The politics and power of nostalgia

The summer exam season is now upon us so let me start this month’s blog with a simple question: ‘What role does nostalgia play in explaining ‘the populist signal’?’ A recent report suggests that the role of nostalgic narratives has become a central element of contemporary politics that tap into (and to some extent fuel) anti-political sentiments amongst the public. Could it be that recent analyses of ‘funnelling frustration’ need to pay equal attention to ‘nurturing nostalgia’?

Nostalgic narratives that look back and promise to rediscover ‘the good old days’ provide one of the most obvious and powerful tools in the toolkits of populist politicians and their insurgent parties. To some extent nostalgic narratives have been used in different ways, different forms, and at different times by parties of the Left and the Right for decades, if not centuries; but in recent years the emergence of nationalist populism in many countries has focused attention on the role of nostalgia as a motivating force. The Brexit referendum provided a powerful example of the politics and power of ‘nurturing nostalgia’ while also ‘funnelling frustration’ in the sense that the ‘Leave’ campaign revolved around, as Alan Finlayson wrote at the time, ‘a mixture of resentment at past losses and scepticism about promised futures.’ The sense of a loss of tradition, a mythical integrity, an eviscerated global status, a romanticised past, plus a nativist and nationalist anxiety were all set against the perceived excesses of a distant European elite. However, a recent report by Demos provides further evidence about the politics and power of nostalgia and comes to a rather worrying conclusion.

The research reveals three countries [Britain, France and Germany] with profoundly different histories, political cultures, and national psychologies, yet also bound together by a common affliction. In these great nations, each with, in historical terms, momentous levels of prosperity, standards of living, and global influence, a substantial minority – or even majority – of citizens are gripped by a kind of malaise, a sense that something is fundamentally rotten at the heart of their societies. Moreover, an omnipresent, menacing feeling of decline; that the very best of their culture and communities has been irreversibly lost, that the nation’s best days have passed, and that the very essence of what it means to be French, or German, or British is under threat. While the political consequences of this psychological state are unique to each country, our research demonstrates that many of their antecedents are shared.

Nostalgia provided a barrier or buffer against further change. It’s not about going back but stopping a process of rapid socio-political change in which large sections of society really do feel left behind.

As J. D. Taylor argues in his wonderful book, Island Story (2016), ‘Politics has never been a matter of reason, but of feeling’ and in this regard it is possible to suggest that populist…

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