Western democracies are facing a new threat: pessimism. Recent surveys reveal that 65 percent of Europeans and North Americans think the world is getting worse and that younger generations will be poorer than previous ones, with a mere 6 percent considering that things are better and will continue to get better. This sinister sense of decline is not only affecting our economies and individual behaviour (by dissuading investment and increasing stress), but it is also leading to unprecedented political consequences.
Traditionally, pessimism was associated with voting abstention. Low expectations of the future and little trust in government have led to civic apathy and disinterest in politics, often resulting in a lack of participation in elections. But after the financial crisis of 2008, things changed. In the wake of austerity measures, new/revitalised parties and populist leaders emerged ready to capitalize on pessimism and foster nostalgia for a halcyon past to gain support and transform the status quo.
It first happened in the United Kingdom, where UKIP managed to turn the Brexit referendum into an opinion poll on whether the country had improved since its entry into the EU forty years ago. Those Brits who believe that Britain is better off now than in 1973 voted to remain (73 percent); those who believe that it is worse off, voted to leave (58 percent).
Something similar occurred a few months later in the US presidential election. A Pew Research Center study showed that American society is divided between those who think that life today is better than in the 1960s, and those who think it is worse (47 and 49 percent respectively). The majority of the optimists voted for Hillary Clinton, while most pessimists (81 percent) supported Donald Trump, an older man who wasn’t selling change or innovation (as Obama did in 2008), but offering to ‘make America great again’ by returning to an undefined era when the country – and its white Christian majorities – enjoyed unrivalled economic and cultural dominance.
Now we are witnessing the use of similar discourses in France and Germany, where Le Pen and Petry are offering nostalgic voters a yellow-brick road to restore their lost well-being and bring back ‘the glorious past’ by returning to national currencies, strengthening the central state, and reversing the multicultural policies of recent decades.
If these pessimist narratives win, the liberal order – and the EU with it – will be in serious trouble. Thus, the questions are: Where is this wave of longing coming from? What consequences can it have for that liberal world order? And how can it be fought? As sociologist Fred Davis pointed out, nostalgia is a common human response among groups that feel the continuity of their identity threatened, something that tends to occur in periods of severe economic and social change. Rapid transformations cause distress in individuals of middle and advanced age, who, overwhelmed by the apparent complexity, instability and incoherence of their new circumstances, seek refuge in a bygone era, which they perceive as better – even if the evidence shows that it wasn’t.
There are at least two scientific explanations for this perception. First, the human tendency to imagine the past not by painstaking investigation of the historical record but by opposition to the present – if society is now precarious and difficult, it must previously have been certain and easy. The second explanation is known as the ‘rosy retrospection bias’. Research has shown that older people tend to remember and recollect events more fondly and positively than they truly were, especially when they come from their adolescence and early adulthood. These ‘false memories’ can convince us that things were better in the past when they weren’t and distort our ability to make important decisions, since humans are naturally inclined to repeat experiences that we recall as good.
The result of this dual mental process is a past often conceived as a ‘golden era’ when everything was better than now – a suggestive idea that politicians from Mussolini to Reagan have consistently used throughout modern history to seize power.
Today we are experiencing a time of unprecedented social and economic change. It is therefore no surprise that those who feel most aggrieved by recent rapid transformations are casting their votes for those parties that promise a retreat into the safe, warm waters of yesteryear, when governments championed their national economies, politicians could be trusted, and robots and foreigners didn’t take away white men’s jobs.
But there are several problems with this tendency that we should be concerned about. Nostalgia is harmless when it serves to sweeten our personal memories and to inspire our historical novels, but it can be disastrous when it becomes the core of voters’ hopes and the basis for making policy. This is so for a variety of reasons.
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First, because nostalgia is delusional. It represents a leap to an imaginary life-boat from a ship that isn’t truly sinking. The golden era that these populism movements want to take us to never existed. Research clearly shows that the past wasn’t better in almost any regard. Second, nostalgia is dangerous because it is regressive. Right-wing parties are using it as a subterfuge to advance their xenophobic, sexist, homophobic and isolationist agendas, and obstruct progress towards a more just society. Last but not least, nostalgia makes for bad politics because it takes us on a journey to the impossible. In movies, remakes are usually bad. In politics, they are simply impossible. Societies can’t go back – none of us can – and when they try, results are usually catastrophic: Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is a good example.
Hoping that a country can move forward by going backwards would be like trying to drive over a mountain road with one’s eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. The future may look intimidating and uncertain, but that is where the opportunities of humanity are, and thus, where we should look. After all, it was walking towards the mysterious horizon that made us human in the first place.
Diego Rubio is a Junior Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and Professor of Applied History and Global Governance at the IE School of International Relations. He is also an associate researcher of the Oxford European Studies Center and the British Academy of Higher Education. He has worked as Policy Advisor to the United Nations and the Ibero-American General Secretariat (Segib), and has been visiting scholar in a number of universities, including Paris-IV Sorbonne, Columbia in NYC, and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.