History, Politics

Populism and Nostalgia’s False Promise

Yuval Levin’s book The Fractured Republic and Andrew Brown’s essay on Trollhätten in Granta recount how Western societies have moved from a conformist and consolidated culture to a diffuse but bureaucratically centralised one, paralysed by gauzy nostalgia for a time that is never coming back. Such nostalgia has helped fuel the populist surge seen across the West today. The present poses challenges to who we are, how we behave, what we believe and how we act out those beliefs in everyday life. But the wish to return to the past is perhaps an inherent part of the human condition, and one that must be resisted lest it disfigure our perceptions and control our actions too greatly.

The populist revolt symbolised by the surge across Europe by parties like the Sweden Democrats and in America by Donald Trump is both a product and driver of a kind of nostalgia that risks trapping us in a spiral of longing and bitter disenchantment. It represents a backlash against an ossified establishment nostalgia that has failed to deliver on its promises, but also a symptom of a separate longing for its own version of a world that is no more. The past is to be remembered not lived in. Unfortunately, its powerful if illusory allure transfixes many in the West today.

These trends form the basic thesis of The Fractured Republic. From the mid-20th century, the conformist mass participatory culture that dominated until the early 1970s has been steadily diffusing, atomising, and dividing people with differing beliefs, desires, ideas, and values into political and ideological silos. Concurrent with this rapid increase in individualism has been a massive increase in concentration and centralisation, both in government federal institutions and in the distribution of certain socio-economic groups. For example, the richer, highly mobile, more liberal, and more entrepreneurial elites now cluster on the coasts and in certain cities. Everyone else, meanwhile, resides in the hollowed out middle, and this hollowing out has occurred geographically and hierarchically.

As Levin persuasively argues, America’s current crop of politicians – be they populist or establishment – are handicapped by nostalgia for contending times of conformity. The Left longs for a time of worker solidarity and mass employment, high taxation, wage parity, and business cooperation with corporatist government. It yearns for the social radicalism of the Civil Rights Era, and earlier progressive moves to deal with the social and economic ills that the Left views as the plague of the underdog. For the Left, the golden age ran from around the end of WW2 through to the mid-1970s.

The Right, meanwhile, do not miss the prevailing economic doctrines and realities of those years, seeing them as emblematic of the Left’s infatuation with technocratic social-democracy, or socialism-lite, and the suffocation of economic dynamism. Instead, they miss a lost social order of the 1950s, and the conservative renaissance of the 1980s, when (in their telling) Ronald Reagan strode into the White House and rekindled the spark of economic and social dynamism snuffed out by 1970s stagflation.

Woodstock Kids, 1969 (Pic: Ric Manning)

Politicians (and their voters) on both sides want to hasten a return to their respective golden ages. It is no coincidence that many who bewail the current state of America are politicians and voters from the Baby Boomer generation. For them, not only is their preferred version of the post-war era imbued with a mythical transitory glory, but it also recalls memories of happy childhoods, made to seem all the more wonderful by a sentimental longing for the innocence and joy of youth. Seen in this light, Trump’s rhetoric about the lost jobs and glories of the past, Clinton’s paeans to past protest movements and progressive triumphs, and Sanders’s longing for the more social-democratic America of the New Deal, all acquire greater clarity.

None of this is helpful. Observed from the outside, both Republicans and Democrats are floundering in their attempts to navigate the waves threatening to overwhelm us all in an age of rapid change. The emphasis on freedom from both sides – complete economic freedom on the Right and complete social freedom on the Left – is no good if, to paraphrase Jordan Peterson, it just leaves us bereft of meaning and drowning in what postmodern theorist Zygmunt Bauman called ‘liquid modernity,’ – “the condition of constant mobility and change . . . in relationships, identities, and global economics within contemporary society.” Without the knowledge, wisdom, and experience with which to swim towards dry land, we reverse course and swim backwards to the lost continent of yesteryear.

