Nostalgia as Politics

So much of the ruin of modern civilization, with its once-noble attempt to realize practical liberty, may be traced to the gradual calcification of democratic political institutions into freedom-stifling tunnels of partisan loyalty. This hardened devotion to a group or tribe eventually entails little or no demand that one’s party exhibit any of the characteristics or impulses that originally attracted one to it; allegiance, whether enthusiastic or somewhat grudging, derives merely from the group’s being experienced, emotionally and immovably, as “my party.”

This calcification facilitates the efforts of political establishments to maintain a permanent grip on power and influence, by way of entrenching an existing party structure as constituting “the only realistic options” at election time, thus ensuring that no other options will ever gain a foothold, except to the extent these others are willing to accommodate themselves to the established norms, in one way or another. In the United States of America, this process has resulted in the seemingly inescapable dynamic of the so-called “two-party system,” also known, for purposes of rhetorical influence, as “the binary choice,” as in, “If you don’t vote for the Republican, then you are effectively voting for the Democrat (or vice versa).” It matters not, however, whether the so-called realistic options are two or (as in Canada) five; the effect is the same, as is the cause.

But how to make sense of the cause of this political petrifaction? That is, why would people still free enough to cast an uncoerced vote every two, four, or five years nevertheless choose to vote, consistently, as though their franchise were no more within their personal control than votes cast in China or Iran? In other words, since these suicidal voting practices are chosen, repeatedly and predictably, over many elections cycles, the decisions involved must be regarded as acts of will — or, to be more precise, of a will corrupted by emotional compulsions which somehow override all common sense in the electoral deliberations of those being perpetually duped.

The question, then, is what emotional compulsion is at work here? By what self-destructive weakness have the peoples of the advanced democratic nations, over several generations, collectively ceded their own genuine interests to party interests, even when the latter are so plainly in contradiction of the former? A major mechanism of this disaster, I suggest, may be reduced to one deceptively simple and commonplace sentimental attraction tugging at the heart of every human being each day: nostalgia.

I grew up as an avid Montreal Canadiens fan, followed the team closely as a boy, and had many favorite players among the team’s classic lineup of the 1970s, when they were to the NHL what the New York Yankees of the early 1950’s were to baseball. But boyhood is the time for boyish things, and I had ceased to pay much attention to professional hockey by the time the Habs won their last Stanley Cup to date, in the early 1990s.

Just last season, however, in the spring of 2021, the Canadiens made a surprising underdog run at the NHL championship, advancing all the way to the Stanley Cup finals before finally losing. There was not a player on that team who existed for me as anything but a vaguely familiar name, perhaps noticed peripherally in internet headlines while I searched for other things. I had not watched a game, or even part of a game, for years, and therefore had no rooting interest in this iteration of a team most of whose notable players from my fan years were now at least thirty years retired from their playing careers. In fact, in recent years, my general attitude about professional spectator sports has turned decidedly skeptical, as I find all social palliatives (the “circuses”) offensive and essentially illiberal in an age of growing tyranny, when a certain refusal to accept the comforting terms of “life as usual” is an imperative of political resistance and renewal.

And yet, almost against my will it seemed, I found myself half-attentive to the team’s playoff run; slightly pleased when they won a game, slightly displeased when they lost, a little disappointed at their ultimate defeat in the final round. I even listened to parts of a few games on radio broadcasts over the internet, while working in my office, as though these events were relevant to my life in some way. But why? Why should it have mattered to me in the least that a bunch of athletes in whose careers, and in whose sport, I had no abiding interest, were proceeding through the playoffs, as teams do in every league, in every sport, year after insignificant year?

Why did I care, even in the slightest, about the fate of men I did not know who happened to be playing hockey wearing the same uniform colors that used to be worn by athletes I had known and admired as a boy decades earlier? The question almost answers itself, of course. I was not really cheering for these men, but rather for their uniform. I was cheering for my old favorite players, with the new, unknown (to me) players as, in effect, stand-ins for my childhood heroes. In other words, my brief interest in the 2021 Montreal Canadiens was a product of pure nostalgia, and nothing else.

The same sentimental mechanism, I believe, accounts for much of the entrenched establishmentarianism in modern democratic regimes, in spite of the fact that many voters, if not most, would acknowledge in their rational moments that the current representatives of “their” respective parties bear little if any resemblance to the members who occupied those positions when these voters first formed their party allegiances, in their political childhoods, as it were.

Take the example of the millions of reasonable Americans who would have self-identified as “grassroots Republicans” over the past generation — the “constitutional conservatives,” “Tea Party voters,” or what have you. Essential to their self-identity and their explicit political views, for many years, has been the steadfast belief that the Republican Party establishment, comprising all the high-ranking forces within the national party, its donor class, and its senior elected officials, have “abandoned” (what these millions perceive as) the party’s past commitments to limited government, federalism, states’ rights, and constitutional republicanism in general. They rail, year after infuriating year, against what they call “the GOP establishment,” a label they use to distance the party’s authoritarian direction from their own responsibility for this betrayal, as they continue, election in and election out, to vow that they will not let the party pull the old bait-and-switch on them this time — “No sirree!” they shout, this time they will never accept another establishment tool or puppet as their representative! — only to bow their heads on election eve and accept the party yoke yet again. “After all, if we don’t vote Republican, then we are effectively voting for the Democrat,” they concede at last, conveniently lying to themselves as always, in order to rationalize doing what they were really going to do all along. But why? Nostalgia — the grip of that sudden hope that “our team” might win it all this time simply trumps all rational considerations of their and their country’s deeper needs and interests, all underlying awareness of the true and catastrophic emptiness any such “victory” would entail. Victory not for the good, not for the soul, not for the nation, but merely for the warm memory of the uniform, and the youthful joy of screaming “We win!” — where the “we” is a delusion and the “win” is worse than Pyrrhic.

The powerful appeal of nostalgia resides in the fact that its emotional compulsion to “return home” is not really an attraction to any old place or circumstance, but rather to the old us. Something reminds us fondly of what we ourselves were (or imagine ourselves to have been), and hence fills us with a longing to revive that past iteration of ourselves in some way, even if only through stand-ins or surrogates for the past version of our being that always and inevitably lies dormant within us. This form of longing, however, is in truth a reversal or mirror of the real thing. For unlike true longing, nostalgia is not a call to completion, but rather to an earlier stage of incompleteness. It is not a striving for eternity, but rather a weakness for clinging to the attractive comforts of a certain remembered episode of our temporality.

Nostalgia as politics has been an essential spiritual mechanism in the ruin of democratic modernity. It is the most pernicious manifestation of man’s weakness for clinging to past dreams, or even to dreams of a past that may never have existed at all — the past of the tribe or party, which when viewed through the warm filter of nostalgic memory, facilitates the collective embrace of collectivism itself. “My party right or wrong.” But if the party has proved itself to be essentially and irredeemably wrong…?

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