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Nostalgia Can Be Toxic to Foreign Policy

Nostalgia is great for vintage typewriters and Reading Rainbow, but it can dangerous when politics come into play.

Pictures: Rawpixel

A few years back I was stationed in Virginia Beach with the Marine Corps when the entire city was shut down for days due to snow. Like any good Midwesterner, I was prepared. I’d purchased a week’s worth of cheese and wine at the local Trader Joes and settled down with Netflix and the internet. In my browsing, I came across the Kickstarter campaign for the Reading Rainbow reboot. It had a goal to raise $1 million in 35 days. It reached that goal in just 11 hours. I can remember turning my attention from Netflix and watching the total pledge amount tick ever upwards. It was like watching the stock market or a horse race, but if you were a kid of the 90s, it was way better. The project ended up raising $5.4 million. I followed the fundraiser throughout the campaign like a cyclist follows the Tour de France. I’d pull up the website on breaks. I would tell my friends the story and show them the page, overly excited each time the owners hit yet another stretch goal. I was amazed, but also dumbfounded.

How did this campaign do so well in such a short amount of time?

As a woman who has always been a chronic joiner, especially when it comes to the nonprofit world, I wanted to think people gave out of a desire to support reading in high-poverty schools. I thought this was reflective of a major turning point in American life. People understood that reading was the foundation of all learning, and thus of life. More than that, people were so altruistic as to donate their money to further the progress of early childhood literacy!

While that was a nice thought, once the TJ’s red wine buzz wore off, I began to think there was something else to it. Something more power than altruism and logic. That something was nostalgia.

According to Fred Davis in 1977, nostalgia was a concept first coined as a disease of Swiss mercenaries derived from Greek and means a “painful yearning to return home.” Since then the term has evolved to mean, according to Svetlana Boym, more of  a longing for a different time than a longing for home, “a rebellion against the modern idea of time, the time of history and progress.”

According to Davis, nostalgia, from a psychological perspective, is closely tied to our identities – both individually and collectively. In times where our identity seems threatened, that nostalgia can remind us that we are far from insignificant. In times of turmoil and change, it is natural for an individual or group to look for the comfortable and the familiar.

The power of nostalgia can re-strengthen our identities, but in the process can make our reasoning and decision-making weak. Dwight Schrute perhaps said it best, “nostalgia is truly one of the great human weaknesses. Second only to the neck.”

While in the Reading Rainbow case, nostalgia was harnessed for good, that is not always the case.

Nostalgia spurs quirky reboots of favorite childhood shows and that “Sepia” filter on Instagram. Nostalgia becomes dangerous, however, when it overpowers logic, reason, and progress.

Nostalgia in international politics, for example, can be the very thing that blocks logical and reasonable decision-making. In 2017, Donald Trump gave a speech in Ohio that focused on bringing back jobs “because we’re going to bring back our jobs, bring back our wealth, and we are going to bring back our dreams, and we are going to bring back, once again, our sovereignty as a nation.” This is unsurprising as Donald Trump ran a campaign to “Make America Great Again,” with an emphasis on again. Research shows that those who believe the country was better 60 years ago were more likely to vote for Donald Trump. Nostalgia is powerful in politics.

That domestic nostalgia has a real effect on international policy. Most notably support for recent tariffs imposed on foreign goods was justified with the language of nostalgia. In a speech to steelworkers in Pittsburgh in 2016, Donald Trump recounts the glory of the past in sharp contrast to the present. “Pittsburgh played a central role in building our nation. The legacy of Pennsylvania steelworkers lives in the bridges, railways, and skyscrapers that make up our great American landscape.” He goes on to say that role was repaid with betrayal, but that they were going to rebuild. Once elected, he made good on those promises by imposing tariffs meant to protect the steel industry. In a meeting with leaders in the steel and aluminum industry, President Trump remarked, “they used to be a lot bigger, but they’re going to be a lot bigger again.” He goes on in his introduction to argue “so we’re going to build our steel industry back and we’re going to build our aluminum industry back.”

The US isn’t the only country that’s vulnerable to policies that seek to harken a society to the past. A number of journalists have written about the effects nostalgia had on the Brexit vote, one even going as far as to call it “toxic nostalgia,” and one British politician highlighted the racist aspects of British nostalgia by arguing that “Too many were driven by nostalgia for a world where passports were blue, faces were white and the map was coloured imperial pink.” (Soon, the British will in fact trade in their burgundy EU passports to return to the classic navy blue passports used prior to the 1988 switch to the EU style. But ironically, rumors indicate these passports will be made in France.)

Nostalgia may also be helping keep the Cold War lukewarm. Research shows that over half of Russians regret the breakup of the Soviet Union, with higher numbers in older generations.

There’s nothing wrong with longing for a previous time, even romanticizing it. The cultural and psychological phenomenon of nostalgia are what brought the joy of Reading Rainbow into a whole new generation of children’s minds. Nostalgia spurs quirky reboots of favorite childhood shows and that “Sepia” filter on Instagram. Nostalgia becomes dangerous, however, when it overpowers logic, reason, and progress. It becomes a problem when it whitewashes our past and is used as a central motivator in casting a ballot or constructing an international policy. This is partly because research shows that we tend to over-romanticize the past, overlooking the strife and problems of yesteryear. Jon Stewart and John Oliver highlight that tendency, with a bit of humor, stressing that our memories of the past are more a reflection of who we were than what the world really was.

On a more personal note, walking through the halls of a Charleston Elementary school recently I noticed an exhibit of tutors and students in which the tutors talk about a decade in which they would like to live. The tutors (almost exclusively white) all spoke romantically of the 1950s, 1920s, or even earlier. I couldn’t help but see the irony of their desires to return to “more simpler” times while standing next to their students (almost exclusively black). Not only is “going back” unsustainable, it can end in a disaster. Building policies on legacies fails to take into account the new and unique factors of the current period. Furthermore, it often overlooks the mistakes of past events in an effort to relive them. We all benefit when we relegate nostalgia to yearbooks and Kickstarter campaigns and re-center our national policies on logic, facts, and careful debate.

Maggie Seymour


Maggie Seymour is an Illinois native with a BA from Loyola University Chicago in Political Science, an MA in Military History from Norwich University, an MA in Journalism from Mizzou University, and a PhD in International Relations from Old Dominion University. Her dissertation focused on the use of hard power and soft power in counterterrorism. She served 10 years as an active duty intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. During that time she deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, and Operation Inherent Resolve. She is an avid ultra runner and writes most of her pieces while logging her miles. She is currently serving in the Marine Corps Reserve and is a Trainor Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute.


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