Democracy Dies in Nostalgia

The advent of rising nostalgic nationalism is deemed to make us go backwards while we should be looking forward instead

Aravind Sanjeev
Dec 19, 2020 · 7 min read
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Civil rights march on Washington, D.C on August 28th, 1963. Image for representational purpose only.

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We all feel nostalgic about our childhood. Because childhood is always great compared to whichever latter stage of life we’re in. What’s interesting about nostalgia is that it tends to increase its range from childhood to early adulthood when you age from early adulthood to a middle-aged or an old man. Something about this sentimentality tells us that past was always great and glorious. Although, sometimes it wasn’t. Nostalgia oftentimes acts as an anecdote for a lot of the problems we face today. It is very convenient to blame the change, sit back, and relax. But such a rising mentality across many nations is deemed to create a global blowback.

“Make America Great Again”, now read the slogan one more time. Notice something? The slogan ends with “again”. If America was already great, what is the need to make it great again? Because nothing has actually changed ever since America achieved greatness. It has become more modern, embraced unity in diversity & strengthened democratic institutions. But still, a certain category of people feel that America has eroded its greatness.

This is attributed to nostalgic nationalism. The feeling that America was on top of the world but now it isn’t. Well, America is still on top of the world with the largest economy and greatest military might. But other countries surrounding it has risen to the occasion. It may not have enough room for bossing around like it used to. That really doesn’t mean America’s greatness has eroded. However, this nostalgic feeling tells you that the change inside America created the problem. Now we have a band of people hating on immigrants and blaming globalization for the lack of jobs.

Little do they know that most things they afford come due to globalization. China may have cost them vast amounts of manufacturing jobs. But not a lot of those jobs could have actually materialized if it was done in the US with its high GDP per capita. The average smartphone would probably still cost a hefty sum with most of us sticking to keypad phones thereby eliminating the scope of those smartphone manufacturing jobs in the first place. The end result of America’s 2016 election was simply an actual eroding of America’s greatness and American prowess across the globe. That was quite contrary to the original objective, which by the 2020 election voting pattern is obvious that most nostalgic-white voters haven’t quite understood.

While Donald Trump has marked a giant leap towards American nostalgic nationalism, he isn’t the first world leader to market on this phenomenon. Arguably, the entire Brexit happened because of nostalgic nationalism. Let’s take a look at the leave side’s slogan — “Take back control”. Does this sound similar to “Make America Great Again”?

Just like how America has nothing to be made great “again”, there is really nothing holding Britain to “take back control” from. This is again a nostalgic feeling from the old times of the mighty British empire. Those times are long gone and leaving the EU isn’t making Britain any bigger player in the globe than it already is. In fact, it pretty much accomplishes the opposite. Developed European economies are one of the most powerful countries in the world and Britain is going to lose influence over them by leaving the EU.

If you go to the other side of the world, you can see the same pattern. Take a look at India’s new nationalist rhetoric. A lot of the time it depends on the nostalgic past except the past doesn’t even exist. A lot of the nostalgic nationalism coming from pre-colonized India are just mythical in nature. India was never a politically unified entity before and most of India’s pre-colonial hegemony was attributed to regional kingdoms. Sometimes these kingdoms were set up by foreign invaders. The current govt pushes forward Hindu nationalist rhetoric that often points to old Hindu kingdoms but none of them were actually Hindu. There were no Hindu kingdoms, only kingdoms with Hindus in them. But somehow, a nostalgic pro-Hindu nationalist rhetoric is allowing the country’s right-wing to thrive. This has caused a taint in the country’s secularism, freedom of speech & democracy.

Nostalgic nationalism is something that typically arrives on the shores of democracies from time to time. A democracy usually goes through a cycle of the political atmosphere that oscillates between left and right. As long as the institutions of democracy are strong, it will have its ways for course correction. But if the institutions of democracy aren’t kept strong, especially by people’s check, nostalgic nationalism can eventually lead to dictatorship.

Let’s start with the prime example of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He is a conservative Russian nationalist always thinking through the lens of Russia’s former soviet glory. He has built his politics using strongman nationalism. When he became the Russian president following the resignation of democratically elected leader Boris Yeltsin, he immediately started playing the soviet-KGB nationalism card. This appealed to the wide majority of Russians as it enthralled their nostalgia. He was again re-elected to power. But as soon as his power was in the question, he started tearing down the institutions of democracy. In Russia, presidents can only serve two terms in a row. But Putin’s creative tactics allowed him to rule him as he switched from being Russian president to Russian prime minister. Before leaving the president’s office, he passed laws to transfer powers to the prime minister position. He became the president again winning the arguably-rigged election and anyone that really challenged him after ended up dying. Russian people’s appeal for nostalgic soviet nationalism paved the way for the destruction of Russian democracy.

Another great example of a democracy destroyed by nostalgic nationalism is Turkey. Their current president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is arguably a dictator amassing power across all realms of Turkey. He has very similar characteristics to Vladimir Putin. He plays strongman politics and has an immense love interest in Turkey’s Ottoman past. His vow for the country’s former Ottoman glory has managed to get an audience. He also plays a “protector of Islam” role at the global level. But just like Putin, leaders that crave nostalgic nationalism tends to destroy the country’s democracy. In this case, Erdogan also ruined Turkey’s economy and secularism. Turkey was one of the advanced states that could have been an example for the 21st century as a secular Islamic country.

Nostalgic nationalism not only facilitates destruction for democracies but also strengthening for dictatorships. China’s current president Xi Jinping could be the greatest example of this. He plays nostalgic nationalism with China’s ancient glory. His administration launched multiple international projects like One Belt One Road trying to revive China’s ancient silk route. But a lot of the funding that goes to OBOR is used to debt trap the receiving country. He used the same nostalgic nationalism at home to amass more power than any other leader in China, including Mao. China had little institutions of democracy, to begin with, but under Xi Jinping’s extremely nationalist rhetoric, it has cracked down even more. Provinces like Xinjiang, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia are in complete surveillance even employing facial recognition AI. His administration’s complete disregard for transparency also led to the spread of the coronavirus and the ensuing pandemic. The nationalistic tendencies of the Chinese leader are exemplified by his wolf warrior diplomacy. This has effectively led China with little friends in its own neighbourhood except for the few it managed to debt trap. The end result of his nostalgic nationalist games and wolf warrior diplomacy is a growing global distrust and rebuttal of China. Under Xi Jinping, China has lost most of its cultural soft power and most nations want to also pursue economic independence from China after the pandemic. But if you look back at home, there are millions of Chinese nationalists praising Xi Jinping for his work even when he obsoleted his country’s path to its ancient glory. But to be fair to the Chinese, they don’t get free press unlike in democratic countries. If nostalgic nationalism got onto their heads, it cannot be blamed on them fully unlike those who live in democracies.

If you analyze all the leaders that use nostalgic nationalism, you can clearly see a pattern starting to emerge. Look at Donald Trump, a man who believes America needs to be made great “again”. Look at Boris Johnson, the British prime minister who is a big fan of Winston Churchill wanting to exit the EU no matter what. Look at Indian PM Narendra Modi playing nostalgic Hindu nationalism even sometimes based on myth. Look at Russian president Vladimir Putin who plays soviet-era nationalism using propaganda. Look at Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan who is accustomed to the country’s previous Ottoman glory. And finally, look at Chinese president Xi Jinping who is in a love affair with China’s ancient past. All these leaders have either managed to taint or completely destroy their country’s democracy or at least what is remaining of it.

So, next time when you vote on top of your emotion for what you think is your country’s previous glory, think again. It is very possible that the very luxury to vote might be taken away from you.

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