Populism is a worldview that construes society as a struggle between the “corrupt elites” and the “noble people.” New research published in Political Psychology finds that populist attitudes are associated with feelings of personal and collective nostalgia, which could be due to populist rhetoric emphasizing returning to the past.
Populist movements exist across the political spectrum by manifesting, for example, as nationalist, anti-immigration sentiments on the right and income equality concerns on the left. Researchers were interested then in what makes populist attitudes so attractive to citizens.
“Part of the answer may be that populist rhetoric—using emotional language—often draws a comparison between a currently corrupt political system with a much better, glorious past,” wrote study author Jan-Willem van Prooijen and colleagues. “Indeed, populist leaders often promise a return to that glorious past as a solution for the societal problems that they observe (e.g., Trump’s ‘Make America great again’; Farage’s ‘We want our country back’). Such idealizations of history may increase the appeal of populist movements through feelings of nostalgia, defined as a sentimental longing for a better past.”
Nostalgia has also been associated with increased support for right-wing political movements and conservative people tend to place stronger emphasis on tradition and the past compared to liberal people. Researchers conducted three studies to explore this.
For Study 1, researchers recruited a sample of 355 adult participants from the online platform TurkPrime (also known as CloudResearch) who were a minimum age of 25 and United States residents. Participants were measured for existential anxiety by agreements with items such as “I often think about death as this causes me anxiety.” They also were measured for collective angst by agreement with items such as “I am worried about the future vitality of the United States.” Importantly, participants were measured for personal nostalgia (i.e., an individual’s own past and memories) and collective nostalgia (i.e., shared past with American society). Lastly, participants’ populist attitudes were measured.
“Both forms of nostalgia were associated with right-wing political orientation; moreover, political orientation was uncorrelated to populist attitudes, underscoring that populism is a distinct political dimension that occurs at both the left and right,” concluded the researchers.
Results show that both personal and collective nostalgia are associated with higher populist attitudes. Results also show that collective angst, but not existential anxiety, was also associated with higher populist attitudes. Further analysis suggests, though, that existential anxiety may increase populist attitudes by an increase in personal nostalgia. Analyses also suggest the effect of collective angst on populist attitudes may work through an increased sense of both collective and personal nostalgia.
To support the causality of the relationships observed in Study 1, researchers followed up with Study 2 where they manipulated personal and collective nostalgia to compare to a neutral control group. They recruited 589 adult participants from Turk Prime who were again a minimum of 25 years old and U.S. residents.
Participants were randomly assigned to one of three nostalgia conditions: personal nostalgia (where they recalled a nostalgic event from their own past), collective nostalgia (where they recalled a nostalgic event from their country’s past), and the control condition (where they recalled an ordinary event). They then were measured for how nostalgic they felt and then for populist attitudes.
They were also presented with two speeches from unidentified political leaders. One of these was reflective of populist values and the other of pluralist values. Participants then indicated the leader for which they would vote.
Results show no effects of the nostalgia manipulation on populist attitudes or one’s likelihood to vote for the populist candidate. There was, however, an association between populist attitudes and an increased likelihood of voting for the populist candidate.
In Study 3, researchers were interested in whether exposure to populist rhetoric leads to an increase in nostalgia. Researchers recruited 480 adult U.S. based participants from TurkPrime. Participants were randomly assigned to read one of the two speeches used in Study 2. Afterward, they completed the same measures of collective and personal nostalgia and populist attitudes. Results show that people felt both more collective and more personal nostalgia after reading the populist speech compared to the pluralist speech.
“The findings presented here illuminate that populist movements not only emphasize a range of societal threats but also provide citizens with a psychological buffer against these threats, by increasing feelings of nostalgia and promising a return to a glorious past,” noted the researchers.
The authors cite some limitations to this work such as only examining attitudes and not behavior (i.e., voting habits). There is also the possibility that there are other unmeasured underlying variables driving the effects of the populist vs. pluralist speech manipulation.
“It is possible that populist rhetoric increases (personal or collective) nostalgia merely due to its emotional content. Future research may therefore more carefully unpack what specific elements of populist speech drives people’s nostalgic sentiments.”
The study, “Make It Great Again The Relationship Between Populist Attitudes and Nostalgia“, was authored by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Sabine Rosema, Axel Chemke-Dreyfus, Konstantina Trikaliti, and Rita Hormigo.