Adam Lorand delves into the history of conservatism and how nostalgic values are driving politics today.
With the rise of right-wing parties across the Western world, conservative politics is increasingly in the spotlight. This is visible almost everywhere — from Trump’s US election victory, to Marine Le Pen making a presidential runoff against Emmanuel Macron, to Hungary’s anti-immigrant Viktor Orbán (who came up with the idea of building a wall, or rather a fence on their southern border) being poised to win a two-thirds parliamentary majority in April’s elections. But what’s nostalgia got to do with it?
The origins of conservatism can be found in British MP Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he wrote in reaction to the events of 1789. In this work, he articulated some of the core ideas of modern conservatism, namely the importance of religion and tradition. Nostalgia was manifested here not just in his support for tradition, but also in his backing of the institution of the state.
Obviously, his views only laid the foundation for conservatism’s social views. The economically liberal, free-trade advocating aspect of conservatism has been present from the nineteenth-century, but some might say only truly came to primacy after the cooperation of British PM Margaret Thatcher and US President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
In the last decade or so, however, the core ideas of conservative politics have become less clearly defined. Conservatives are still advocating “Christian” values, but each country’s party promotes a version of these which it deems fit for its objectives. Compare, for example, what Hungarian PM Orbán and Germany’s Angela Merkel consider “Christian” values. You will find their ideas resemble each other’s as much as a zebra resembles a horse. Despite having certain common features, overall they differ substantially.
Conservatives have also traditionally been seen as champions of free trade. However, the tariffs recently introduced by Trump can hardly be seen as constituting economic liberalism. At least one thing is certain, however: conservatives promote tradition. The more socially conservative among you might not think so, but don’t forget that even Angela Merkel, arguably the most liberal conservative ever, voted against the legalisation same-sex marriage in Germany. Regardless of these changes, nostalgia still manifests in conservative political ideologies across the globe, though it takes many different forms.
In the United States, the slogan “America First” has allowed everyone’s favourite stable genius, a multi-billionaire TV celebrity to beat several candidates endorsed by the political establishment. Now, what has this slogan got to do with nostalgia?
Firstly, with ever-increasing globalisation, a considerable number of American citizens believe that they are feeling the negative impact of the rising Chinese and German (you know, those “evil” countries with the huge trade surpluses) economies on their lives. Secondly, citizens might fear that the immigrants coming from those “shithole countries” (in Trump’s own words) will invade the US, wiping out the culture of inhabitants.
These sentiments have led some to yearn for the United States of the second half of the 20th century — one of two global superpowers, coordinating the entire Western world’s anti-communist efforts, having a trade surplus instead of a deficit, and not having to deal with as many immigrants (this is actually confirmed by the US Homeland Security’s data, which indicate that from 1950 until the early 1990s, legal immigration was lower than in the in the past decade). This nostalgia fed the protest voting against the establishment that made Donald Trump President.
Nostalgia also drives all of the problems which are currently causing massive headaches for the European establishment. This is evident in the voter demographics of the Brexit referendum. Most voters aged 50 and over voted Leave. This suggests that nostalgia for a United Kingdom without Eastern European immigrants “taking people’s jobs” motivating a huge proportion of the ageing population to vote for Brexit.
Fidesz have shown excellent skill in exploiting the urban-rural divide. Not only around the issue of the EU, but in the politics of the United Kingdom in general, the over 50s are crucial for the success of the Conservative Party. In the 2017 snap elections, the Labour Party had the highest vote share among all voters under 50, while over 50s voted primarily for the Conservatives. The latter age group, in addition to being beneficiaries of Conservative policies, might associate the Conservatives with the Thatcherite economic prosperity, and believe that Theresa May could bring about a similar boom. May herself seems also somewhat prone to nostalgia, as is visible in her proposal to reintroduce grammar schools.
The other major headache of the EU — the Hungarian and the Polish governments — were also elected on a platform of nostalgia. The Hungarian governing party Fidesz have shown excellent skill in exploiting the urban-rural divide (“népi-urbánus vita”, for those of you who happen to speak Hungarian). Since the early 1900s, the rural population has regarded their citizen counterparts with a certain suspicion, which Fidesz reinforced on their campaign trail. They also made small material contributions to villagers to buy votes, such as distributing firewood.
While they did not use “tools” of such dubious legality, the now-incumbent Polish government’s campaign included anti-immigration policy promises, which are nostalgic in that they defend Poland’s Christian culture. In Poland, the Catholic Church played a very important role in providing a platform of passive resistance during the communist era and is therefore hugely important within society.
While conservatism and nostalgia have played an important role in the recent political turmoil that hit the Western world, they shouldn’t be regarded as negative phenomena. Suppose conservative parties embrace some of the liberal ideas of globalisation instead of trying to block them out. For instance, they could accept that other religions can coexist with Christianity without trouble. By simultaneously continuing their efforts to preserve national traditions, they would help national identities endure despite the mixing of peoples with different cultures. Thus, they might become a key force in creating a truly multicultural Western world open for everyone — not just the relatively small percentage of the world population who happen to be born within its borders.