Few people are immune to the allure of nostalgia, the classic desire to return to more innocent childhood days, times when things were simpler and more certain. Its effect is felt across cultures and generations. Ever since we supposedly left the Garden of Eden, humans have been trying to find it again; the allure of the ‘golden era’ and our selective remembrance of good times make nostalgia a powerful force that has influenced society throughout history. Indeed, one of the main forces contributing to the emergence of British patriotism in the 18th century was a desire to return to an imagined Saxon era where an uncorrupted constitution had guaranteed perfect liberty for all. This image of a perfect – or at least better – past was not just rose-tinted, but wrong; therein lies the insidious power of nostalgia.
Nostalgia is perhaps most powerful when communities or cultures are going through periods of uncertainty. That 18th century patriotism developed in the context of the industrial revolution, a time of fundamental change affecting all parts of British society. It is unsurprising that, caught up in such a maelstrom of rapidly accelerating transformation, people would look to an imagined past for reassurance and stability. Yet uncertainty alone does not necessarily empower nostalgia; after the ‘annus miribalis’ of 1759, when Britain enjoyed victories over France ‘in every Quarter of the Globe [sic]’, The London Gazette proclaimed that this success was ‘a boast peculiar to our days’. Pitt the Younger, who after the American Revolution had bemoaned that ‘the memorable era of England’s glory … is past’, happily proclaimed his country’s possession of ‘the best and wisest [system of governance] which has ever yet been framed’ just eight years later. When the present is secure – or insecurity seems to be granting success – a culture optimistically looks forward to the future, and the past becomes a comparative measure of that success. When the opposite is true – when uncertainty combines with perceived failure (the true severity of that failure, or its existence as all, is less important than how severe people believe it to be) – a culture pessimistically looks back to an imagined past as a solution or foil to the problems of an unsatisfactory present.
We are currently in the midst of our own revolution – of information – and the uncertainty this has brought has often led to deep pessimism. With rapidly growing wealth inequality since the 1970s – far greater in the US than any other post-industrial democracy – millennials will be the first generation in living memory to have a lower standard of living than their parents. In an NBC-WSJ poll a few years ago, over three quarters of respondents felt they were not confident that life for their children’s generation would be better than for them. Polling over the last decade has shown a consistent belief that the US is heading in the wrong direction, with dissatisfaction figures hovering around 65% during a 2016 election cycle marred by appeals to the past, to make America great again.
Cultures or societies, weakened by uncertainty and their confidences undermined by perceived failures, are particularly susceptible to another cancer, constant throughout history and especially present in that infamous election: fake news. Humans have been exaggerating stories for as long as we’ve been able to tell them; for example, Spanish explorers in the 16th century were pulled to the New World in part by tales of wealthy cities, vast riches, and Edenic peoples. Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, the governor of New Spain, was drawn north into “unexplored” territories by rumours regarding the location of the Seven Cities of Antilia. Supposedly founded by seven bishops fleeing Iberia during the Muslim invasions, their existence had become fact in the collective Iberian consciousness before the Americas had even been discovered. Pre-Columbian maps drew them on islands in the Atlantic, and explorers “discovering” the West Indies named them the ‘Antilles’ under the belief that they had found those islands. Coronado, of course, never found the Seven Cities, instead stumbling upon – and often destroying – various Native American ‘Pueblos’, before giving up and returning south. In this period too the lines between reality and myth were blurred, not least in the popular imagination.
Indeed, just as the assumption that there was a dichotomy between rational Europeans and superstitious natives was ethnocentric and patronising, so too is it equally fallacious to apply that assumption to the present in relation to the past. Reputable world maps may no longer point to mystical isles and warn of grotesque beasts, and even the most stubborn legends (think Bigfoot) are largely viewed as such, but it is simply the nature of the untruths spread that has changed rather than the practice itself. Sensationalist stories, statistics pulled out of thin air, Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ – these are the Orwellian myths of the postmodern era, where the frontier between rhetoric and reality is blurred.
It is easy to imagine that this problem is worse than ever. Looking at the hysteria surrounding fake news, and the pessimism in the polls, one might certainly be led to believe that we are in a unique period of crisis. Yet, as is often the case with such phenomena, none of this is fundamentally new. Politicians and leaders have used nostalgia and fake news to manipulate their populaces for millennia. If anything, the people have become far better at holding them accountable; with the internet bringing greater freedom of information, those leaders are far less able to ignore public opinion, hide ugly truths, or control a narrative in the way that they had always done.
Recent history provides a perfect example of this. If the popular narrative is to be believed, the US fought the Cold War for its inherent ideals – liberty, democracy, and individual rights. National Security Council Report 68 articulated what would become US Cold War policy for the next forty years: the world was divided into two camps, the free world and the communists; as the ‘leader’ of the former group, the US had to marshal its collective economic strength and buttress its allies’ military capacity; preventing the spread of communism was to be achieved at all costs (as a defeat ‘anywhere [was] a defeat everywhere’); and the battle would continue until the Kremlin gave in. But, as Hardt and Negri argue, ‘protecting countries from Soviet imperialism became indistinguishable from dominating and exploiting them with imperialist techniques.’ In Central America this meant maintaining the U.S.’s neocolonial empire. Since the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, the countries of Central America had been routine victims of intervention, invasion, and occupation by their ‘good’ neighbour; their ‘role’ in that empire, as summarised in a 1949 State Department memorandum, was as a ‘source of raw materials and a market’ to be exploited. To defend the free world, Central America had to stay in its dependent role; this was a sacrifice to democratic ideals that the US was willing to make.
