The political decisions of 2016 will influence our future for many years, if not decades, to come and yet they were primarily influenced by the past. From Nigel Farage’s “We want our country back” in the British EU referendum to Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again ” in the U.S. presidential elections, the emphasis was on a glorious past, sold as the blueprint of a magnificent future. This is the politics of nostalgia, which informs the main challengers of western democracies today, from the radical right to the radical left.
What Farage and Trump are selling is not the 1930s, as alarmists frequently proclaim, but the 1950s. The period of the Greatest Generation, who overcame the Great Depression and the Second World War to build the great country these populist leaders, and many of their followers, grew up in. An America or Britain in which there was a clear order, non-whites and women “knew their place”, and white working class males made a decent living doing an honest day’s work.
While this was a racist world, particularly in the Jim Crow South of America, the right-wing populist nostalgia is for a racialized rather than racist past. For the white supporters of these populist tribunes, most of whom were not around at the time, the 1950s was a glorious period of harmony between the races and sexes before affirmative action and political correctness stirred up emotions and disrupted the natural situation. Hence, accusations of racism meet with angry responses, as most right-wing populist supporters genuinely abhor outright racism and do not realize that their white privilege depends upon it.
Surveys find broad support for this type of nostalgia, particularly when it is not phrased in ostensibly racist terms. For example, among white Evangelicals, one of the strongest supporter groups of Trump, a staggering 74 percent said that American life and culture “has mostly changed for the worse” since the 1950s. As Anthea Butler summarized these findings in Religion Dispatches: “The upshot of this survey is that white evangelicals want to go back to Ozzie and Harriet [a U.S. sitcom of the 1950s and 60s]—in time, behavior, and gender roles.”
But the politics of nostalgia is not limited to the radical right. Two of the main beacons of the so-called “radical left”, Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, also find inspiration for their future ambitions in a slightly less distant past. Referring to a somewhat similar period, though also including the 1970s, they mostly emphasize different points. While both Sanders and Trump heralded the well-paying (white) working class jobs of the past, only the former also lauds the strengths of the trade unions and the public sector. They defend institutions of the welfare state that the Greatest Generation profited from, such as the National Health Service (NHS) in the U.K. and Social Security in the U.S.
The main message is: it used to be better (rather than, it gets better). Take this telling statement by Sanders, at a rally in Bloomington, Indiana, in April:
“Forty years ago, in this country, before the explosion of technology and cellphones, and space-age technology and all that stuff, before the explosion of the global economy, one person in a family—one person—could work 40 hours a week and earn enough money to take care of the whole family.”
Of course, both the left and the right refer to a past that, in their description, does not and has never existed. The politics of nostalgia exaggerates positive aspects and eliminates negative ones. The past is whitewashed. Just as Trump does not mention the lynchings of the 1950s, Sanders doesn’t emphasize the patriarchal structure that sustained the families of that period. It is an imagined past, where people knew and trusted each other, still believed in their country, and weren’t divided over identities and partisanship. Never mind the fact that people were literally fighting in the streets over the closing of the mines or the Vietnam War.
The politics of nostalgia is of all ages but it is particularly popular today. In the past decades politicians were mostly forward looking, creating a new world order through innovative new international institutions such as the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and United Nations. Many of these institutions were the direct result of a deeply held belief that the past should not repeat itself. The motto of the Founding Fathers of the EU was “Never Again” and the first supranational institution, the European Coal and Steel Community, was an explicit attempt to keep Germany and France from going to war again. Similarly, the United Nations was founded to prevent another world war and shaped by the failed experience of the largely ineffective League of Nations.
The reasons for the contemporary success of the politics of nostalgia are manifold. Yes, the Great Recession has profoundly affected optimism about the future, including among the youth, but in many ways was more a catalyst than the main cause. Nostalgic politics, particularly in its right-wing populist form, was already on the rise well before the economic crisis. More than anything, it is the consequence of the growing intellectual vacuum that dominates party politics in today’s world. After the last great leap forward, inspired by neoliberalism, and accepted from the center-right to the center-left, we have slowly but steadily moved into a world of pragmatism and technocracy, in which expertise has replaced ideas.
When established politicians no longer offer attractive visions of the future, people look for solace in the past. They will let themselves be seduced by an imaginary public past that is mostly in line with their own imagined private past anyway. It is easy to dismiss this nostalgia as naïve and racist, qualities that definitely play a role, but that will not bring back these voters—or prevent others from joining them. Many know that the reality was different in the 1950s, and some will even acknowledge the ugly racism of that period, but they will not abandon the politics of nostalgia until credible and dedicated politicians will again offer an attractive and convincing forward-looking program. As long as that is still in the future, they will continue to live in the past, while their leaders determine our present.
Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Researcher in the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. He is author of On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (2016) and Populism: A Very Short Introduction (2017) and tweets at @casmudde.