The politicians who want to return us to an imaginary past are seizing control of our very real future.
In country after country, right-wing populists/nationalists are taking power or holding onto it. In Britain, Theresa May, the relatively moderate Conservative prime minister, is being forced out of office, likely to be replaced by a more hard-line Brexiteer such as Boris Johnson. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have all just been reelected. In the Philippines, allies of President Rodrigo Duterte swept the Senate elections. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency. In Italy, one of Stephen K. Bannon’s favorite politicians, Matteo Salvini, dominates the government from his perch as deputy prime minister and interior minister.
And all that has happened just in the past year. That does not even count all of the nationalists who are already firmly entrenched in power, including Vladimir Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey and Donald Trump in the United States.
What is the secret of the populists’ success? It varies from country to country, but one common theme is the extent to which they play on nostalgia for a long-lost never-never land when life was supposedly simpler and more secure — a time when the majority ethnic group enjoyed undisputed power and their country was more powerful and respected than it is today. It is no coincidence that two-thirds of Europeans believe the world used to be a better place while populism is on the rise across Europe — including a strong showing in the latest European Parliament elections.
Erdogan yearns for a return to the Ottoman Empire, Putin for a return of the Russian or Soviet empire, and Xi for the Chinese empire that had turned China’s neighbors into tributary states. Orban yearns for a return to Hungary before the 1920 Treaty of Trianon deprived it of half its territory as punishment for being on the losing side of World War I. The Brexiteers yearn for the days when Britannia ruled the waves and an empire on which the sun never set. The far-right Independence Party’s slogan before the Brexit referendum was, “Outside the E.U., the world is our oyster, and the Commonwealth the pearl within.” Modi yearns for the days before India was ruled by the Muslim Mughals, the British or, more recently, an Anglophone elite. He has suggested that all wisdom derives from the ancient Hindus, saying, for example, “We worship Lord Ganesha. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
And Trump yearns for the 1940s-1950s, when white Christian men were firmly in control of America, non-European immigrants were few in number, and women and minorities had scant rights.
In all these cases, the populists blame the disappearance of a golden age on a conspiracy by domestic traitors working with foreign elites (a.k.a. “globalists”) — and they vow to somehow magically make their nation “great again.” Trump promised in 2016 that factory jobs were “all coming back.” They haven’t, but his supporters don’t seem to care. Maybe, they figure, it will take Trump another term to recreate the world of “Father Knows Best.”
Why is nostalgia such a powerful political force? Social science research suggests — no surprise — that “the more people reported having major disruptions and uncertainties in their lives, the more they nostalgically longed for the past.” Major disruptions of the past few decades include the hollowing out of industrial towns, the enrichment of a new technological and financial elite, and the creation of vast income inequalities; the rise of global trade, migration and capital flows; and a rights revolution which made it possible for an African American whose middle name was “Hussein” to become president of the United States. This is a lot of change in a short period of time for people to take in. The result has been a political backlash that has been skillfully manipulated by demagogues.
Progressives have not found an effective response. A lot of what they are doing is only making the situation worse. In the United States, they are pushing for socialism, the Green New Deal, Medicare-for-all, a 70 percent marginal tax rate, reparations for slavery, the abolition of the electoral college and other initiatives that, rightly or wrongly, scare a lot of people, especially older white people. It’s easy, and perhaps right, to denounce critics as sexists, racists, climate deniers, greedy plutocrats or what have you — but it’s not politically effective. Progressives know that society can’t go in reverse. What they don’t seem to realize is that driving into the future at 120 mph is going to scare a lot of people. It’s much safer to drive at 20 mph to get everyone used to the ride.
That’s what moderate candidates such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg are trying to do. They know how to push a liberal agenda in a way that isn’t threatening to working-class and older white voters — i.e., Trump’s base — who are apprehensive about the changing demographics of a country that will soon become “majority minority.” Whoever is the Democratic nominee will need to counter the politics of nostalgia rather than reinforce it.
Max Boot, a Post columnist, is the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a global affairs analyst for CNN. He is the author of “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam," a finalist for the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in biography