The populist backlash that elected Trump was indicative of many things, but high among them must be this tendency by many of his voters to view the past, in both social and economic terms, as something to be reclaimed at the expense of forward progress. Of course, such a return is impossible and to attempt it is to face eternal disappointment and the growing bitterness produced by inevitable disillusion and failure. Both Left and Right would do well to bear in mind that disenchantment tends to sour nostalgia and risk a fall into something darker.

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It is this bitterness that can lead to the growth of an altogether uglier kind of nostalgia promised by the far-Right. This well trodden path is illustrated in Andrew Brown’s essay for Granta about the Swedish town of Trollhätten, which shows the dangers presented by an ostensibly benign longing for yesterday. The backlash represented by the Sweden Democrats arose from the disappointment produced by the failure of nostalgic dreams, and the cynicism they left in their wake. Like America and the rest of the Western world in the 20th century, Sweden was a society of stiflingly conformity that rapidly atomised, causing a breakdown in social solidarity and a weakening of economic, social, and political institutions.

SD supporters, 2014 (Pic: Frankie Fouganthin)

Brown describes how this stormy mix of disillusion and disorientation was worsened by steadily increasing waves of migration from the 1980s on, which heightened the anxieties and tensions already roiling Swedish society. However, the expression of these anxieties and tensions was thwarted by Sweden’s so-called ‘Corridor of Opinion’ that demands all patriotic Swedes accept open borders as a sign of their country’s moral purity. The consequent suffocation of contrary and dissenting views has, until recently, been enforced by a kind of social etiquette from which one strays at the risk of ostracism.

As the American journalist Tim Pool has shown, this corridor of opinion was enforced with almost brutal social acquiescence and is now firmly instantiated in Swedish culture. From the outside, it seems to be the only way that Swedish society can cope with the changes of recent years. Rather than being exposed, scrutinised, and countered in the arena of argument, anti-immigration sentiments and wider discontent have been suppressed and so have festered, unaddressed. Of course, the complacency that results from enforced conformity led to the shocking realisation that not everyone in the country shared the officially prescribed views on migration policy, particularly when they began to be articulated in the political realm.

This handed Sweden’s populist party, the Sweden Democrats, an opportunity to tap into discontent among significant parts of the Swedish population. As a result of a slick campaign that saw banned television adverts take advantage of the online space to great effect, the SD entered parliament in 2010 with 20 seats, and increase that figure to 49 in 2015. This was partly due to new opportunities for communication, themselves a result of what writer Robert Colvile has called ‘The Great Acceleration.’ What “might have worked twenty years before,” Colvile wrote, “when the only source of national news was the newspapers and the television” now didn’t. By 2015, “there was a thriving underground of news sites spreading the Sweden Democrats’ message, and the official silence merely amplified their appeal to people rebelling against the culture of conformity around immigration.”

As Brown observes, the other parties were so unprepared for the popularity of the Sweden Democrats’ rhetoric on such a salient part of Sweden’s patriotic identity that they “united around a policy of complete denial. They refused to debate with the SD in public, so far as this was possible; refused to eat with them in the canteens and refused to pass legislation that was dependent on SD support.” This inability to confront the SD with an alternative platform of ideas demonstrates the lack of core beliefs needed to challenge the SD’s platform. Sweden’s establishment parties seem to be lost in the Sweden of yesteryear, and have not yet appeared to reconcile themselves to the changing views of sizeable parts of the electorate on issues like migration, patriotism, and Sweden as a country with its own national and cultural identity.

Fear of individual and cultural extinction ­is both a cause and a product of the nostalgia so widespread in both Europe and America today. In a time of great uncertainty, global upheaval, and rapid advances in technology accelerating the pace of modern life, there is much apprehension about what the future holds, and about what it could mean for all of us.

Nostalgia – the clinging to what is known about the idealised before – is one way of coping with the unpredictable, the unknown, the unexpected, and the unfamiliar. Unfortunately, in Europe, this nostalgia plays out violently in Maajid Nawaz’s ‘Triple Threat” of the neo-Marxist revolutionary fantasies of the Far-Left, the nativist fantasies of the Far-Right, and in the longing for the instantiation of the Caliphate among the continent’s 50,000+ Islamists. All hark back, unable and unwilling to look forward.

