Home » The Construction of Politics of Nostalgia: A Matrix Illusion

The Construction of Politics of Nostalgia: A Matrix Illusion

by Rinku Khumukcham
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By: Dr.Aniruddha Babar
Asst. Professor of Political Science, Tetso College, Dimapur
The word nostalgia’ has been formed with the combination of the Greek words, nostos and algos that describe the pain that is occurring due to the hearty desire of returning to one’s home. Nostalgia is the remembrance of the beautiful past and the good old days that one has experienced. Throughout the 18th century, the word had been used by specialists and layman equally in Europe to describe the ‘disease’ that was provoked by the excessive attachment to an individual’s homeland. By the end of the 18th century, the notion of nostalgia had expanded and was used to describe the pathological attachment with the distant people, time or places. Nostalgia was also identified and described by the scholars as the new way of thinking and new way of feeling about the ‘an old feeling’ and was being considered as a modern word that was the remembrance of the world that was distinct from modernity. However, in the 19th century the word was started to be used out of the medical and pathological condition and was being related to the good past that had survived the 19th century.
In the modern world ‘nostalgia’ is being increasingly used to describe various kinds of problems associated with different arenas such as politics and empiricism. The recent developments and changes in the political arena have informed that nostalgic narratives are playing a central role in the contemporary political campaigns. The nostalgic narratives are being used by the political parties and politicians through their speeches, campaigns and messages for the public, which are also generating anti-political sentiments among public. This has also resulted in causing a threat of pessimism in the Western democracies. Some of the recent perspectives and reports have revealed that majority of the North Americans and Europeans believe that world is getting worse in comparison to past and the young generation will experience poverty and financial struggles more than before. There are very limited numbers of people who believe that economic and political conditions are better than before and will continue to get better. Some of the people believe that nurturing nostalgia also results in funnelling frustration among the public.
Nostalgic narratives are becoming very popular in the populist politics because they provide very strong toolkit through which politicians are infusing the desire of looking back and rediscovering the ‘good old days’. In some way of the other political nostalgia is used by different politicians or the political parties, in different forms, different ways and at different times. However, in the recent years, the Right-wing populism which is also called as national populism in many countries have heightened he role of political nostalgia and are using it as the motivational force. One of the most popular and recent example of politics of nostalgia is the Brexit referendum in the Great Britain. This referendum becomes a very powerful tool for nurturing nostalgia through its ‘Leave’ campaign. However, it also resulted in increasing frustration among the public because of the resentment to the past losses and lack of clarity regarding the future.
Such examples inform that nostalgia is not just a state of mind, but it has become a strong political weapon. Many European and non-Britons assume that Brexit is driven by nostalgia. Brexit has been associated with politics of nostalgia as it aims towards re-establishing the imperial past of Britain, which was prevalent in Britain before its ties with European Union. Boris Johnson who was the former UK foreign secretary and now a Daily Telegraph Columnist have stated that main dream associated with Brexit is “not to build a new empire — heaven forefend — but to use every ounce of Britain’s power, hard and soft, to go back out into the world in a way that we had perhaps forgotten over the past 45 years”. However, many politicians in India, Australia and Canada have shared their views that nostalgia has played a significant role in shaping Brexit’s image in the world. The pro-Leave voters believe that this is related to the simpler times, when people had a simple and safe neighbourhood, when people could have their tea peacefully and when there were no strange foreigners running around.
Therefore, the politics of nostalgia, which is being imposed or applied through different political campaigns, is a very dangerous thing, because it provides a hazy golden view of the past but no clarity that how time looked in the past. It has also been found that most of the people who voted against EU and were over the age of 65 were inspired by the nostalgia, when the passports were blue and the faces were white. However, some British citizens believe that having such nostalgic perspective is quite absurd, because the voters in favour of Brexit see that their sovereignty has slowly eroded in all the aspects of their national life. Politics of nostalgia that has resulted in increasing pessimism among the public can also be seen through their frustration against the politics in their country.
The populist nationalism has gained the momentum from India to Turkey and from Trump to Farage. However, the main problem with politics of nostalgia is that the imaginary past that becomes the idea of the politicians result in seizing the control over the future. Australian Prime Minister, Hungarian Prime Minister as well as Israeli Prime Minister all have been re-elected by using the propaganda of nostalgia in their political ideologies to bring back the olden time. There is a common reason behind the populist success that can be identified in the case of all the aforementioned Prime Ministers is the theme of nostalgia, for the long lost land, when the life was simpler and more ‘secure’.
