Contemporary radical-right groups and their leaders are often considered responsible for advancing nativist, authoritarian, and populist discourse in society. Whereas nativism and authoritarianism are considered fundamental values that any group must possess in order to be labelled as far right on the political continuum, populism is considered an additional element that the radical right has adopted in recent years. Populism is a politically contested concept but for the purpose of this study I shall incorporate the ideational approach to populism. This approach to examining populism defines it as an ideology that perceives society as consisting of two homogenous yet hostile groups, the ‘pure people’ on one hand and the ‘corrupt elite’ on the other. Populism claims that the only legitimate source of democratic authority originates from the will of the ‘pure people’, whereas established power holders (i.e. elected representatives) are deemed to be corrupt and impede the will of the pure ‘people’.
In what follows, I shall outline the societal pessimism and corresponding nostalgic worldview that the populist radical right (PRR) promote. By building upon Svetlana Boym’s work on nostalgia and her distinction between reflective and restorative nostalgia, I will suggest that in light of this analyses we should re-evaluate the way in which we respond to populism in representative democracy.
Societal pessimism and restorative nostalgia
Although it is not at the forefront of existing theories about the PRR, it can be noted that a profound sense of nostalgia, or a yearning for the “good old days”, is a fundamental feature of PRR’s ideology. The nostalgic worldview of the PRR can be developed further by incorporating Paul Taggart’s concept of the ‘heartland’. The ‘heartland’ refers to an idealised society that existed in the past that populists intend to re-establish, using the past as a model for the future. Nevertheless, this vision of the past is not a realistic perception, as it is the subject of idealisation and romanticism by populists. What is central to this idealised ‘heartland’ is its unified nature that is driven via simplicity, as the ‘heartland’ is presented as a past that is absent of pluralism and conflict. The ‘heartland’ is articulated by populists by their appeal to the ‘pure people’, as they point to a homogenous group that is unified by: values, norms and traditions that are shared between them.
This idealised ‘heartland’ of a past where people coexisted in unity reveals both the societal pessimism and corresponding nostalgic worldview that the PRR advocates. Steenvoorden and Harteveld (2018) note that societal pessimism is a factor that causes a “demand” for far-right movements. Societal pessimism is an apprehension about the erosion of old certainties and the rapid social change that has transpired in recent years, it is not necessarily based on objective conditions or reflects real-life problems that people experience. Nevertheless, the populist’s idealised ‘heartland’ of past unity can provide comfort to those who exhibit societal pessimism, as the populist propose a return to this past ‘heartland’ in order to resolve the societal pessimism that people possess.
The populist’s intended aim to return and re-establish this past unified ‘heartland’ demonstrates the restorative dimension in their nostalgic worldview. Traditionally nostalgia was understood as spatial, a longing for one’s home that was expressed as homesickness; however, contemporary analysis on nostalgia suggests that the objects of nostalgia have shifted from being spatial to temporal. This is because agents no longer yearn for an irretrievable home but instead yearn for a simpler time, much like those who suffer from societal pessimism. Svetlana Boym suggests that in order to further our understanding of nostalgia as an ongoing public epidemic, we should distinguish the longing aspect from the returning aspect found in nostalgia. This leaves us with two different types of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia that centres on the longing aspect of the irreversibility of time, and restorative nostalgia that is fixated on this returning aspect of nostalgia.
The populist’s goal of re-establishing their unified ‘heartland’ as a model for a future that will eliminate the reasons for why people are societally pessimistic demonstrates that the nostalgic worldview that they advance is restorative in nature. Nevertheless, the restoration of origins is only one of the two ways that restorative nostalgia operates, as it also enables the agent to develop conspiratorial claims for why the restoration of their nostalgic past is unachievable. The re-establishment of the unified ‘heartland’ is not considered to be unachievable due to the idealisation and romanticism that it has been subjected to; instead, populists have developed conspiratorial claims for why the ‘heartland’ is unattainable. For instance, the PRR have adopted such conspiratorial claims as: the Great Replacement and Eurabia, in order to provide people who are sympathetic to their cause reasons for why their intended aim of restoring society to a unified ‘heartland’ is unattainable. According to these PRR conspiratorial claims, the unified ‘heartland’ is not unattainable because such a past never actually existed, rather it is unattainable because the established power holders and the liberal ideology that they are promoting prevents their homecoming to the ‘heartland’.
Re-evaluating responses to populism
By utilising Boym’s analyse on nostalgia and her development of the concept of restorative nostalgia, we are able to obtain a unique insight into the political programme that populism endorses. I suggest that this novel insight can have fundamental implications on the ways by which we engage with and tackle the rise of populism. I suggest there are three significant ways that our responses to populism should be re-evaluated in light of Boym’s analyse on nostalgia. Firstly, that such agendas as: anti-immigration, Islamophobia, welfare chauvinism, etc. are often superficially lumped in with the nostalgic worldview that populism endorses. In order to tackle these issues on the one hand and challenge the nostalgic worldview that populism advocates on the other, we need to acknowledge them as distinct and as such should be tackled in different manners. Secondly, we should aim to avoid the common tendency of labelling populists as extremists. Not only is “turning back the clock” a rational response by those who consider life to better in the past, but by further closing down the representative dimension of western democracy in this way we are creating genuine revolutionaries who were once simply populist reformists. And finally, in order to tackle the populist’s inclination to re-establish a past unified ‘heartland’ in the future, we must envision a future society where those communities that are typically apprehensive about society’s future direction have a position and stake in the social world.
Callum Downes is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate in Department of Sociology, Philosophy and Anthropology, University of Exeter. See full profile here.
© Callum Downes. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives