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Surely, things were easier in the past. shutterstock

The restorationist impulse: why we hanker for the old ways

This piece is republished with permission from Perils of Populism, the 57th edition of Griffith Review. Articles are a little longer than most published on The Conversation, presenting an in-depth analysis on the rise of populism across the world.

The children come home from school to be greeted by their mother, who is wearing an apron. They then go off to play with their neighbourhood friends, from families very like their own.

After dinner, and after husband and wife have cheerfully washed and dried the dishes together, they all sit around the family TV watching Father Knows Best.

Father Knows Best.

This image of stability, security and contentment is only slightly more ridiculous than the nostalgic illusions sometimes peddled by politicians and media. Right-wing populist politicians increasingly invoke an imaginary past, one that is selective at best.

The two most important and successful slogans of 2016 – Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again, and Brexit’s Take Back Control – both appeal to moving from an unsatisfactory present back to a romantically remembered past.

It is wrong to cast these sentiments as conservative. Their proponents are not champions of the status quo, but rather want to overthrow it.

Conservatism at its best is prudent, celebrating the wisdom of the institutions and traditions that have come down to us, cautious about the possible unintended consequences of far-reaching change. It can easily ossify into inertia and complacency. But it is a very different sentiment from the angry renunciation of existing society.

“Which political party loves America?” asked the veteran Washington Post columnist EJ Dionne in 2015. “Not the United States that once existed, but the flesh-and-blood nation that we live in now.” It was not the leading Republican candidates Trump and Ted Cruz. They cast the current version as “a fallen nation”. “They yearn for the United States of Then.”

‘Restorationism’ and politics

I want to use the term “restorationist” to describe this syndrome of evading the complexities and frictions of the present and the uncertainties and fears about the future by embracing the appeals of a mythical past.

I first encountered this suggestive concept in the work of the great scholar Robert Jay Lifton, who served as an American air force psychiatrist in Korea and Japan in the early 1950s.

He then used his unique mix of expertise – in Asian studies, in war and as a psychiatrist – to write several groundbreaking books. They included studies of how American prisoners of war and Chinese defectors responded to Chinese brainwashing techniques; of the survivors of Hiroshima, Death in Life; of the long-term effects on Nazi doctors who participated in the Holocaust; and of the attitudes and experiences of American troops returning from the Vietnam War.

He used the term “restorationism” in 1968 to describe the mood in some circles of American society. In the second half of the 1960s, the gains of the civil rights movement and increasing assertiveness among African-Americans, plus the disillusion with and increasingly critical dissent from the Vietnam War, as well as the embryonic feminist movement and student protests, had transformed the mood of American politics. He wrote:

Hence the spectre of white Americans, themselves psychologically dislocated and often financially beleaguered, rallying around [the racist presidential candidate] George Wallace …

The attitude:

… is associated with a broader image of restoration – an urge, often violent, to recover a past that never was, a golden age of perfect harmony during which all lived in loving simplicity and beauty, an age when backward people were backward and superior people superior.

It is not a concept that has been widely adopted in political science. Indeed, internet searches are most likely to turn up material on rehabilitating furniture and to a Christian sect that wanted to return to the principles of the early Church.

Nevertheless, if Lifton thought the concept captured a key element in the American mood in the late 1960s, half a century later it resonates even more strongly in political campaigns in many democracies.

In his recent Quarterly Essay, The White Queen, David Marr talks of the “fierce nostalgia” of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation supporters.

The social researcher Rebecca Huntley found the loss of trust and security a strong strain among Hanson’s supporters in her focus group research:

Once upon a time you could leave your door open.


You could go to the pub and put your wallet next to your beer and go to the loo and you’d be surrounded by people just like you, people who would never even think to touch your wallet. But now you can’t do that.

She found that:

What worries this group is the cultural, social slippage they feel in their life. They imagine their fathers’ and grandfathers’ lives were better, more certain, easier to navigate.

In her comeback before the 2016 election, Hanson announced a Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Fed Up Tour:

As I have travelled around the country, people are telling me they are fed up with losing the farming sector, they’re fed up with foreign ownership of our land and prime agricultural land, they’re fed up with the threat of terrorism in our country and the free trade agreements that have been signed, which are not in our best interest, and foreign workers coming to Australia…so hence the Fed Up tour.

This sense of a downward slide easily degenerates into conspiracy theories and a narrative of betrayal. Marr cites this extraordinary passage from Hanson’s 2016 tax and economic policy:

… restore Australia’s constitution so that our economy is run for the benefit of Australians instead of the United Nations and unaccountable foreign bodies that have interfered and have choked our economy since the federal government handed power to the International Monetary Fund in 1944.

Pauline Hanson plays to her supporters’ sense of nostalgia. Dan Peled/AAP

Populism and decline

There has been much attention paid to the widespread resurgence of populism. Restorationism in Western democracies is a subset of this. The term “populism” is often used loosely. For me, there are four defining characteristics.

  • It pits a virtuous and homogenous in-group against a variety of out-groups. The view that the people have a single voice and viewpoint makes populism intolerant of diversity and disagreement.

