The Good Old Days: Nostalgia’s Political Appeal

The evocation of a glorious past is a great way to make people feel good about themselves at a time when there is little to be cheerful about.
Hans-Georg Betz, Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, nostalgia in politics, populism and nostalgia, Narendra Modi populism, Recep Tayyip Erdogan populism, Viktor Orban populism, Donald Trump appeal to nostalgia, Sweden folkhemmet, radical-right populism appeal

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Donald Trump is gone, yet his specter continues to haunt American politics. The UK is no longer part of the European Union, yet Brexit continues to provoke emotions on both sides of the Channel. Both Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election and the outcome of the Brexit referendum of 2016 were driven by a range of widespread and profound emotions. One of the most prominent was nostalgia.

Nostalgia has been around for ages. The first one to recognize its significance was a Swiss doctor, Johannes Hofer. In 1688, Hofer coined the word — a compound derived from the Greek nostro, meaning “home,” and algos, meaning “pain” — to describe what he considered to be a medical malaise he detected among Swiss mercenary soldiers, expressed as a profound yearning for their home (what in German is called Heimweh — homesickness).

Hofer might have drawn inspiration from Homer’s Odyssey. Its hero, after spending seven years in the company of the sea nymph Calypso, felt compelled to return home. The longing to see his home was so overwhelming that he rejected Calypso’s offer to make him immortal if he stayed.

The Meaning of Nostalgia

Since Hofer’s times, the meaning of nostalgia has both substantially changed and significantly broadened. It is no longer associated with homesickness. Instead, in today’s parlance, nostalgia stands for “a sentimental longing for one’s past.” More specifically, nostalgia stands for a yearning for an idealized, lost past, a past more often than not seen through rose-tinted glasses. For a long time, nostalgia was seen as a pathology, reflecting the refusal to confront an unpleasant present and an even worse future.

In this view, the yearning for “an irretrievable past becomes a narcissistic illusion,” a “deflection from current unpleasant circumstances.” More recently, however, nostalgia is predominantly seen as a positive emotion, an effective coping mechanism in times of turmoil and crisis. In this case, nostalgia serves as “an important resource that helps people find meaning in life and regulate meaning-related distress.” In the face of tectonic demographic, technological and geopolitical changes, seeking comfort in a past where life was arguably simpler and easier to navigate is human, all too human. As Edoardo Campanella and Marta Dassu have put it, nostalgia “offers relief from socio-economic angst. Yesterday is associated with progress; tomorrow with stasis or regression.”  

This type of nostalgia — because nostalgia comes in different guises — reflects “an affective yearning for a community with a collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.” In this context, as Matthias Stephan has recently suggested, nostalgia represents “both a look back to an idealized past (whether real or imagined) and a hope that the romanticized past will become our future.”


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Here, nostalgia “inevitably reappears as a defense mechanism in a time of accelerated rhythms of life and historical upheavals.” The author of these lines, Svetlana Boym, characterized this iteration as “restorative nostalgia.” Against this, Boym sets what she called “reflective nostalgia.” Reflective nostalgia accepts the fact that the past is past, that it cannot be retrieved. As Hal McDonald has put it, “This acknowledgment of the irretrievability of our autobiographical past provides an aesthetic distance that allows us to enjoy a memory in the same way that we enjoy a movie or a good book.”

At the same time, it engenders a realistic, and perhaps even critical, view of the past. It is this constellation that makes nostalgia extremely political. In fact, because of its inherently binary nature, nostalgia is ideally suited to inform both progressive and reactionary politics.

Today, nostalgia is primarily evoked on the nationalist right. More often than not, this is a type of nostalgia that depends on the “disparagement of the present,” which Christopher Lasch once considered the “hallmark of the nostalgic attitude.” Feeling discombobulated by and disenchanted with the present, as well as uneasy about the future, a growing number of people feel tempted to go down the memory lane and retreat to the past where, as the German expression goes, the world was presumably still in order.

When the World Was in Order

On the nationalist right, it is particularly radical right-wing populist parties and actors that have drawn the greatest political benefit from the appeal to nostalgia. Donald’s Trump is a prominent case in point. His campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” implies that there was a time when the United States was still great, that today it no longer is, but that tomorrow it will be great again — as long as the people follow The Donald.

