Matthew Flinders: The politics and power of nostalgia

Picture of a 1950s diner with waitress on rollerskates

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.

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 politicians and their parties have in recent years possessed a far more sensitive emotional antennae than their mainstream counterparts. As Ronald Brownstein has argued in relation to understanding the emergence of Donald Trump – ‘The most important word in Donald Trump’s lexicon may be: ‘again.’ The second most important word is ‘back’ as Trump is forever promising to ‘bring back’ manufacturing jobs, the steel industry, national pride, ‘law and order’, etc. As the Demos report illustrates, although nostalgic narratives are clearly mediated and contextualized by a nation’s socio-cultural history (i.e. they must ‘fit’ or resonate with the public) nostalgia has also become almost as promiscuous as it is prominent.

But what exactly does the Demos research tell us that we may not have known already?

The report is rich with insight but three themes or issues jumped out at me: (1) the progress ‘trade-off’; (2) ‘negative nostalgia’; and (3) ‘nostalgia-as-anchorage’.

Given the online comments that it provoked I don’t know if I dare mention my apparently heretical suggestion from May that there may be a need to somehow close the gap between the views of many political scientists on the state of democracy (i.e. generally negative, critical, pessimistic), on the one hand, and the views of the ‘new optimists’, on the other (i.e. broadly positive and optimistic). But when it comes to understanding this intellectual tension, as it appears very much on the ground in terms of people’s everyday lives, the research is fascinating. Critical citizens are very much aware of the progress that has been made in terms of standards of living, educational standards, etc., but feel that the trade-offs between these gains are not sufficiently off-set by the tangible losses they observe in terms of security, community, and cohesion. The link between ‘the precariat’ and nostalgia is understandable in the sense that the latter offers the former a vision of simpler, more stable times.

A second striking finding of the research was that despite the fact that a lot of respondents hankered after a bygone era, they also felt that ‘nostalgia’ had become a pejorative word, almost a taboo concept or liberal slur. This may reflect a set of assumptions that may – explicitly or implicitly – link nostalgia with a desire for ethnically homogenous, or certainly less diverse, communities. Hence, Brownstein’s emphasis on what he terms Trump’s ‘rhetoric of white nostalgia’. It might also be thought that looking backwards reflects an exhaustion of intellect and the inability to imagine fresh horizons or deal with the challenges of today. Which brings me to the third distinctive insight produced by the Demos data – ‘nostalgia-as-anchorage’.

The third noteworthy finding was that the focus group research in Britain, France and Germany did not suggest that nostalgia mattered because people necessarily wanted to go back to the past. It mattered because 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. Nostalgia provides a link to a ‘deep story’, to use Hochschild’s term, which is in itself a powerful form of emotional anchorage.

So what? Why does understanding nostalgia as a contemporary political or cultural force matter? It matters because it suggests a need to cultivate an open and balanced public debate about those issues, such as immigration, poverty and inequality, that have for too long been allowed to fester on the margins of mainstream politics. It also matters because in terms of combatting ‘the perils of populism’ it suggests a need for politicians to reconnect at a deeper emotional level; to demonstrate a little emotional intelligence; and to offer a bold new vision — a renewed ‘deep story’ that unites a positive past with a positive future — by redefining many social challenges as opportunities for confident social change.

Originally posted in the Oxford University Press blog

The opinions expressed in this blog represent the opinions of the author and not those of Massey University or eSocSci except when they do not express the opinions of the author in the example of a quotation within the post. Read more. This post can be cited using this method and is reposted under Creative Commons 3.0 licensing permissions.

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