In this interview, Ezgi Elçi talks about the populist use of the past. Collective nostalgia is about yearning for a time before a fall or a decline in society: populists often instrumentalize this feeling to generate an opposition between the pure people versus immoral elites. Unexpectedly, though, the nostalgia of populists is more about the future than the past. The elites allegedly betrayed the country in the past, but what really matters is to build a new society which, clearly, needs new (populist) elites.
We then move to discuss the case of Turkey, and how Erdogan’s party (AKP) exploits Ottoman nostalgia to legitimize contemporary policies: the secular elites are blamed because they cut ties between the people and the glorious Ottoman Empire, thus mobilizing mostly Islamic masses. We then talk about nostalgia in the UK, Hungary, Sweden, and the Netherlands, and the the links between nostalgia and populism.
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1) In your work you talk of collective nostalgia. Can you give us a definition of collective nostalgia? What is it, and why does it matter?
Collective nostalgia is related to our social identities and events or objects linked to such identities. Different than personal nostalgia, collective nostalgia concerns yearning for a time before a fall or a decline in society, where certainty and authenticity prevailed. Collective nostalgia matters because it helps identity continuity during times of threat towards our collective identities. Previous studies pointing to such function of collective nostalgia concluded that it has a positive relationship with terror management, identity continuity, and social identity. Its relationship with populism stems from the instrumentalization of nostalgia in generating the pure people (us) versus immoral elites (them) identities, creating borders between these two distinct and antagonistic groups.
2) It seems that populists often use a nostalgic rhetoric, talking about a golden age that has been destroyed by some evil elites and that should be restored for the glory of the people. How does this idea of the past connect to their vision for the future of the country?
I think nostalgia is closely related to the monist and moralistic characteristics of populism. I borrow the following explanation from a late Turkish thinker, Ulus Baker. I believe the nostalgia of populists is not about the past; it is about the future. They want a society that lives as they live or as they desire in the future. It is more of designing the future. For populists, the elites hijacked the people’s sovereignty and betrayed the people in the past. Populism emerges with a promise of taking power or control back and giving it back to the people. In the good old days, corrupt elites were not as powerful as they are now. As elites pursue their special interests, they disregard the people’s demands. So, populists offer their constituencies an alternative system when the elites were not dominant, and authenticity and familiarity prevailed. Populists promise to return to the heartland, in Paul Taggart’s terms.
3) You have studied the use of political nostalgia by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP). You claim that in Turkey the primary driver of populism is the Islamist vs. secularist divide. How does the party use political nostalgia? And what specific characteristics does Turkish populism show compared to populism in Western Europe and Latin America?
Erdoğan and AKP are not the first to use Ottoman nostalgia in Turkish politics. The lineage of political Islam in Turkey before the AKP frequently utilized Ottoman nostalgia. In Turkey, the populist cleavage is based on the duality between authentic Muslim people and corrupt secular elites. This characteristic differs Turkey from other populist cases in Western Europe, where populist duality primarily stems from nativism, or anti-immigration, and Euroscepticism – or Latin American cases where mostly left-wing populists pursue an anti-imperialist agenda. Erdoğan uses Ottoman nostalgia to criticize the secular elites because the latter group cut ties between the people and the glorious Ottoman Empire. He pictures the AKP rule as the descendants of the Ottoman Empire. In one of his speeches in 2017, Erdoğan argued that the most important victory of the AKP was fighting against the tutelage of secular elites who aimed to design politics and society for their ends. Secular civil-bureaucratic elites oppressed the people for decades. They imposed alien lifestyles on the people’s values, history, and culture. As the elites gained power, the people became weak and vulnerable. In the end, politics has become a part of a distorted order rather than representative of the people. In another speech in 2014, Erdoğan said that the AKP is built on the legacy of the Great Ottoman State. So, if there is any problem in the world, if there is persecution, their faith and values require them to intervene in the issues as their ancestors did in the past.
4) You talk of ‘Ottoman nostalgia’ and ‘Kemalist nostalgia’. Can you tell us by whom are they mobilized, and with what effects?
