pop singer Johnny Ray – talk about wanting to “take America back,”  critics and political opponents usually assume they mean they want to tear the country away from the cold, socialistic fingers of misguided Democrats and welfare mothers, Muslims and illegal Mexicans. And they’re probably right about some people in the movement. But having read that emailed ode to “the greatest time in history,” I won’t be able to hear that phrase any more without thinking that a lot of Tea Party members and supporters, even if they don’t fully realize it, really want to take the country back in time, back to when their lives, in reality or in memory, were simpler, more orderly, more certain.

The thing is, though, taking it back is not an option. Our country is no more going to return to those idealized days of yesteryear than the Crest with Communist-inserted fluoride is going to snake its way back into the tube.  History doesn’t work that way. It may retreat from progress for a while, but over the long haul, it doesn’t backtrack.

That said, I would never deny that we have lost something. While the ‘50s weren’t anywhere near as innocent as rose-colored hindsight makes them seem, there’s no crime in missing an era when it wasn’t as necessary to lock your front door or when teen gangs weren’t armed with assault weapons and we didn’t have to worry about pedophile predators on the Internet.

But it’s crucial to acknowledge that we’ve also gained plenty since those days, especially if the definition of “we” is expanded to include people who’ve seen their rights and freedom of self-expression increase. All things considered, we’re a safer, more tolerant, open society than we were at the peak of the 1950s, those fabled  “Happy Days.”

And speaking of which, was that the Fonz I saw on the news the other night, rallying with a sign that said, “BUILD THE FENCE”?


Noel Holston

Noel Holston

Noel Holston, originally from Laurel, Miss., is a freelance journalist, songwriter, storyteller and actor who lives in Athens, Ga., with his wife, singer-songwriter Marty Winkler. In a previous life, he was the TV critic at Newsday in New York and, before that, a critic and feature writer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Orlando Sentinel.