How Nostalgia Can Hide Dark Political Realities
Andrew Potter Investigates the Nature of Societal Decline
The satirical website The Onion once ran a story with the headline: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.” The conceit was that “retro consumption”—that is, the open-pit mining of our pop-cultural past—was creeping ever closer to the present. Where kids in the 80s held 50s-themed dance parties, by the mid-90s people were already waxing nostalgic for the halcyon days of late-80s hair metal. The story’s (fake) source commented that: “This rapidly shrinking gap between retro and the present day is like a noose closing ever tighter around the neck of American kitsch.” First published in 1997, the piece predicted that we’d be “out of past” to romanticize by 2005: “For the first time in history, a phenomenon and nostalgia for that particular phenomenon will actually meet.”
They were only off by about five years, the past decade having seen the culmination of what’s been called “nostalgia for the present”—the framing and romanticizing of an event or era even as it’s occurring. The Onion article wasn’t so much satire as an incredibly prescient take on how our culture would evolve under the enormous selection pressures of digital media. It’s almost impossible to distinguish a nostalgia craze from a consumer craze anymore. Nostalgia is a form of consumerism, and consumerism is now little more than the dip of a credit card into the river of nostalgia that runs through our social media feeds.
As it evolves into the dominant mood of the 21st century, nostalgia culture has just become the culture, one where consumer crazes and social media shivers amount to little more than the context-free curation of the past. From this perspective, our obsession with nostalgia is just the flip side of the ideology-free eternal present of the end of history. Unmoored and disconnected from how history has actually unfolded, everything from Victorian-era motifs to Cold War symbolism to survivalist masculine posturing all gets funneled into the pop-cultural maw, from which it later emerges as one facet or another of contemporary popular culture.
At one level, the current obsession with nostalgia can be read as a straightforward response to rapid technological change. The world is crazy, fast-paced, and fragmented. Our every moment is a flood of texts and DMs and TikTok videos and memes, all of which pass by in an endless stream, seemingly without connection to anything but the passing show.
But this nostalgia-on-demand also points to an even more powerful force driving the cultural moment, which is nostalgia as the principle product of our most popular technologies. Video game nostalgia and retro consoles are a huge market. Remember Pokémon Go, the insanely popular app-based game from 2015 that saw crowds of civilians wandering the streets, stumbling into dead bodies, into crime traps, and even to their deaths? Its initial appeal leaned heavily on the nostalgia for the original Game Boy version of Pokémon, which, for many, was one of the first video games they’d loved as kids. There are countless other websites devoted to the curation of the past, including the straightforwardly named Nostalgia Machine, where you enter a given year and get served up a screen populated with links to the Billboard hits of time.
And then there’s social media. Facebook has its “On This Day” feature, Twitter has a function that lets you see how your timeline looked any number of years earlier, while Instagram has at-the-ready filters to give any pic the look of a Polaroid that’s been fading in a photo album for decades. If you’re careless enough to upload your phone’s pictures to a cloud service like Google Photos, you’ll get a daily nostalgia montage of photos you took on this date one, two, three, and four years ago. You can now spend your days wallowing in the past; indeed, many of us do. Our culture has become a form of nostalgia-as-service. We’re forever trapped in our online world, going round and round on an all-encompassing digital version of Don Draper’s famous carousel from Mad Men.
Some psychologists see this as a good thing, since nostalgia can serve as emotional ballast by keeping us grounded in something certain. Where nostalgia was once seen as a malady, a mental illness to be cured, it’s now being interpreted as a healthy corrective to the fast pace of the modern world. The new wisdom is that nostalgia can serve as a cultural security blanket, offering a quantum of comfort or happiness in a world gone crazy.
Missed in all this is the essence of the nostalgic mood, which is not so much about “remembering” but misremembering. Nostalgia only works when we deliberately ignore certain aspects of the past and deliberately foreground other elements. It’s about seeing the past in a very specific way—as more innocent, naive, and authentic than the present. All nostalgia is therefore fundamentally about our present feelings of disquiet or unhappiness, a state that always compares poorly with the past. And as harmless and inward as that might seem, it actually has enormous political implications. Underneath nostalgia’s happy-go-lucky veneer is something a lot darker: identity politics, populism, and the culture wars.
Across the West, politics in the 21st century has been dominated by two features: nostalgia-based populism and identity politics. Not only has liberal democracy, with its pleasant mix of consumer culture and rights-based individualism, failed to triumph, in many places it’s in retreat, while the hope for a technocratic political culture based on reason, science, and expertise is increasingly forlorn.
