Researchers from North Carolina State University and Virginia Commonwealth University say they found that having a high level of national nostalgia predicted both positive attitudes toward former President Donald Trump and racial prejudice.
In previous studies, nostalgia, or feeling a fondness and longing for the past, has been shown to increase feelings of social connectedness, personal meaning, and self-continuity. However, in this recent study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, researchers say these same feelings of sentimentality may have negative consequences on the perception and acceptance of others.
While results showed national nostalgia to be a significant predictor for positive attitudes toward President Trump and racial prejudice, researchers say there was no evidence these same attitudes were related to personal nostalgia.
Researchers say the results of their study offer evidence that national nostalgia is a distinct emotion that differs from personal nostalgia. Additionally, researchers say findings raise the question of whether perceived group identity threats cause some to have overly optimistic perceptions of the past.
Ultimately, researchers say further study on national nostalgia could help in better understanding the social dynamics of intergroup attitudes, prejudice, feelings of threat, and provide an overall better understanding of an important psychological function that can be incredibly nuanced.
“People’s views of the past can be based on misperceptions or flawed memories—even of their own experiences,” professor of psychology at N.C. State University and lead-author on the recent study, Dr. Anna Behler, explained to The Debrief in an email. “National nostalgia specifically, people can have a sentimental view of a time that they themselves never been a part of, and may have experienced only secondhand through the lens of storytelling, TV shows, or films that portrays the past in a very specific light.”
Background: The Double-Sided Coin of Nostalgia
Previous research on nostalgia has shown it to be a primarily positive emotion that can improve self-esteem, reduce self-esteem defense, increase appreciation for life, raise self-continuity expectations and reduce feelings of existential danger.
Most people report regularly experiencing feelings of nostalgia, which can often be triggered by external stimuli such as music, scents, or internally by reflecting on past experiences.
Besides feelings of personal nostalgia for individual experiences, people can also experience group-based nostalgia or a fondness for events shared with one’s ingroup.
“Personal nostalgia is all based on experience, even if the memories naturally become somewhat distorted over time, whereas national nostalgia can occur even when someone has not experienced something for themselves,” explained Dr. Behler.
National nostalgia is a form of collective group-based nostalgia felt when one self-categorizes as a citizen of a specific country. Research shows that reverie for a country’s “good old days” is frequently experienced as a coping mechanism by fellow natives in times of national stress, uncertainty, or crisis. An example of this can be seen in the public sentiment following the September 11th terrorist attacks.
In the days following the attacks, which claimed the lives of 2,977 innocent victims, American patriotism was at an all-time high. People all across the U.S. flew American flags outside their homes and from their car antennas. Politicians from both parties joined together and sang “God Bless America” on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. A Pew Research poll taken in November 2001 showed 82% of Americans had a favorable view of the federal government, up 28 percentage points from the year prior.
While national nostalgia can foster connectivity amongst an intergroup or fellow natives, national-level nostalgic revelry often has the opposite effect on perceptions of outgroups, such as recent immigrants and religious or ethnic minorities.
The sense of shared identity among ingroups can result in entire outgroups being viewed as existential threats or the very reason life is not like the “good old days.” Again examining the wake of the 9/11 attacks, we can see the double-sided coin of national nostalgia in the increase of hate crimes and prejudice towards Muslims and South Asians in the United States.
In a 2014 study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, researchers found that the more people experience major disruptions or feel uncertainty, the more likely they turn to sentimentality and a longing for the past.
“It’s important to remember that nostalgia is the response to, not the cause of, these negative states. When the present is distressing, people often look to the past for guidance, said co-author of the study and author of the book, Nostalgia: A Psychological Resource, Dr. Clay Routledge. “When people engage in nostalgic reflection, they subsequently report feeling more confident, motivated, and optimistic about the future. Nostalgia mobilizes and energizes people.”
Though nostalgic reflection is regarded as a positive coping mechanism, Routledge warns that national nostalgia can be an incredibly potent political tool. By invoking views of an idealized past, Routledge says politicians can provoke social and cultural anxieties that make national nostalgia a highly effective method of populist political persuasion.
In a 2017 essay, Routledge discusses how former president Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign was particularly adept at provoking “false” national nostalgia and getting “people to fixate on one aspect of the past that they perceived positively,” while encouraging supporters to be “disinclined to consider the less desirable features of that time in history — such as the lack of equal rights for many Americans.”
Trump’s appeal to national nostalgia was best underscored by his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”
“I think that the ambiguity of the phrase was actually part of its political effectiveness, in that it could have a unique significance for every voter. In terms of relating to national nostalgia, the phrase “Make America Great Again” likely spoke to some voters’ desires to recreate a time when they felt America was “better off” as a country—whenever and however they perceive that to be,” Dr. Behler told The Debrief.
Research published last year in the Journal of Theoretical Social Psychology described national nostalgia as the “new master-frame” of populist radical right-wing politics. Routledge, who is considered by many to be the world’s leading psychology expert in nostalgia, says it’s important to realize that false national nostalgia transcends political ideology.
