Nostalgia and Postmodern Politics

The Green New Deal, renationalizing railways, making America great again — political branding today, on both sides, looks to the past. Why?

It wasn’t ever thus: in the 1990s we had the New Democrats and New Labour, both claiming to offer a ‘third way’. Arguably the start of the 1980s were the same deal: Reagan and Thatcher claimed to offer something new — Laffer curves, Hayek, fancy advertising — to solve the economic woes of the 70s. They didn’t look back to some previous archetype. Now we do seem to look back. Can we explain this difference in how politicians are pitching their plans?

More specifically, can we explain the current role of nostalgia in political branding? I’m going to try to answer this question by looking at the role nostalgia has played in culture at large in the last forty or so years.

Note that this is of crucial importance: life as we know it, perhaps, depends on something like the new green deal getting implemented, and if we can provide an explanation for why ‘Green New Deal’ either is or it isn’t a good way to brand such an idea, we should heed it.

My argument requires a bit of scene setting and explanation, some of it of mildly contentious philosophical and cultural analysis. So I want to just briefly state my theory, which consists of four claims, each of which I’ll argue for: i) postmodernism is typified by nostalgia, ii) recent culture obeys certain rules: it goes from modernism to post-modernism to post-post-modernism, (iii) a good explanation of the current nostalgia and previous lack of nostalgia in political branding is that political branding obeys the same rules of postmodern culture noted in ii) but finally (iv) postmodernism in political branding both arguably will and should give way to post-post-modernism, which is not marked by nostalgia.

That means that to be successful in the coming years will require a post-post-modern, thus anti-nostalgic political branding, and so if we want our political side to come out in front, we should encourage anti-nostalgia and in general more future-looking or novelty-based ways of pitching our ideas.

Postmodernism Is Typified By Nostalgia

Postmodernism, of course, is spoken of in many ways, and it arguably doesn’t have any one fixed meaning (I find it mildly obnoxious to link to one’s own writing but most of the points I make here I have made at more length in other posts, so if you want more information, I will point them out. I write about defining postmodernism here). However, undeniably one important part of postmodernism, at least as it is typically understood in the disciplines that talk about it, is that it involves a particular relation to its past. In an essay published in the early 1980s, critic Frederic Jameson pointed this out in an impressively prescient way. He pointed to the existence of the genre of ‘nostalgia film’, which depict some past era, often in a particularly jarring way, and argued that it was typical of postmodern art to bear a strange relation to its past, one typified by a sort of skewed nostalgia.

The most helpful way to see this is just to consider examples. David Lynch’s Blue Velvet conjures picturesque picket fences and 50s crooners alongside severed ears and sexual sadism; Pulp Fiction obsessively references 50s-60s music and movies while being clearly of the 90s; Nirvana wreck the set of the 60s-style variety show they’re playing at in the video for In Bloom.

Once this is pointed out, you’ll see nostalgia everywhere in the popular culture of the 80s and 90s — in Back To The Future and Happy Days, in Douglas Coupland’s era-defining Generation X (whose protagonists yearn for life pre-1974, which, the era of Watergate and the OPEC oil crisis, is one of the turning points of the 20th century), in The Simpsons, set as it is in a small town where everyone knows everyone, where the TV has rabbit ears and the mother stays at home and makes meatloaf.

The point is, all these works look back, in one way or another, to the 50s and 60s as a halcyon era, albeit almost always with a twist. They are marked by nostalgia, one readily explicable in terms of the popular narrative that in the post-war years America peaked and has been worsening since then.

Not only important is that the culture of this era is marked by nostalgia. Also important is why. Jameson is helpful:

It seems to be exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonising even those movies today which have contemporary settings: as though, for some reason, we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.

We lack, Jameson seems to be suggesting, a way of understanding the present on its own terms, and so the artists of the 80s and 90s found themselves looking back to the past either as object of hope or as ironical foil.

I am tempted to make a parallel claim about today’s political branding: that the current political/economic situation is so confusing that we can’t properly focus on it, and so are tempted to use the past as a lens through which to interpret it.

Maybe that’s not even an awful thing. I’m not sure. It’s not hard to think, though, that in the case of politics such a lens will be a distorting one: for but one example, looking at climate change as something New Deal-able, as a question of the US getting its house in order, will need to find some room to account for and deal with the climate change resulting from globalization and/or the possibility that the US might have to deal with having ceded its place at the head of the international table.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is one of the central figures behind the Green New Deal (image source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/daddyodilly/42838308284/in/photolist-28gtwA9-27srGWX)

Recent Culture Obeys Certain Rules

OK — so that’s claim one. Postmodernism, in its cultural variant, is marked, in part, by a concern with the past. Anticipating, I will want to use this fact to claim that political branding today, which is marked by a concern with the past, is postmodern.

