Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Dark Side of the Good Old Days

Yearning for our country's past may come at a cost.

Drop of Light/Shutterstock

Political messages often appeal to a longing for the past among voters who worry that their country is changing for the worse. (Think: "Make America Great Again!") For some voters, this nostalgia seems to go hand-in-hand with an aversion to religious or ethnic "newcomers."

That may be more than coincidental, according to psychologist Anouk Smeekes of Utrecht University. In her studies , samples of the Netherlands' Dutch population answered questions (such as "How often do you long for the good old days of the country?") that gauged nation-centered nostalgia. Participants also rated their agreement with statements like "A real Dutch person has Dutch ancestors," as well as their feelings toward immigrant groups. Smeekes found that greater longing for the nation's past predicted less positive feelings toward immigrants and a stronger desire to protect the national heritage.

A separate experiment provides some evidence that national nostalgia is not merely associated with attitudes toward minorities but can actually cause a shift in people's thinking. In this case, Smeekes and colleagues instructed participants to think about positive aspects of their country's past. The exercise appeared to increase overall agreement that the "original inhabitants" of a country deserve special rights—which was, in turn, associated with lower tolerance for the cultural rights of Muslims.

Some politicians try to tap into such sentiments. "In the Netherlands," Smeekes says, "the extreme-right wing is growing more popular, and they are using the rhetoric of nostalgia to attract voters."

The anti-outsider rhetoric of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign is unusually reminiscent of this brand of European politics, says sociologist Jan Willem Duyvendak of the University of Amsterdam. Messages that play on fear of Muslims, he says, "don't easily fit into the self-image of a nation that considers the freedom of religion important." When thinking about the "good old days," he advises, reflect on the exclusion that many other groups have faced in the past—including, perhaps, your own ancestors.