🔮 Nostalgia and populism

From Trump's 'Make America Great Again' to Turkey's Ottoman yearning, Ezgi Elçi explores the potent interplay of nostalgia and populism in shaping global politics. He delves into the captivating nexus of past and present, where leaders promise to resurrect authenticity in an era of uncertainty

Why populists yearn for the past

In early October 2022, Spanish populist radical-right party Vox held a festival. During the celebrations, right-wing populist figures, including Donald Trump, Giorgia Meloni, and Viktor Orbán, sent video messages to the audience. At the same event, the band Los Meconios performed a song opening with the line We’re going back to ’36, a reference to the year Franco launched the coup d’état that started the Spanish Civil War.

There are many other examples. 'Make America Great Again' and 'Take Back Control' are the catchiest slogans of populists nostalgic for a better past. Viktor Orbán and Hugo Chávez frequently refer to a paradise lost. In short, in contemporary politics, the interplay between nostalgia and populism has become increasingly prominent. Nostalgia has shaped the narratives and agendas of various populist movements and parties across the globe.

What is collective nostalgia?

Collective nostalgia corresponds to a yearning for a time before societal decline; a time characterised by certainty and authenticity. Unlike personal nostalgia, which evokes individual memories, collective nostalgia is tied to social identities and the events or objects associated with those identities. Its significance lies in its ability to foster identity continuity during times of collective threat.

Research shows that collective nostalgia is closely linked to terror management, identity continuity, and social identity. It is a powerful tool for populist leaders seeking to create division between the 'pure people' (us) and the 'immoral elites' (them). Understanding collective nostalgia is thus essential to comprehend populists' political strategies.

The significance of collective nostalgia lies in its ability to foster identity continuity during times of collective threat

The populist recipe: mixing nostalgia with political vision

Populist leaders often use rhetoric steeped in nostalgia. They are fond of harking back to an imagined golden age which, they claim, has now been tainted by corrupt elites. This golden age of old is presented as a vision for the future; a return to a time when authenticity prevailed. Nevertheless, populists are not fixated on the past per se. On the contrary, they view nostalgia as a means of designing the future.

Populist narrative typically focuses on corrupt elites who, in the past, hijacked the sovereignty of the pure people, and betrayed their trust. Populist movements promise to take back control from these elites and return it to the people. This narrative resonates with those who long for an era when the elites had less dominance and society was more authentic and familiar. Turkey provides an illuminating example of this phenomenon.

Ottoman versus Kemalist nostalgia

Populism in Western Europe or Latin America often centres on nativism or anti-imperialism. Populism in Turkey, by contrast, takes a distinct form. In the Turkish context, the primary driver of populism is the divide between Islamists and secularists.

In Turkey, the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) constructs and exploits a fault line between authentic Muslim people and corrupt secular elites. AKP strategically leverages Ottoman nostalgia to critique secular elites for severing the connection between the people and the glorious Ottoman Empire. AKP leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan portrays his party as the heirs of the Ottoman legacy. He has pledged to restore power to 'the people' and reestablish Ottoman-era values.

In Turkey’s political landscape, two competing forms of nostalgia stand out: Ottoman and Kemalist. Ottoman nostalgia emerged as a response to Kemalist modernisation efforts and a distancing from the Ottoman legacy in pursuit of a modern, secular nation-state. The AKP exploits Ottoman nostalgia to legitimise contemporary policies, glorifying and reinterpreting the Ottoman past.

Conversely, Kemalist nostalgia emerged during the 1990s as a reaction to changing socio-political and socio-economic structures. Kemalists felt challenged by political Islam and neoliberal policies. Thus, they began to yearn for the era of Kemalist reforms in the 1920s and 1930s.

The reciprocal relationship between nostalgia and populism

Invoking collective nostalgia creates fertile ground for populist us-versus-them political agendas. This dynamic is not exclusive to Turkey but resonates globally. A number of countries appeal to different forms of nostalgia. Populist politicians harness these sentiments strategically, to secure electoral gains.

Anti-establishment populist leaders fervently embrace nostalgia, pledging to return their nations to a perceived paradise lost

While populists are often associated with the instrumentalisation of nostalgia, this phenomenon is not unique to them. Mainstream political parties have also recognised the power of longing for the past in swaying public opinion. However, the crucial difference lies in the degree and intensity of nostalgia. Populist movements, driven by discontent with the establishment, tend to embrace nostalgia more fervently. Their parties' leaders pledge to return nations to a perceived paradise lost. In contrast with their non-populist counterparts, populists can also exploit nostalgia vengefully, fuelling strong resentment towards elites.

Nostalgia's double-edged sword

I should include a caveat that evoking collective nostalgia does not necessarily have a detrimental impact on politics. When politicians become wistful for a bygone democratic era, nostalgia can catalyse democratic aspirations. Indeed, it can bolster support for a democratic system. The real peril arises when the masses are persuaded to yearn for an illiberal or authoritarian past.

A timeless human impulse

The intertwining of nostalgia and populism is a complex phenomenon that has gained prominence in contemporary politics. Whether it’s the exploitation of collective nostalgia by populist leaders or the strategic use of the past by mainstream parties, the influence of nostalgia in shaping political narratives is undeniable.

Forms of nostalgia vary from one country to another. The human impulse to reminisce about a bygone era, however, remains timeless

Specific forms of nostalgia, and their effects, may vary from one country to another. The human impulse to reminisce about a bygone era, however, remains timeless. As long as societies continue to grapple with challenges and uncertainties, yearning for the past will continue to play a significant role in the political landscape, moulding the visions of the past and future in the minds of the electorate.

No.50 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Ezgi Elçi
Ezgi Elçi
Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Özyeğin University

Ezgi obtained his PhD from the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University.

Previously, he was a visiting student researcher at the Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS) at the University of Georgia, with a Fulbright grant.

His research interests are political behaviour and political communication.

More specifically, his research focuses on populism, nativism, anti-immigration, collective nostalgia, and autocratisation.


He tweets @ezgielci35

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