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The Politics of Nostalgia and Populism

August 23, 2022
Ezgi Elçi


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Ezgi Elçi, postdoctoral researcher at Özyeğin University, investigates the role of nostalgia in creating a shared identity, and how that contributes to the rise of populism in Turkey and around the world.

Does nostalgia boost populism? Populist leaders worldwide often exploit nostalgia by referring to the glorious past of their countries that has been lost today. Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” indicates a yearning for a past when gender and racial relations were more “ordered” in the US. In Venezuela, Chavistas refer to Simon Bolivar as El Libertador, in their quest to reestablish an independent Latin America. In Turkey, populist Justice and Development Party governments built their rhetoric on Ottoman nostalgia. In Western Europe, right-wing populists refer to the era before the influx of immigrants and European unification when they had not yet lost their sovereignty. “Let’s Take Back Control”—the slogan of the leave camp during the Brexit referendum—also carries a nostalgic message, which can distill to: things were better before. The list of examples goes on and on.

In his speech commemorating the infamous Treaty of Trianon, which ended World War I and defined Hungary’s borders, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban said,

“Even the greatest cannot avoid the justice of history. And just as it is true that what belongs together will grow together, it is also true that what does not belong together falls apart. They said it well a hundred years ago: we will be there at the funeral of those who wanted to put us in the grave. We hungarians, on the other hand, will remain, no matter how the wind turns. We remain because we are at home. We are at home and therefore we remain.”

Home is the key to understanding nostalgia and why populists frequently use nostalgia to rally supporters: because nostalgia is a homecoming, seeking refuge in a shelter that protects the pure and authentic people that stands together from dangerous others. Therefore, we can define nostalgia as a combination of nostos “return home” and algia “a painful condition,” which can be roughly translated as “a painful yearning to return home.”

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.