The Sweden Democrats look back to a time when Sweden was culturally and, yes, ethnically more homogenous. While concern about mass immigration and its current and future impact on one’s society should not be a cause for social and political censure, none of the rhetoric that comes from them, or other European populists like France’s Front National, offers any sense of how to reform to conserve. The SD’s sentiments and words are soaked in an aching desire to recover the world of yesterday; as the SD party secretary said: “Of course society has to change, but back then we had a solid base to change from.” This desire for an unrecoverable past lacks an inner life or a transcendent belief that might bind people together. The ideology of the Sweden Democrats, like many adherents of hard Right ideology, draw instead on idealised conceptions of the surface self as manifest in skin colour. In their own way, the SD’s ideological foundation is as soulless as that of the establishment they despise, and as representative of the emptiness that feeds and is fed by nostalgia.

As Brown notes, even now, after all that has happened, none of this can be openly discussed in Sweden without immediate and dire repercussions. And so, the Sweden Democrats are a reaction against a rapidly increasing pace of change that no one can discuss, much less escape. To Brown, SD members resemble “strangers in their own country,” seeming “even more exiled from the country of their birth and of their upbringing than are the refugees and immigrants they so resent.” While advances in communications enable immigrants to stay in touch with those they’ve left behind in their countries of origin, Sweden’s past is impossible to reach across the impassable barrier of time.

As in the America, Sweden’s politics are being pulled apart by the centrifugal forces of the modern world, a process of dissolution aided by an inability to let go of nostalgia. SD follow the same pattern, their own nostalgia tinted with shallow racialism. The efforts by Sweden’s political and media classes to suppress all heretical thought no longer work, and actually help to foment further polarisation. One side is made up of British analyst David Goodhart’s well-off pro-immigration “Anywheres” and the other of anti-immigration, less well off “Somewheres.” And, as in America, both are equally guilty of being in hoc to nostalgia’s pull towards denialism and myopia. From Brown’s essay, Sweden seems to represent Europe in microcosm and in extremis, and points to how far and how fast a society can go when nostalgia and its handmaiden, nihilism, are allowed to get out of hand.

Nostalgia is not healthy for our societies, our politics, or ourselves; it simply perpetuates the hole many of us have at the centre of who we are, draining us and leaving us unwilling and unable to face today or tomorrow. Why make the effort towards anything when one is lost in the land of shadows that the glories of the past inhabit? Why make the effort to engage in Burke’s conservation through reformation when trapped among the ruins of the dead? Instead, we are stranded in the underworld and cleaved from the roots of our traditions, because the glare of our own time reveals inadequacies that we no longer know how to counter, mitigate, or heal. This threatens to deny us the opportunity to discern a way to deal with an ever-changing present that threatens to pull us under, aided and abetted by post-modernism and neo-Marxism, and spread by social media.

The only way to deal with our current predicament is to reject nostalgia and re-engage in reason and judgement, so as to renew ourselves and our culture through dialogue. We have to hope to discover what our highest ideal is, both personally and as national communities, and thus aim for the highest possible good that comes from the search for truth. Only then can we revive the moribund structure of our civilisation, and only through the spoken truth can we reclaim some order from chaos and leave the seductive but poisonous allure of reactionary nostalgia behind.

Henry George recently completed an MA in War Studies at King’s College London. He blogs about history, politics and culture, and free speech here. He can be followed on Twitter here.


  1. This strikes me as a very shallow article. Simply labeling history, custom and experience as “nostalgia,” and dismissing all of it out of hand, followed by a naïve plea for free speech and reason about what is to be done in a political environment that is aimed at shutting down free speech and ignoring reason is sophomoric.