The promoters of Brexit played a similar tune. Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), holding up his new non-EU passport and triumphantly exclaiming, “We got our passports back!,” evoked a time when Great Britain still maintained the pretense to be a great power rather than one among 28 EU member states where it was not even primus inter pares. Once freed from the shackles of the EU, a once again completely sovereign Great Britain would regain its lost glory. Or, as Britain’s Secretary of Defense Gavin Williamson claimed in late 2018, once Britain was out of the European Union, it would become a “true global player,” establishing new military bases all over the world. As an article in the Financial Times from early 2016 put it, “Brexiters are Nostalgics in Search of a Lost Empire.”

Public opinion polls conducted a few months prior to the referendum provided ample evidence of the extent to which the British public glorified the country’s past. In early 2016, a YouGov poll found more than 40% of British respondents expressing pride in Britain’s colonial history; about the same number thought the British Empire had been a good thing. Only a fifth of respondents had a negative view. In a similar survey, two years earlier, around 50% of respondents thought that Britain’s former colonies were better off today because they had been part of the British Empire, while a third thought that it would be a good thing if Britain still had an empire. At the same, there were strong sentiments that Britain was in decline. In fact, some 80% of “leavers” shared that view in 2016.

Hardly surprising that, in the wake of the referendum, one of Britain’s leading tabloids, The Daily Star, called on its readers to “Make Britain Great Again!” Nostalgia, paired with mass delusion and a portion of righteous resentment, obviously paid handsome political dividends — at least for Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and their comrades in arms.

Similarly in the United States, Trump’s main slogan “Make America Great Again” appealed to widespread nostalgia, particularly among the country’s white majority. In September 2016, for instance, half of the respondents in the annual American Values Survey agreed with the statement that their country’s best days were “behind us.” A few months earlier, a Pew survey found more than 45% of respondents agreeing with the statement that compared to 50 years earlier, life for people like them had gotten worse.

Among Trump supporters, three out of four agreed with that statement. In a similar vein, one year earlier, around half of US respondents in a representative poll thought that “America’s best days” were in the past. At the same time, in 2016, more than 60% of Americans believed their children would be worse off than they were. This is also reflected in surveys that seek to gauge what Americans think about, for instance, the American dream — the notion that hard work will allow them to get ahead.

Most notably, these sentiments were particularly pronounced among America’s white population, far more than among African Americans, Hispanics and other minorities. Donald Trump, ever so tuned in to the grievances of white America, stoked the fire of white resentment, charging, at a town hall meeting in the fall of 2015, that “the American dream is in trouble,” only to add the promise that with him in the White House, “we will get it back.” To be sure, this was hardly original. Four years earlier, the Republican Platform already committed to “Restoring the American Dream.”

The Good Old Days

Conjuring up idealized images of the good old days is a crucial tool in the ideational repertoire of nativist and national-populist parties and actors. And for good reasons. For one, the evocation of nostalgic fantasies creates a sense of collective identity, community and a common purpose, all of them of central concern on the radical populist right. At the same time, in the hands of radical right-wing populists, nostalgia serves as an indirect indictment of the present, linked to an appeal to the notion that the best of the past could somehow replace the current situation.

Here, nostalgia represents what S. D. Chrostowska has called a “malaise of dissatisfaction with the present and the direction that present” has taken. The more profound and widespread collective disenchantment with the present happens to be, the more pronounced is the appeal of the past. An exemplary case in point is a sociological study from 2016 in Poland, whose authors explored the extent to which nostalgia for the communist period was prevalent among current-day Poles. The results were striking. They showed that people who felt they had been better off during that period than at present were much more nostalgic and had a significantly better opinion about the communist government than other respondents.

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Poland is hardly unique. The arguably best-known case of post-communist nostalgia is what in German is known as Ostalgie. Ostalgie entails a revaluation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — former East Germany — on the part of a substantial part of its population following reunification. To a large extent, this was in response to “the perceived threat of a West German depreciation of their life experiences.” Substantial numbers of citizens in the east had the feeling that they and their past were treated with condescension, if not outright disdain. Even 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the sentiment that easterners are second-class citizens finds widespread resonance in what once was the GDR. Ostalgie is all about a demand for recognition, dignity and respect rather than crude material interests. As sociologist Cecilia Ridgeway has noted, we tend to forget “how much people care about public acknowledgement of their worth.”