Almost from the moment he took power in 1999 in Russia, Vladimir Putin started building an autocracy on a profound sense of national loss over the demise of the Soviet Union, which he once called “the greatest political catastrophe of the 20th century.” A decade later in the United States, one of the first and clearest politics-as-nostalgia plays was the so-called Tea Party revolution—the political movement that began in 2010 as a sort of reactionary insurgency within the Republican party in the United States. More recently, the politics of nostalgia has been the driving force behind two of the most seismic events of the last half-decade; namely, the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, and the success of the Leave faction in the Brexit vote of 2016. Nostalgia has also been seen as a motivator behind other recent Western populist movements, including in Turkey, Hungary, Poland, and Brazil.
At first blush there seems to be no obvious connection between the nostalgic attraction of pop culture and political movements like Brexit or Trump’s MAGA agenda. After all, there’s nothing inherently political about, say, digging out your old flannel shirt and spinning a Nirvana CD. One might wonder, too, what harm there is in grownups bonding over a few rounds of Pokémon Go.
But this objection ignores the ways in which popular culture and politics have always intersected, each at once reflecting and responding to the other. It’s surely no accident, for example, that television shows like Downton Abbey and The Crown romanticize a distinctive British culture and thus help normalize the political drivers of Brexit. Or take a television show like Netflix’s enormously popular Stranger Things, with its racially diverse cast of Dungeons and Dragons nerds. Here, a veneer of current diversity politics helps distract us from the fact that the popular culture the show celebrates was, by current standards, enormously racist and misogynist. It can be difficult to notice just how much these seemingly innocuous exercises in cultural nostalgia feed into populist fantasies about a lost golden age.
The main features of this populism are by now familiar: the rejection of science and other forms of expertise, hostility towards immigrants, hatred of the mainstream media, and a deep antagonism towards elites of all stripes. The animating core of populism is the notion that a pure, true, authentic tribe or “people” are at every turn being subjugated, insulted, denigrated, and exploited by a class of globalist and cosmopolitan elites.
The narrative of an authentic folk betrayed by a false elite has fueled a reactionary conservative agenda, to the point where the predominant form of conservatism that exists in many Western countries is the populist version. Mainstream conservatives do exist, in academia, think tanks, and the media. There’s also a substantial cottage industry of writings devoted to wooing conservatism back to its roots in small government economics and libertarian politics. The wooers haven’t had much success though, and there’s little reason to think this will change any time soon.
In its rejection of reason, science, and expertise, the right was to a large extent just picking up the baton from a left that spent much of the 20th century warning of an unholy alliance between science, technology, bureaucracy, and capitalism. Long before the Tea Party or the election of Donald Trump or the Brexit vote or any other manifestation of contemporary populism, the table was set for an across-the-board crisis of liberalism. In the West both the left and right have harbored a decades-in-the-making hostility to the status quo, a sense that the game is rigged, and that the solution to this problem is to be found in some combination of emotion, unreason, and identity politics. The inevitable consequence is a culture war.
Every culture war rests on the shared conviction that the key to political power is control over the culture. In purest form, the ideology underpinning any culture war is the belief that all politics boils down to cultural politics; everything else, including control over the economy or various political institutions, is epiphenomenal. All politics is a winner-take-all struggle over whose taste, and which values, should dominate.
The culture war that most people are familiar with (so familiar that many people don’t even recognize it as a culture war) is the one that’s been raging in the West, more or less continuously since the 1960s, between the establishment and the counterculture. In a nutshell, the countercultural idea was based on a critique of “mass society,” which holds that society is a set of interlocking and self-reinforcing systems, institutions, and ideals that promote and enforce the conformity that capitalism requires in order to function properly. From religion to schools to the medical establishment to the mass media and advertising, our culture is one big system of repression. From a political-activist perspective, you resist this system by “jamming” the culture by behaving in non-conformist ways.
This was the philosophical basis underlying the original sex, drugs, and rock and roll ideals of the counterculture: If society wants you to get married and have kids and live in the suburbs, you resist by having a lot of free sex and living in a commune. If The Man wants you to wear a suit and tie and keep your hair short, you resist by wearing bell bottoms and a tie-dye shirt and growing your hair long. And while the specific moves or poses changed over the decades, the basic structure of countercultural rebellion remained constant through successive movements, such as punk in the seventies and grunge in the nineties, culminating in the anti-consumerism movement of the early 2000s.
