The uses of nostalgia
How to get the best from an outbreak of reminiscence
Politicians have always exploited the past. But just now, rich countries and emerging economies are experiencing an outbreak of nostalgia. Right and left, democracies and autocracies, all are harking back to the glories of yesteryear. Even as President Donald Trump vows to “Make America great again”, President Xi Jinping is using his “Chinese dream” to banish a century of humiliation and return China to its golden age. Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, has a mission to withstand global capitalism and restore his country’s economic sovereignty. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the most powerful politician in Poland, wants to purge the last traces of Soviet communism to bring about a renaissance of old-fashioned Polish values.
This orgy of reminiscence has different causes in different countries. In emerging markets past glories are often a foretaste of future triumphs. China, which has enjoyed 40 years of transformative growth, senses that it is on the threshold of something great. Under Narendra Modi, India has been celebrating its growing geopolitical heft with a Hindu-nationalist revival.
In the rich world, by contrast, nostalgia usually stems from what Sophia Gaston, of the Henry Jackson Society, calls “an omnipresent, menacing feeling of decline”. Almost two-thirds of Britons think that life used to be better. A similar share of the French do not feel at home in the present. This year’s UN World Happiness Report found that Americans are becoming less content. Large majorities in rich and developing countries believe that robots and automation will increase inequality and harm employment. A poll of 28 countries in 2017 found that over half of respondents expected their living conditions to stagnate or worsen. Only 15% of Japanese think their children will be richer than their parents.