Yet they tend to “care about status quite as intensely as they do [about] money and power.” They want “to be someone.” Ostalgie is also informed by the sentiment that in the GDR, ordinary workers were valued — they were someone. Not for nothing, the GDR prided itself on being an Arbeiter und Bauernstaat — the state of workers and farmers.

Nostalgia in post-communist societies might be somewhat puzzling to outside observers, yet politically it is of no consequences. There is no craving for a return of what in German was known as Realsozialismus — loosely translated as “actually existing socialism.” A regime that imprisoned its citizens behind walls, barbed wires and minefields in order to prevent them from fleeing the country has nothing in common with the radical humanist spirit of socialism, reflected, for instance, in Karl Marx’s “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844” and the writings of leading exponents of the Frankfurt School.

Radical Reconstruction

Matters are entirely different when populist leaders use nostalgia for the dismantling and radical (from the roots) reconstitution of a society’s collective identity. This is what has happened with two of the most important contemporary populist regimes: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Turkey and Narendra Modi’s India. At first sight, the two cases could not be more different. Here, a representative of political Islam, there, of political Hinduism. Yet below the surface, the similarities are quite striking.

These similarities are seen, in particular, in the place nostalgia — and the appeal to nostalgia — has in the rhetoric of both leaders. In the Turkish case, nostalgia is reflected in what Turkish observers have called neo-Ottomanism. Erdogan, as Hakan Yavuz has argued, has been seeking “to remold Turkey in the form of an imagined, ahistorical conceptualization of the former Ottoman Empire.” The ultimate objective is “to resurrect a powerful Muslim state in the ancestral mold of the former Ottoman Empire.”

At the same time, Erdogan’s political project represents a frontal assault on and complete disavowal of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s foundation of the modern “Kemalist” Turkish state. This project was based on a progressive, secular vision of equality adopted from the French Revolution. Here, citizenship and identity derive from a common adherence to civic principles; in the case of Erdogan’s project, citizenship and identity derive from adherence to a common ethno-religious community, which bodes ill for Turkey’s minorities such as Kurds and Armenians.

In the Indian case, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, BJP), has never made a secret of the fact that it seeks to eradicate the legacy of Nehruvian secularism and replace it with Hindutva. Long before Modi became prime minister, the BJP mobilized against what it called Nehru’s “pseudo-secularism.” In reality, the BJP charged, secularism discriminated against Hindus while according concessions to India’s sizeable Muslim minority. In fact, in 2018, Sonia Gandhi admitted that the BJP had managed to convince a sizeable portion of the Indian public that the Indian National Congress was a pro-Muslim and, implicitly, anti-Hindu party.

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Central to the BJP’s ideology is the myth of the Vedic golden age, exemplified, in particular, by the reign of the mythical Ram, largely seen as the epitome of India’s golden age. This golden age came to an abrupt end with the Muslim invasion and conquest, which ushered in what Modi has characterized as “1,200 years of slavery.” This is the central trope of Hindu nationalist historiography and victimology — the juxtaposition of “a glorious Hindu golden age followed by an era of Muslim oppression.”

In order to bolster their case of that golden age, Hindu nationalists have gone to great lengths, in some cases transcending into the ridiculous. A case in point is the various claims that in ancient times, India already achieved stunning scientific and technological accomplishments, from advanced reproductive technologies to stem cell research, “spacecraft, the internet, and nuclear weapons — long before Western science come on the scene.” More often than not, these claims were advanced not by crackpots but by respected scientists fallen under the sway of Hindu nationalist nostalgia.

In both cases, the combination of nostalgia and populism serves to mobilize the “true” people against a Westernized elite, from — but not of — the people. At the same time, it serves as a means to eradicate national humiliations: in the case of India, centuries of being subjugated to Islamic rulers; in the Turkish case, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire following World War I, symbolized by the Treaty of Sèvres which, had it ever been implemented, would have left only a small area around Ankara under Turkish rule.  

Erdogan’s recent decision to reclassify the Hagia Sophia — once the “ultimate icon of Christian civilization” — as a mosque, constitutes a reversal of Kemalist “secularist suppression.” Similarly, laying the foundations of a Ram temple on the site of an ancient mosque, known as Babri Masjid, in the city of Ayodhya in northern India, serves as highly visible expressions of the will to reverse — and perhaps even avenge — the past.