  • The main animating force of populism is anger – directed both against the “elites” who have betrayed the people, and against the out-groups, especially immigrants, who threaten them.

  • Populism removes doubt from a complicated world. It transforms the complexities and ambiguities of political controversy into a search for enemies and culprits. It champions simple solutions, which no reasonable person could disagree with.

  • Populism is as much a political style as it is a set of beliefs. It matches its intolerance of various groups with a style of argument and conduct that is attention-grabbing and confronting. For the followers of populist leaders, offensiveness becomes evidence of authenticity, of their willingness to break through the hypocrisies of political correctness.

There is a long-running debate about whether the explanation for the recent dramatic rise of populism is more economic or more sociocultural, although they are not mutually exclusive. In addressing this, we must remember that somewhat different factors may be at work in different countries, and that support for populist groups tends to fluctuate considerably.

And candidates and parties in different countries have very different levels of support. Trump won 46% of the presidential vote; Brexit scored 52% in the EU referendum, while the UK Independence Party was fluctuating around 10%; Marine Le Pen won 34% of the vote in the French presidential election, while Front National support is generally considerably less than that; and Pauline Hanson’s One Nation fluctuates around 10%.

The economic explanation gains credence in that a surge in support for populist groups followed the global financial crisis.

Similarly, there is a correlation between areas of populist sentiment and regions in economic decline or stagnation. The key states that gave Trump the presidency were the traditionally Democratic, but now rustbelt, states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

The vote for Brexit was higher in the English provinces than in more prosperous London, while support for Le Pen was minimal in Paris and higher in the regions.

However, it is not the poorest groups that embrace populist movements, and there is no consistent data that shows support is related to economic insecurity. More telling is the association with economic pessimism.

Marr cites data in his essay showing that 68% of One Nation voters thought things were worse than a year ago, double the proportion in the rest of the electorate.

A giant CNN exit poll on election day in the US similarly showed that among the one-third of the electorate who thought that life for the next generation will be worse than today, Trump won 63-31. Of the slightly more who thought life would be better and among those who thought it would be the same, he lost by 38-59 and 39-54 respectively.

So, a narrative of decline seems to animate these supporters – whether or not it is part of their actual experience.

The key states that gave Donald Trump the presidency were the traditionally Democratic, but now rustbelt, states. Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

What for uncertainty?

On the other hand, the priority given to different issue areas suggests that economics was not Trump’s primary appeal.

Among those who thought foreign policy was the most important issue, and the half of the electorate who thought the economy was most important, Clinton won easily. But among those who thought terrorism or immigration were the most important issues, Trump won just as emphatically.

The evidence for the primacy of sociocultural factors is more compelling. The data shows a stronger correlation between education levels and support for Trump than it does for income levels.

Consider also that in the 2016 election, Trump won a majority of the more religious and evangelical voters even though he was the most obviously irreligious candidate in living memory. He is the first president to be married three times, with abundant evidence of his “pussy grabbing”, predatory attitudes to women and a long record of unethical business practices.

Whenever he tried to parade his religiosity, his phoniness shone through. He said his favourite verse in scripture was an eye for an eye, and that he had never had occasion to ask God for forgiveness.

In one speech, he segued effortlessly between the glory of God to a real-estate deal he had done and back again. And yet, according to the CNN exit poll, among people who attend church once a month or more, Trump won 54-42. Among those attending church less frequently, the devoutly Methodist Clinton won 54-40.

The explanation, according to Dionne in the Washington Post, is that white evangelicals – a somewhat narrower grouping than church attenders – are now “nostalgia voters”:

… animated by an anger and anxiety arising from a sense that the dominant culture is moving away from their values.

The Trump campaign was aimed squarely at these people, who felt that they had become “strangers in their own land”. It hammered the themes that they had been betrayed by their governing elites, which were either corrupt or incompetent. Equally, it played into resentments they felt towards outsiders; in Trump’s case, Mexicans, Chinese and Muslims.

In the other great electoral convulsion of 2016, where Britain voted to leave the European Union, restorationist sentiments were also in evidence. The liberal columnist Jonathan Freedland considered:

The ballot was less about the EU than it was a referendum on their own lives, as if Remain and Leave were synonyms for Satisfied and Dissatisfied.

Similarly, the conservative commentator Peter Hitchens said the question was:

Do you like living in 2016, and 52% of the population said no, actually, not much.

Again, supporters of the two sides had very different agendas. One survey found that among Leave voters questions of sovereignty (45%) and immigration (26%) were much more prominent than among Remain voters (20% and 2% respectively). In contrast, Remain voters were much more concerned with the economy (40% compared to 5% of Leave voters).

The British tabloids pounded the immigration issue, with at least 30 hostile front-page splashes in the Daily Mail in the months leading to the referendum, and 15 in The Sun. Former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie thought that the referendum was won on immigration “by 1,000 miles”.

Brexit is the classic case of where the success in mobilising populist resentments achieved the opposite of what its followers were hoping for. Most Brexit supporters said they thought Remain would win, but enough lodged “protest” votes to change the result. It was only after their victory that any serious attention was paid to the actual process of disengagement.

