Brexit, Trump etc.: The Politics of Nostalgia?

This is the beginning of a paper I gave in June at the conference “The Trump Presidency: A Historical Assessment from Europe” at St Antony’s College Oxford, the complete paper can be found here.

Did voters vote for Brexit and Donald Trump because of nostalgia? Does nostalgia help us to understand Brexit and Trump? And what does nostalgia mean? Is it a useful analytical term in this context at all? These are some of the questions I want to address in this paper. I should, however, preface it by saying that my answers I provisional and tentative not least because I’m operating outside of my comfort zoneand my immediate field of expertise and therefore I’m much looking forward to your comments. The research project I’m currently working, looks at nostalgia as a historical phenomenon in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, it does, of course, derive its questions from our present. And as such it is part of a larger research trend because nostalgia is currently a booming topic, particularly in the fields of literature, cultural, media, film and fashion studies, psychology, anthropology and geography. Apart from some exceptions, historians have contributed little to this research mainly because most of them reject nostalgia as a very opposite of what they are doing, as a falsification of history. However, to understand what nostalgia means—or what we mean when we use the term nostalgia—we have to take into account its conceptual history.

That the term nostalgia is used quite a lot today, there can be no doubt. Like the music critic Simon Reynolds, many critics have drawn on nostalgia to explain pop culture’s “addiction to its own past”, its tendency to constantly remake and recycle older forms. In political analysis and commentary, too, nostalgia has become more and more prominent in recent years. Following the coverage of Brexit and Trump, I was continuously surprised as to the extent to which it drew on nostalgia to explain these political developments. Of course, this could be just a case of déformation professionnelle but it seems to me that nostalgia has become a ubiquitous term—if not a master narrative of our time. This raises several questions not only who is nostalgic, for what and why but also what does nostalgia actually mean. To answer these questions, I will analyse the use of the term in current political rhetoric and analysis. In a first part I will look at the role the term plays in both journalistic and academic texts about Brexit and Trump. I will then give a brief overview of its conceptual history. Building on this I will then analysis and criticise how the term is used today and why it is used. From the title you’ve probably concluded that I’m not convinced nostalgia is a helpful political term and I will show you why I think so.

To read the complete paper click on this link.