Resurrecting Grievances

The arguably most successful populist resort to this combination of grievance-based nostalgia and the exploitation of national humiliation is epitomized by Hungary’s Victor Orban. To be sure, Hungarians have good reasons for historically-grounded grief — the bloody suppression of the Hungarian people’s 1956 uprising against the communist regime and the Soviets is a prominent case in point. The most important episode, however, which continues to haunt Hungarian collective national consciousness until today, dates back to 1920, when the victorious powers imposed on Hungary the Trianon Treaty. The treaty deprived Hungary of two-thirds of its prewar territory and three-fifths of its prewar population, which turned Hungary into what Stanley Payne has called “the most nationally aggrieved state in all of Europe.”

Victor Orban has been particularly adroit not only in manipulating diffuse sentiments of humiliation and resentment but also in evoking nostalgia for Hungary’s golden age. This was the period spanning from the formation of the dual monarchy following Vienna’s defeat in the Austro-Prussian war of 1866, which put the Hungarians on par with the Austrians until the end of the First World War — a period which saw all ethnic Hungarians united in the same state. Together, these two ideational elements constitute the core of Orban’s national-populist project, which over the past decade or so has progressively gained cultural hegemony in Hungary.

Orban, Modi and Erdogan are prominent examples of how nationalist-populist actors have weaponized nostalgia for political gain the same way they have weaponized other emotions such as anxiety, anger and empathy. As Yale professor Paul Bloom has recently pointed out in his indictment of emotional empathy, “unscrupulous politicians use our empathy for victims of certain crimes to motivate anger and hatred toward other, marginalized, groups.” Emblematic of this strategy is Donald Trump’s exploitation of “our empathic feelings toward victims of rape and assault to build hatred toward undocumented immigrants.”

Here, Trump instinctively exploited a central characteristic of this emotion, namely its intrinsic in-group bias. Neuropsychological studies suggest that more often than not, empathy extends significantly more to those we feel close to rather than out-groups, “potentially making them likely targets for prejudice and discrimination.”

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The same is true for nostalgia. Experiments in social psychology have shown that collective nostalgia — the type of nostalgia routinely evoked by national populist actors — tends to confer “sociability benefits,” such as support and loyalty, to the in-group while tending to evoke exclusionary sentiments toward out-groups. Constantine Sedikides and Tim Wildschut have argued that “Collective nostalgia’s sociality is amenable to exploitation and can have controversial ramifications.” A recent empirical study on the effect of national nostalgia on out-group perceptions in the context of the 2016 US presidential election shows that national nostalgia “significantly predicted racial prejudice and this relationship was mediated by perceived outgroup threat.”

This also holds true for Europe. A Bertelsmann study on nostalgia from 2018 found that more than three-quarters of European respondents classified as nostalgics (two-thirds of the sample) agreed with the statement that recent immigrants did not want to integrate into the host society; more than half thought they were taking jobs away from the natives. Under the circumstances, it is hardly surprising that radical right-wing populist parties have found fertile ground for their nativist politics of exclusion.

A case in point is the adoption of the concept of the folkhemmet by the Sweden Democrats, the country’s radical populist right. The folkhemmet (people’s home) stands for the heydays of Sweden’s Social Democratic welfare state, a golden age that spanned four decades, from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was a time of ethnocultural homogeneity, civic egalitarianism and social solidarity. The Sweden Democrats’ adoption of the sentimental notion of the folkhemmet appeals to nostalgic sentiments while, at the same time, serving as a justification for the exclusion of non-ethnic minorities such as refugees from social benefits.

The Sweden Democrats’ manipulation of nostalgia in the service of their politics of welfare chauvinism is exemplary of the flexible and polyvalent possibilities of applying this emotion. It is for this reason that nostalgia lends itself ideally to national populist mobilization. One of the central ideational tropes informing populism is the notion of the united people, a unity derived from a shared past and a common destiny, confronting a common adversary, if not an enemy. The evocation of a glorious past is a great way to make people feel good about themselves at a time when there is little to be cheerful or optimistic about.

These days, the glorious past is not far away, not more than two years, the time before social distancing, lockdowns and vaccination jitters. Under the circumstances, nostalgia is likely to persist, ready to be exploited by populist entrepreneurs for political gain. Those who still think that the pandemic will substantially weaken support for the radical populist right might take a look at Spain. There, Vox, whose rhetoric is replete with nostalgia, is the only party that has substantially increased its support base over the past several months.

*[Fair Observer is a media partner of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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