“People often associate historical nostalgia with conservatism. But liberals enjoy their own version,” said Routledge. “For example, the anti-Western colonialism movement that has seduced many progressives, particularly on college campuses, envisions a past in which non-Europeans lived in peaceful harmony. In this revisionist history, evidently, Western Europeans introduced the world to human cruelty and suffering.”
When it comes to the question of whether national nostalgia can invoke positive perception for majority ingroups, while eliciting negative views from minority outgroups, “I think that it can, and we saw some evidence of this in open-ended responses that we collected that were not a part of this particular paper,” said Dr. Behler.
“A number of our participants indicated that they viewed the phrase “Make America Great Again” as calling back to a time when members of marginalized groups faced significant oppression, or that it was a coded way of expressing a desire to reverse social progress. However, this does not mean that minority groups cannot have a positive view of a nation’s past. As we mention in the article, national nostalgia seems to be influenced by a combination of various facets of a person’s identity, such as age, racial/ethnic background, and political views (just to name a few). I suspect the time period being referenced would also play a role here (for example, I’m sure many Democratic voters experienced a sense of nostalgia for the Obama years during the Trump presidency, and over time, Republican voters may feel the same way during the Biden presidency).”
Analysis: Studying National Nostalgia’s Effects on Political and Racial Attitudes
Researchers said their recent study aimed to examine how national nostalgia related to voters’ political and racial attitudes in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Additionally, researchers examined correlations between national nostalgia, pro-Trump attitudes, outgroup prejudice, and perceived outgroup threat.
Using a sample size of 252 U.S. citizens who voted in the 2016 election, participants completed an online survey measuring their attitudes towards the past, race, and politics.
Examining the results, researchers said they found national nostalgia showed a higher degree of association with pro-Trump attitudes than the political association of being Republican or conservative. Results, however, failed to show any main effect in associations between race, political affiliation, and pro-Trump attitudes independent of national nostalgia.
On the lack of association between race and support for Trump, researchers noted, “At first glance, this finding does not align with media narratives and political polling suggesting that Trump’s messaging appealed mostly to White voters. However, although race itself did not predict support for the President, racial identity salience moderated the link between national nostalgia and pro-Trump attitudes.”
In the study, White Republicans were described themselves as being more connected to their racial identity than Whites who identified as either Democrats or Independents. By comparison, White Republicans were found to view racial identity to be as important as Black participants.
Researchers said that findings “suggest that the perception of demographic changes and threats to the dominant ingroup in the United States may indeed have been a critical factor in voters’ choice to support Trump.”
Results showed that national nostalgia significantly predicted racial prejudice, which was mediated by perceived outgroup threat. Findings likewise displayed strong relationships between national nostalgia and pro-Trump attitudes and reported intolerance toward Black individuals.
“These findings align with converging evidence that the content of collective nostalgia—what individuals perceive to be “the good old days” for their identity group—reflects salient sources of perceived threat,” researchers noted.
Outcome: Future Studies on National Nostalgia, Politics and Prejudice
The team of researchers from North Carolina State University and Virginia Commonwealth University says the results of their study “raise the question on whether national nostalgia stems from a desire by some to go back in time, due to perceived group identity threats.”
Researchers hope that future studies can be performed to examine whether national nostalgia arises as a defense mechanism against perceived threats to one’s ingroup. “Further work evoking national nostalgia in experimental contexts would allow us to understand better how this emotion interacts with intergroup attitudes, prejudice, and feelings of threat,” wrote researchers.
The study’s authors also highlighted events in which large groups of White Nationalists gathered and ultimately turned violent, such as in Charlottesville in 2017, as examples of why further research is needed on how White racial identity plays in political attitudes and voting behavior.
Since this particular study only examined national nostalgia in individuals who self-identified racially as being either Black or White, researchers hope that future studies can expand to look at different identities such as gender, sexual orientation, religion, immigrant status, social class, education level, and nation of origin.”
Finally, the study results highlight the nuanced distinction between personal nostalgia, or feelings based on experience, and national nostalgia, emotions rooted in perceptions of the past.
“There may be some irony in the possibility that national nostalgia may include beliefs for a past that never was; in this case, an America that was not as white as some recollect. Nevertheless, these national nostalgic feelings appear to be linked to important social attitudes, and thus are worthy of further investigation,” researchers wrote.
When it comes to the idea that people inherently are more likely to have positive feelings toward the past and more apprehension towards the unknown future, “This is a really interesting question, and some people are certainly more likely to experience nostalgia more often, and garner greater psychological benefits from personal nostalgia than others,” said Dr. Behler. “However, I don’t know if a direct comparison between how people view the past and future has been explored yet. We do know that personal nostalgia can certainly influence our future perspectives, and some recent research suggests that nostalgia can inspire creativity and motivate us towards future goals.”