Lyle Broom 29th April 2018
People love thinking about the past; how much better it was when they were younger, how people knew better, how they were generally happier. Nostalgia has crept back into politics in recent years for these exact reasons. The Brexit campaign’s promise to take back control of our borders, Donald Trump’s leading slogan “Make America Great Again” and even the rise of Jeremy Corbyn and Jacob Rees-Mogg can be explained, in part, by nostalgia.
Nostalgia is an incredibly useful tool for politicians because it isn’t merely a fascination with the past, but an emotive experience based on current and past experiences. Connect with people emotionally and they’ll agree with you more easily.
When a country’s economy inevitably slows, for example, it is easy to point to past successes and want to emulate them. Or, if the country is heading in a direction that’s unpopular with some, they can hold up an imagined, rose-tinted version of the past and claim it was better.
“Make America Great Again” was ironic for two reasons: who decides the greatness of a country but its populous? Secondly, America had not worsened during the Obama administration, he was a continuance of a long-established American political system.
Donald Trump wasn’t fighting against America’s decline, he was fighting against what made America America. But such is the effect of nostalgia — it leads down avenues which border the ridiculous and glosses over recent successes. The US was, and is, a world superpower whose decline has not been so obvious or swift as predicted in the 1990s.
The Italian fascists proposed that their revolution would re-establish the country’s greatness, making copious references to the Roman Empire
Dr James Harris, history professor at the University of Leeds specialising in the Stalinist political system and anti-liberal ideas, reveals how nostalgia has been used in the past: “In my own work, I’m very conscious of nostalgia in the age of the dictators.
“The Italian fascists proposed that their revolution would re-establish the country’s greatness, making copious references to the Roman Empire. The present was a time of crisis, and the past that they promised to re-create was largely imagined, but it was peaceful and glorious.”
Promises to repeat past successes featured heavily in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and the Brexit referendum. Even after the referendum, Nigel Farage made much of British passports returning to the pre-European Union blue. He said in an interview with Nick Ferrari on LBC: “But going back to that blue colour, what it says is normal service has been resumed – we’re becoming a proper country again.”
Of course, the symbol of changing passports is politically significant, but changing the colour of their passport and removing the words “European Union” from the front isn’t what people voted on. They voted to leave the European Union and they voted to have more control over British laws. This was a cynical nostalgia signal which facades as meaningful but is ultimately meaningless.
The link between nostalgia and populism is strong. Politicians from Nigel Farage to Jeremy Corbyn to Jacob Rees-Mogg all utilise its appeal.
Jeremy Corbyn is nostalgic for a pre-Blairite, anti-interventionist Labour Party, and harkens back to a time when both party and country more readily embraced traditional socialist values. His appeal to the public is in part due to the public’s weariness with interchangeable politicians with the same suits and accents on the television, making the rules. They were nostalgic for a time when they could connect to politicians.
Jacob Rees-Mogg works in a similar way, however, he dresses in Edwardian fashion and holds very conservative personal views, which rings of Britain pre-World War I. He could not be more disconnected from the general public in the way he presents himself, but, again, people are nostalgic for when politics wasn’t so greyscale.
Perhaps this is what makes Rees-Mogg such a hard-line Brexiteer; he’s also nostalgic.
Nostalgia is in fact a symptom of the real unease caused by an unjust society
Nostalgia boosts anti-globalism because people see their own nation as strong and individual. They look at their British history, for example, and wonder why France, the country we saved in the Second World War, and Germany, the country we were fighting against in the Second World War, has any sort of power over us. Both of these European powers have, in the minds of some, a total monopoly over the economy of the European Union and are two of Europe’s most powerful nations. But the essence of nostalgia is its biggest problem: it forgets the issues of the present and attempts to solve them by using previous measures. The very nature of nostalgia relies on the fact that the past is unattainable.
Within politics, using nostalgia as a tool is almost guaranteed to end badly. Marcos Piason Natali, professor in the Department of Literary Theory and Comparative Literature at the University of Sao Paulo, explains in The Politics of Nostalgia: An Essay on Ways of Relating to the Past:
“Nostalgia, like religion for Marx, is in fact a symptom of the real unease caused by an unjust society, a condition that would disappear as soon as the underlying cause of the dissatisfaction was done away with… it is a misguided and romantic longing for a place which, historical data shows us, never existed in the first place.”
With this in mind, nostalgia reflects times of discontent within society, a longing for a past which is unattainable and unsuitable – in fact, American writer Doug Larson calls it “a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days”. Those who utilise its charm for the purpose of gaining political power are doomed to disappoint.
Political nostalgia is reactionary, refuses to think of new solutions to new problems, and is fundamentally opposed to change. The generational divide in the Brexit referendum becomes more understandable when nostalgia is considered. A total of 71% of 18-24-year olds voted to remain in the European union, while 60% of 50-64-year olds voted to leave. Perhaps the younger generation wanted their own way of constructing the future of their country and progress from, rather than replicate the values and attributes of the past.
In any case, the power of political nostalgia is evident, and don’t expect it to wane any time soon.
Lyle Broom 29th April 2018