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…