Hence why, after reminding the world that ‘any nation’s right to a form of government and an economic system of its own choosing is inalienable’, President Eisenhower personally authorised a CIA coup that would depose Guatemala’s first democratically elected president. But it was “necessary”, because his government was ‘Communist-infiltrated’ – as New York Times articles would constantly claim- despite the Secretary of State admitting that it was ‘impossible to produce evidence clearly tying the Guatemalan government to Moscow.’
Hence why, after announcing an Alliance for Progress that would bring revolutionary change, liberal darling JFK supported right-wing coups and dictators in every Central American country, and his successor oversaw massive buildup in the militaries used by those dictators to suppress their own population. But again, it was “justified”, because these military regimes were ‘most effective’ at containing communists.
Hence why, after true revolution did break out in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and El Salvador, President Carter’s administration sent more aid to governments that routinely violated their citizens’ fundamental human rights; and why Reagan illegally funnelled arms to a counterrevolutionary terrorist group that – with other right-wing death squads, some trained and led by ex-Nazis smuggled out of Europe by the US – killed hundreds of thousands of Central American civilians. But yet again, it was OK because, in defending the world against communism – or, as Reagan claimed, just ‘when it believes that its interests are best served’ – the US had the ‘right’ to ‘practice covert activity’ without even its own population knowing.
Such a disparity between rhetoric and reality – such a propensity for fake news! Take the New York Times’s description of the aforementioned US-backed Guatemalan dictator Castillo Armas, who, despite being a ‘true democrat’, killed hundreds of his citizens on taking power; who, despite ‘really trying hard to have a clean government’, enacted a constitution that empowered him to ignore the rights guaranteed within; whose exercise of that power, whose declaration that the ‘era of tolerance is over’, whose imprisonment of anyone who insulted him, ‘can be excused’, as always, ‘by the continued strength of the Red underground.’
The vast availability and dissemination of information facilitated by the internet should prevent such disparities from being possible. The endless articles disproving blatant falsehoods, the proliferation of independent fact-checkers, and the outrage that Trump’s behaviour brings are all promising signs of health in the fight against fake news and demagogic appeals to nostalgia; they are also indications that a single actor cannot control a narrative as they traditionally have been able to do.
This is not to suggest that everything is going fine, however. It most certainly is not. The demagogue has always been democracy’s fatal weakness, and the resurgence of right wing populism around the worlds shows that the problems outlined in this article are still vitally dangerous today; that the fight certainly isn’t won.
The success of Trump is itself proof of this. Its success is, however, unsurprising; 2018 Gallup polls show that Americans’ perceived top problems are immigration (22%, a historic high) and dissatisfaction with government and poor leadership (19%, a more traditional concern), two factors central to Trump’s disinformation-filled campaign to ‘bring back our borders’ and ‘drain the swamp’. It is also no surprise that Hillary Clinton, with her bland assertions that ‘America has never stopped being great’ and unshakable association with a hated political elite, lost what was a supposedly guaranteed election.
Indeed, Clinton represented an arrogance among certain sectors of democratic society, that the status-quo could not possibly be upset. This article’s placement of fake news and appeals to nostalgia within a historical context should not be confused for acceptance of such complacency. Just because the problem is not new does not make it less dangerous; despite improvements in the situation, the potential for relapse still exists.
For example, despite the aforementioned benefits brought by the internet, it has downsides too. Research suggests that people naturally ‘curate their political environments, subsisting on one-sided information diets’ and ‘select[…] into politically homogeneous neighbourhoods’. In confirming their own biases, it seems people are happy to control the narrative themselves, or allow others to do so. Furthermore, the nature of the internet – its selective pressure for the sensationalist, the quickly read, liked, and shared – seems to be promoting the spread of fake news, which is often tailored to appeal to those existing biases.
How, then, should success be won? Indicatively, the internet provides countless opinions and solutions, but finding objective truths proves difficult. It seems likely that the Democrats will have to appeal to their own grassroots to succeed; establishment centrism might no longer be a viable solution in such a polarised, pessimistic polity. Indeed, the unpredicted popularity of Bernie Sanders, reinforced this year by the midterm election of candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, seems to support this. Another promising suggestion is the use of ‘deliberative institutions’ to ‘deepen citizen engagement’. By changing the nature of questions asked, connecting groups with diverse opinions (working against the trend of homogenisation), granting citizens opportunities to genuinely influence decisions, and ‘communicating to officials that they can actually do better by asserting less control over the message environment’, these institutions promise to deliver ‘deeper forms of democratic participation’ that may go some way to counteracting the problems listed above. For example, using the power of the internet to facilitate deliberation between members of Congress (a traditionally despised and distrusted institution) and representative samples of their constituents produced positive results.
Weak, short-sighted solutions – such as the calls for Trump’s removal – are utterly unhelpful. Trump is not the solution but a symptom of the more fundamental problems of fake news and appeals to nostalgia. Also dangerous is the use of such things by opposition politicians, for example Ocasio-Cortez’s assertion that being ‘morally right’ matters more than factual accuracy – argued as a defence of her own spread of false information.
Defending democracy against demagogues and their subversive use of fake news and appeals to nostalgia is an active process, a fight that continues to the present. There never was a golden age, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards one.
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Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America (1992), pp. 15-25.
Hardt, M., & Negri, A. Empire (2000), p. 178.
Chomsky, Noam. What Uncle Sam Really Wants (1992), p. 12.
LaFeber, W. Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America (1983), pp. 122-124; 173-180; 152.
Schoultz, Lars. ‘U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions’ in Stanford Central America Action Network, eds. Revolution in Central America, p. 278.
Chomsky, N. Turning the Tide – US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace.
Chomsky, N. Deterring Democracy (1991), p. 216.
‘International Court of Justice: Case Concerning Military And Paramilitary Activities In And Against Nicaragua (Nicaragua V. United States)’. International Legal Materials 25, no. 5 (1986), p. 49, point 83.