  2. Kevin Jones says

    I think its important to note that certain things I believe are fundamental to any society and having certain conservative leaning doubts about what the left deems as ‘social progress’ I.E. that we should discard gender norms, isn’t about nostalgia.. Ive read many similar takes on the current populist fervor but I think the thesis here is only half true. For young millennials I do believe they wish they were in the 60s as much as Neo-Cons long for a war like WW2 in that they both like the idea of having a cause greater themselves to fight for along with the moral clarity those two events perceivably had. For older Democrats and Republicans nostalgia I think is just the default.. in an ever changing world I believe all older generations from now on will feel nostalgia. However i think to consider particulary the Trump movement to be about nostalgia is far off. If you actually follow the Trump movement on social media and 4chan etc. you will see a kind of element of punk rock and counter culture etc.. Trump supporters under 40 do no seem to care about gay marriage and aren’t religious, although they want to protect the cultural power of Christianity seeing it as an antidote to nihilism and utopian idealism. There is multiple social forces making up the Trump constituency but the element of the Trump movement that is most vocal and kind created the Trumpian ethos are all young disaffected Libertarians and the counter cultural type that want to be subversive and share into the punk-rock like anti-establishment sentiment.. People over hype the obsession the young Trumpists have with immigration and terrorism but those subjects along with interventionism are the seemingly obvious domains in which our elites lie to us. I mean if our media, acedemics, and politicians are going to lie to us about the social/economic costs of immigration and the motives of terrorists then what wont they lie to us about??

  3. Open borders is very far from the status-quo in the developed world. Unfortunately, only people that have dealt with actual immigration procedures tend to be aware of this, as this article’s discussion of the situation in Sweden reflects. For example, even for migration within the Schengen area, borders are open for tourism but not for permanently settling somewhere, as can be read in the EU website if one looks for what the laws actually say. And this is actually enforced – I do know of people that after moving to a city under a different member state of the EU have been deported because of not being able to find work.

    I’m not a fan of the doctrine of privilege, but it’s hard to see how else to judge the difference between what actual mobile/migrant people go through, and what the crowd that doesn’t think is going on.

    Also, for those who like to link politics with academic literature, there is a wide literature on the economic benefits of mobility (even including in some aspects the case of refugees) that they seem to be ignoring.

  4. augustine says

    The author seems to be blithely mixing culture and politics and ignoring native religion in the process. Nostalgia is not a strategy. It can be overwrought in political visions, as noted here, but it is also an essential view to the past and not necessarily something we get mired in. Since the folks inhabiting these lands cannot speak openly of the issues confronting them, also noted here, why not consider nostalgia to be a logical euphemistic approach?

    “We have to hope to discover what our highest ideal is, both personally and as national communities, and thus aim for the highest possible good that comes from the search for truth.”

    Such a noble foundation may be expressed in the politics of a polity through its constituent population but it is not the stuff of politics per se. Christianity is the transcendent that has informed these areas in the historic West and in Europe especially. “Nostalgia” in this case has everything to do with the rejection of a long-standing tradition of Christian faith and philosophy.

  5. James In Footscray says

    Is the city vs country divide a little understated? Populism worldwide always comes from rural areas. All the ‘elite’ behavior the article alludes to is in cities – rapid wealth accumulation, property speculation, cosmopolitanism, government power, corruption.

  6. Carl Sageman says

    EK and Kevin Jones said everything that I would have said (although I’m a much older punk rocker and have the same values).

    I respect the balance the article aims to achieve. It misrepresents diversity and nostalgia (way off base). When an Australian government employee calls Australia Day out as being like the Holocaust, that’s the exact anti-western sentiment that drives everybody else (centre and right) away from their ideology.

    I’ll also call out the reference to the individual (referenced in the article). The left deal in social justice, which uses generalisations about sex and skin colour and sexual orientation (eg. White privilege). There is no room for individuals in this ideological framework.

    Believing in western culture is NOT nostalgia. The progressives (who are all left leaning) reject the individual and stereotype in a bid to balance perceived power hierarchies.

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