While the counterculture—along with its cultural off-shoots such as “cool,” “alternative,” “edgy,” and “hip”—has pretty much faded out as a serious political battlefront, it remains important for a couple of reasons. First, it established the idea that a culture war was, on the one hand, always and everywhere a battle between the forces of repression and conformity and those of freedom and individualism. On the other, it helped cement the conviction that counterculture was an essentially left-wing phenomenon, and that the forces of conformity were arrayed on the right.
This dynamic, of a fundamental conflict between a non-conformist countercultural left and a repressive establishment right, came to a head during the last great culture war of the late 80s and early 90s. An early salvo was Allan Bloom’s bestselling 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, which blamed the counterculture-infused liberalism of students and the academy (as well as, of all people, Mick Jagger) for their embrace of cultural relativism and political nihilism.
Bloom’s book sparked an enormous debate about the relationship between popular culture and political values, as well as the proper role of universities, the curriculum, and the so-called Western Canon. Five years later, the American paleoconservative Pat Buchanan gave a name to this debate during a stump speech for the re-election of President George H.W. Bush. Drawing an explicit comparison to America’s still-fresh victory over communism, Buchanan said: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” According to Buchanan, the Baby Boomer, liberal, post-hippie Clintons were on one side of this war, George H.W. Bush and the God-fearing people of small-town America on the other.
Bill Clinton won the election of course, and his victory helped reinforce the view that, in America at least, conservatism was the party of religiosity, conformity, and establishment values, while the liberal “I didn’t inhale” left was just the respectable face of the counterculture. It also reinforced bipartisan convictions around the importance of the culture war itself: both sides knew that controlling the culture was the key to political power; it just so happened that the liberals had won for a change.
This historical alliance between countercultural politics and the left is so entrenched that it’s hard to remember that they are logically distinct; that there’s nothing natural about connecting the two. In fact, what makes the present culture war so confusing, and so remarkable, is how its defining characteristic is the wholesale migration of countercultural thinking from left to right.
This was no accident; rather, it was an explicit strategy devised by Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager and chief of staff. Bannon’s analysis of the overall political situation in America, and the respective strategies pursued by the left and the right, was in most respects completely orthodox, in that he saw political power as belonging to whoever controlled the culture. Indeed, despite long-standing Republican dominance in Washington, Bannon believed that in choosing to pursue cultural politics, the left had in fact adopted the better strategy. “While we were taking over Washington,” he said, “the liberals were busy taking over Hollywood.” In other words, the right controlled the state, but the left controlled the far more powerful instruments of cultural production. “Politics is downstream from culture” was Bannon’s preferred slogan for the phenomenon he’d identified: the culture had become so hostile to right-wing ideas that it was seriously limiting conservatives’ ability maneuver politically. In order to reclaim territory lost to the left, Bannon decided, the right needed to adopt a new cultural politics.
The need for a new “cultural politics” is what ultimately gave rise to the idea of the alt-right. What’s often been missed in the debate over alt-right politics is that it is essentially a countercultural movement with a right-wing instead of left-wing valence. What makes the alt-right a countercultural phenomenon is that it has internalized the essential feature of the counterculture: the celebration of rule-breaking or norm-violation in whatever form. What makes it a conservative phenomenon is that the rules or norms of collective action or conformity that it seeks to undermine are those championed by the left under the guise of political correctness.
The alt-right’s nonconformist gambits run from the refusal to be “politically correct” (e.g., objecting to using the preferred pronouns of trans individuals) to the ubiquitous online use of racist and misogynistic language, from the embrace of Nazi tropes and symbols to the rejection of virtually all forms of expertise and authority and even the repudiation of the legitimacy of the state and the rule of law. In general, whenever a norm or rule is designed to facilitate collective action in the name of progress, the alt-right sees itself as dutybound to violate it. Dissent is seen as an intrinsically political act.
It is amazing to consider the extent to which this is a repudiation of the conservative position in the culture war of the late 80s and early 90s, marking, as it does, a complete reversal of the traditional positions of left and right. The norm-flouting nihilism of the alt-right has been met, on the left, with the obsessive imposition of a constellation of increasingly strict and constantly shifting rules about people’s public language and behavior. This behavior is what goes by the general term “woke politics,” but a more apt term might be to call it the “ctrl-left.”
It’s important to underscore how unexpected this development is. For well over half a century, it’s been an article of faith, agreed to by all sides, that the right was the side of rules, order, tradition, and circumspection, while the left was the party of rebellion, individualism, freedom, and transgression. Now the political valences have reversed themselves, with the right setting itself up as the true countercultural opposition to the left’s restrictiveness and enforced conformity.
Excerpted from On Decline by Andrew Potter Copyright © Andrew Potter, 2021. Excerpted by permission with permission by Biblioasis. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.