It was all better in the old days. Is this the kind of sentiment fuelling growing support for the Far Right – a societal pessimism in which people see no hope in the future so glance wistfully back to an imagined past?
That’s the view of the authors of a recent piece of research that found supporters of populist right parties displayed a greater tendency to nostalgia – with those on the ultra-left coming second.
Immigration is one obvious area where far right populist trending voters bolster their views by looking back to a time when they believe there were less foreign faces. They then tend to associate this with social stability and lower crime rates. Cue the cliches about front doors being left unlocked, etc.
More generally, these voters view society as being in decline. The barbarians are at the gates and Rome is in mortal danger. The answer is not to progress or embrace change but to return society back to where it was. Social, cultural and demographic transformations have to be reversed if society is to be rebuilt.
Utopian visions are rejected. Modernity is perceived as a threat. The digital revolution has only brought an unsettling, chaotic, insecure present. The nostalgic populist dreams of a ‘heartland’ to be re-discovered and re-imposed on the whole of society. It’s a place where there was less division and discord because people were more alike (ergo: less immigrants).
It’s a hopelessly romanticised and very selective view of the past but exercises a powerful hold on the imagination of the populist far right supporter. Those preventing a return to the past are characterised as the ‘elite’ operating through mainstream parties, media, business and culture.
They are the 1968 generation – once liberal radicals but now holding the levers of power and imposing multi-culturalism, equality and tolerance. They have force fed society with a false gospel of progress and modernity that must be emphatically rejected.
The Economist ran an article this month on the rejection of the ’68 legacy by a significant number of Germans, young and old. Far Right groups like Generation Identity, made up predominantly of college age youth, bemoan ’68 as robbing millennials of an identity based on nation and ethnicity and forcing them to accept feminism, equal rights and increased immigration. Tradition and authority have been overturned, claims Generation Identity, with calamitous results.
However, populist far right nostalgia can also position itself as a defender of the rights fought for by the ’68 generation. Such is the opportunistic nature of the beast. At a recent ‘Day of Freedom’ demonstration headlined by Tommy Robinson in London, speakers claimed that LGBT, women and even the rights of trans people (a drag queen appeared on the platform) were under threat from … Muslims. The faith of Islam was portrayed as a looming threat to historic English liberties.
However, these very liberties would be undermined by the kind of politics required to achieve a return to an imaginary past. Overthrowing the present would more than likely necessitate an authoritarian, anti-democratic and nativist kind of politics not seen in Europe since the 1930s.
It would not be a return to the post-war consensus of the 1950s to 1970s – the period Baby Boomer populists look back on with warm fuzzy feelings. It’s ironic that many older far right populist supporters would have thrilled at the anarchy and rejection of conformity spearheaded by punks in the 1970s but now, in seeking to return to those mythically idyllic times, adopt a political and cultural stance that runs entirely contrary to the ethos of 70s punk.
A European Commission study in 2013 confirmed that more and more people in the EU are becoming societal pessimists. They feel powerless. They feel rejected and left behind. With politicians reduced to technocrats in a world run by big business and transnational bodies, far right populists believe the heartland will bring back a homogenous society with a unified culture and shared experience.
Their nostalgia is a desire for unity over fracturing. With the Left unable to articulate a clear vision for how society can be brought back together – worse, encouraging division through the nitpicking of identity politics – the far right is ideally placed to offer simplistic solutions based on that most reactionary of feelings – nostalgia.
Eefje Steenvoorden & Eelco Harteveld (2018) The appeal of nostalgia: the influence of societal pessimism on support for populist radical right parties, West European Politics, 41:1, 28-52, DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2017.1334138