However, though such political ideology, the question that can come to mind of every individual is that has their life become secure or simpler? In Europe as well populism is on the rise which is based on the belief that world was a better place in the old days. However, the past which is being the base for the populist ideologies had its own struggle and insecurities. Therefore, the politics of nostalgia is a blurred concept thus results in cutting both ways. Longing for the golden past can result in creating the insecure and dangerous future. A similar rise of populism is also identified in the American society, where after the US Presidential election that whole society is divided in two groups. One group believes that life is better in comparison to what it was before 1960s, while the other group believes that life has become worse.
In the recent past in the context of the American politics it has been observed that; most of the optimists who believed that life is better now had voted for Hilary Clinton, while those who believed that life has become worse had voted for Donald Trump. Trump was an old man, who was not promoting innovation or growth like Hilary did, rather offered to ‘make America great again’ to the undefined and unrecognised era, when the American society was a white society, majority were Christians and those people enjoyed their cultural dominance as well as uncontested economic dominance. This perspective can be identified to be similar to what Britain’s ‘Leave’ Campaign proposes. A similar political discourse has also been identified in France and Germany, where Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry are targeting their nostalgic voters and offering them the road with yellow bricks to restore their lost good times and to bring back their glorious past. These leaders are using the politics of nostalgia by bringing back the currencies, targeting and reversing the multi-cultural policies and strengthening the power of the central state.
One of the significant reasons that most of the people from Britain, France and Germany believe that their past was better and pleasant than their present, because the government in these countries had always failed in guiding and supporting their citizens during the period of social, political and economic changes. The study of nostalgia can be seen as certainly responsible for creating miserable historical record of the present. Although the comfortable and warm remembrance of the past can be considered as the general human tendency, but it results in creating acute frustration, dissatisfaction and hatred towards the current status of the society, combined with the fear about future. This pessimism and uncertainty regarding the future result in increasing the desire to restore the past, and to restore the historical social and economic conditions.
Most of the Britons believe that their country is at a worse condition and the social and economic conditions are declining. This is where the politics of nostalgia becomes very dangerous. This is a significant phenomenon that require urgent attention, not because people or the citizens of the country believe that their nation and its condition is broken, but because the remedy of overcoming the problems that is being served to them through politics of nostalgia provides comfort where people find recourse from their problems. However, the problem arises because people do not hope for bringing a transformative change, but long for restoring the lost time. Some of the scholars have also believed and argued that politics of nostalgia has resulted in eroding the concepts of growth and transformation and have also resulted in the evaporation of the doctrine of progress. Although the process of politics of nostalgia may be slow and people may take time to feel that present condition is worse than their past, but this could result in creating irrepressible consequences.
People may slowly lose their trust in the whole political, economic and social system. Selling the past to the public through politics of nostalgia is providing a productive ground for growing immense public dissatisfaction that may result in dangerous future. Sociologist Fred Davis believes that nostalgia comes up as a general human response whenever their identity or status is threatened and this could be very common among the people when the nation underwent rapid social-cultural-political and economic changes. Rapid transformation can cause anxiety and distress among the individuals of middle and advanced age, who may find the apparent instability, unpredictability and uncertainty in the changing social, political and economic conditions. Such people may seek comfort and refuge in the era that is long gone.
There could be two possible scientific explanations that can be used for understanding the nostalgia related perception of public. First explanation is that it is the human tendency that public may be nostalgic towards the past not because of uncertain future, but to display opposition to present situations and they may believe that past was easy and certain. The second explanation can be called as ‘rosy retrospection bias’, in which it is believed that older people have the tendency of recollecting and remembering old days with great fondness and positivity than they actually were. Therefore, the politics of nostalgia can be associated with the false memories and may result in convincing people that past was better and pleasant, but it significantly results in distorting an individual’s ability to make effective decisions regarding the future.
Therefore, this dual mental process about being convinced of the effectiveness of the past is used as the tool by the politicians to seize their power. Today people are experiencing the unprecedented changes and people feel distressed with such rapid transformation. This is the reason that voters are casting their vote in the favour of politicians that promise to restore ‘good old times’ and distracting public from future transformation. However, it can be said that nostalgia is delusional and can be dangerous and catastrophic too.
The author e-mail: [email protected]

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