Ottoman nostalgia emerged as a reaction to Kemalist modernization efforts and the cutting of ties to the Ottoman legacy to create a modern, secular nation-state. The AKP exploits Ottoman nostalgia to legitimize contemporary policies by glorifying and reinterpreting the Ottoman past. For some scholars, it represents an imperial and irredentist fantasy of reviving the Ottoman spirit. Ottoman nostalgia mobilizes mostly Islamic masses. It carries a resentment towards the secular establishment in Turkey. Kemalist nostalgia, on the other hand, emerged during the 1990s due to changing socio-political and socio-economic structures. In addition to the rise of identity politics and political Islam, increasing neoliberal politics and strengthening relationships with the European Union challenged the Kemalist ideology. In turn, Kemalists began demonstrating their yearning for the era of Kemalist reforms (during the 1920s and 1930s). To a certain degree, Kemalist nostalgia is a reaction to the rise of political Islamist parties in Turkey, such as the AKP and its predecessors. It mobilizes predominantly secular center-left constituency but also the secular center-right to a lesser extent.
5) You show that in Turkey collective nostalgia produces populism, and in turn populism produces collective nostalgia. How do you think your findings could travel in other countries?
Ottoman and Kemalist nostalgias are idiosyncratic phenomena. So, it is almost impossible to apply their effects in other settings. However, different countries display several types of nostalgia. For example, Donald Trump’s slogan “Make America Great Again” refers to a yearning for an era when the gender and racial relations in the US were more “ordered” compared to today. In Western Europe, populist radical right parties frequently mention the era before the European unification and influx of immigrants and how such changes challenged the people’s sovereignty. One of the most significant examples of this nostalgia was prominent during the Brexit referendum campaign of the Leave camp, with the slogan “Let’s take back control,” which means the people were in charge in the past and should be again. In Eastern Europe, in Hungary, Viktor Orban and his party Fidesz mention how the Treaty of Trianon led to the collapse of the Kingdom of Hungary, and their goal is to re-establish a strong and influential Hungary again. In short, many populist politics exploit nostalgia in varying contexts.
6) Is it possible that, when in opposition, populist parties use a negative collective memory as the representation of something that should be overcome, rather that a positive golden era to which to return? In other words, do you think that populist actors politicize the past in strategic ways?
As all actors in politics, populists also act strategically. In fact, nostalgia itself is a strategic action because nostalgia is not history. Nostalgia requires remembering and forgetting. Nostalgia is a whitewashed past, eliminated from the bad events or failures of the past. For many scholars that work on nostalgia, it is romanticization, idealization, simplification, mythologization, and symbolization of the past. But populist parties may strategically use both negative collective memory and nostalgia for a golden era for different ends.
7) Populist actors seem to be particularly interested in politicizing the past to obtain electoral gains in the present. Why do you think this is the case? Is it something specific about populist parties, both right and left, or can this attitude be found also in non-populist parties?
The instrumentalization of nostalgia is not unique to populist parties. For example, Kemalist nostalgia in Turkey is utilized mainly by the non-populist, center-left Republican People’s Party. However, when nostalgia is used as a tool for generating antagonistic us versus them identities and when us and them tap on a crosscutting cleavage, it paves the way for populism. At least, nostalgia is more common among populists than others. For example, I used the Pew Research 2017 Survey to examine nostalgia in Sweden and the Netherlands. Nostalgia was measured with the question, “In general, would you say life in (survey country) today is better, worse, or about the same as it was fifty years ago for people like you?” The results illustrate that Sweden Democrats and the Party for Freedom constituency have more negative opinions on today than the past compared to the centrist party supporters, People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy and Labour Party in the Netherlands and Moderate Party and Social Democratic Party in Sweden. So, one can say that nostalgia is more widespread for populists than non-populists because the former group has profound discontent about the current establishment; thus, they want to return to the paradise lost more than the latter group.
8) Do you feel that exploiting the past for electoral gains is something that always existed and remained constant over time, or rather something that is becoming increasingly common across the world?
I have no data to give an empirical answer to this question. But who does not feel nostalgic from time to time? I think it is a natural reaction of humans when they encounter different problems. Each generation may have nostalgia for another past. In her seminal book The Future of Nostalgia’s first chapter, Svetlana Boym provides the history of nostalgia from medicine to romanticism. But, overall, I think nostalgia has always been a part of politics. Still, it has become common around the world in the contemporary period due to the rising discontent towards the established order.
Ezgi Elçi is a lecturer in the Department of International Relations at Özyeğin University. He obtained his Ph.D. in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Koç University. Previously, he was a visiting student researcher in the Center for the Study of Global Issues (GLOBIS) at the University of Georgia with the Fulbright grant. His research interests are on political behavior and political communication. His publications appeared in the British Journal of Political Science, European Political Science Review, Disasters, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, and in edited volumes.