The aim of this section is, in part, to make that claim more plausible by suggesting some rules of how postmodernism develops, and then showing that recent political branding has developed according to those rules. (Again, I have argued about the development of postmodernism, in particular as concerns TV, at more length here.)

So here’s a claim: postmodernism gives way to post-post-modernism. Because postmodernism is multi-faceted, that means a bunch of things, but in arts in general, with things like so-called New Sincerity, there is a view that postmodernism is on the wane. Concentrating just on nostalgia, the claim I would want to make is that nostalgia is nowhere near as central a cultural feature as it was a couple of decades ago.

It’s worth just emphasising how large nostalgia loomed: Back To The Future was the top grossing movie of 1985; Generation X literally gave a name to a generation; Tarantino and Lynch are recognised as the main auteurs of 90s cinema; The Simpsons has a good claim to be the best TV show of that era. Nostalgia was fundamental to the most important art then.

Now? Not so much. Of course, one can point to nostalgia shows: Stranger Things, GLOW, and before then Mad Men. But the most popular shows since roughly the millennium are things like: The Wire, The Office, Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation, The Walking Dead, and Game of Thrones, none of which involve nostalgia.

More could be said, but I won’t do so, and will simply put forward this as a hypothesis: the 80s and 90s were nostalgia, thus postmodern, cultures, but since the millennium culture has been post-post-modern.

Political Branding Obeys The Same Rules As Culture

Spot me, then, the claim sketched in the previous section. An interesting question then becomes: does this shed any light on politics?

Arguably the answer to this is yes. To reiterate what I said at the top, in the 90s, political branding was concerned with novelty (New Labour/Democrats), and less clearly, but perhaps still there, so was the neoliberal revolution beginning in the 80s. That is, these political situations were anti-nostalgic, and so one could argue that they are not ones well conceived in terms of postmodernism.

By contrast — and again, reiterating — as we end the second decade of the 2000s, looking back seems to be, well, back, in the form of plans for renationalizing, or bringing back departed industries, or even just in the choice of nomenclature which hearkens back to progressivist success stories. If nostalgia is a feature of the political age — and I think this is a claim on pretty solid ground — then if nostalgia is also a feature of postmodernism, then we’re in a postmodern political era.

Forward to the future?

If you buy this argument, what should we make of it? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Can we use it to gain any explanatory purchase on our political future?

Here is what I would take from this discussion: just as cultural postmodernism gave way to post-post-modernism, we should expect political postmodernism to do so too. We should expect political branding, at some time in the future, no longer to look backward.

It’s unclear when. Arguably, novelty is an untimely concept at the moment. Leftists in the UK would balk very much to hear that they were supporting a ‘new’ Labour, and in the same vein any branding that suggested a return to the Clintonian third way would not go so well among millennial supporters of Ocasio-Cortez. Ironically, and slightly oddly, to distance themselves from their predecessors — to show they are a development — the current left finds itself needing to go further back in time, to the time when states were big.

I’m not sure that’s good though: going back in time, one might think, renders one less able to deal with the future. The demands of branding seem to me to point in different directions from the demands of political reality. We all know, when Trump presents his vision of an America great again, where things are manufactured again, that it’s bullshit, and while Ocasio-Cortez is obviously a much more serious politician than he is, we should also be wary of concentrating too much on the past in trying to sketch our political future. I suggested above, for example, that a theory in the model of the New Deal might be less equipped to deal with our globalized world. Similarly, commentators (and indeed Elizabeth Warren) have already suggested, for example, that rather than a steep income tax, we should instead have something like a wealth tax, and that’s arguably a policy recommendation that takes into consideration ideas about inequality that perhaps weren’t there to be had in the 30s (such as the idea that it’s wealth and not income that drives inequality).

Let me make it clear I’m not so much interested in the particular details of this debate about tax policy (which, as a non-economist, I am in no position to judge). Rather, what I want to emphasise is the more general point that by looking too much at the past you might overlook important things we now know that our predecessors didn’t, and that political postmodernism, looking backwards as it does, is perhaps not what we need today, especially given the world-historical importance of dealing with things like climate change.

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