The thorough study of media coverage of the referendum by researchers from Loughborough University found that in the six weeks leading up to the referendum, across the media there were just 1.8 articles a day on the formal process of withdrawing from the UK by triggering Article 50; but in the days afterwards suddenly there were an average of 49.5 items a day.

The ironic outcome was that many voters thought they were voting for simplicity, when in fact they set the country on a much more protracted, uncertain and complicated course than was apparent during the campaign.

Restorationist sentiments were also prominent in the Brexit campaign. Reuters

Supporters rarely the most oppressed

It is often said that populism is good at promoting a mood of rebellion and discontent, but that the solutions it offers are illusory. However, it is argued, attention must be paid to the grievances of its supporters.

It may not be that building a wall along the Mexican border is an effective way of curbing illegal immigration, but the discontent with incoming illegal immigrants should be addressed.

Hanson may not have the answers to why her supporters are “fed up”, but the political system must be responsive to why they are fed up.

I think even this view is too indulgent. Those supporting populist leaders are rarely the most oppressed in society. And many of their attitudes do not reflect their direct experiences.

Take immigration, for example, the issue that above all others seems to drive right-wing populism. Marr found that 83% of One Nation voters want immigration numbers to be cut a lot, compared to just 23% of other voters. Also they were far more likely to think migrants increase crime (79% to 38%) and take jobs from other Australians (67% to 30%).

Nevertheless, what we are dealing with in these anti-immigration grievances is not direct experience so much as mediated views that the populists have adopted. Peter Scanlon of the Scanlon Foundation, which maps attitudes to migrants and race in Australia, told Marr:

I am disappointed by the older age group in Australia, particularly those living in regional areas where there are no migrants. It is an amazing fact to me that the most blowback we get is from people who don’t have any experience with them!

Another social researcher told Marr that the attitudes were based on fears rather than experience:

When you probe for personal experiences on anything they say about welfare or immigration, it’s always second and third hand.

In Britain, a 2014 Ipsos MORI poll found that the British public thinks that one in five British people are Muslim when in reality it is one in 20, and that 24% of the population are immigrants when the official figure is 13%.

We are not dealing then with a spontaneous response growing out of lived experience, but with opinions and misperceptions that are cultivated and amplified in the wider environment, including by politicians and in the media.

Some insight into these processes may be found in the pioneering work of George Gerbner on TV violence in the 1960s and ’70s. Gerbner developed cultivation theory, which argued that the more TV people watched, the more likely they were to believe the real world resembles what they see on the screen.

Gerbner’s audience studies developed what he called the “cultivation differential”. He matched sociodemographic sub-samples, and within each looked at differences in the beliefs between “heavy”, “medium” and “light” viewers. Gerbner demonstrated that – within each demographic stratum – heavier viewers tended to be more conservative and more fearful.

He coined the term “mean world syndrome” to illustrate the point that heavy viewers were more likely to think they could be victims of violence, were more afraid of walking alone at night, overestimated the resources in society devoted to law enforcement, and expressed more mistrust of people in general.

Gerbner’s surveys also found fear of crime was higher among those less likely to be its victims, but who watched TV a lot, such as older people in small towns and rural areas. For Gerbner, it was the total TV experience that was important rather than any particular program.

In cultivating restorationist sentiments, there is a coincidence between trends in the news media and in parts of their audience.

Many of the attitudes of those supporting populists do not reflect their direct experiences. Brendan McDermid/Reuters

What role does the broadcast media play?

In the digital age, with consumers having far more options, the mainstream news media have been suffering from a decline in the total audience and also from its splintering.

The earlier mass media age was one of constrained choices. In the 1960s, an advertiser could reach 80% of US women with a primetime spot on the three national networks. But, by 2006, to achieve the same reach would require the ad to run on 100 TV channels.

In the US in the 1970s, the audience for the news programs on three networks totalled 46 million, or 75% of those watching TV at the time. Despite substantial population growth in the following decades, by 2005 their total audience was down to 30 million, or about one-third of television viewers. By 2013, the combined audience had further declined to 22 million.

The most successful news start-up of the digital age has been Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News, launched in 1996. Murdoch at the time declared:

We think it’s about time CNN was challenged, especially as it tends to drift further and further to the left. We think it’s time for a truly objective news channel.

According Roger Ailes, the person who was Fox News’ chief executive for its first 20 years:

Rupert [Murdoch] and I, and by the way, the vast majority of the American people, believe that most of the news tilts to the left.

Fox News is the most successful cable news operation in the US, but it typically gains just 1% of the viewing audience, a fraction of what the network news services get, and a minute fraction of what they used to achieve. “Success” means something different in the fragmented market of today.

Similarly, in commercial talk radio, “success” may mean a small share of the listening audience, let alone the total population.

Fragmentation has been accompanied by polarisation, in particular by declining trust among Republican voters towards the main news services. One analyst summarised it as:

Democrats trust everything except Fox, and Republicans don’t trust anything other than Fox.

The new market logic is more sectarian than in the old, “masser” media.

Structurally, there are increasing rewards for sectarian journalism. The sociologist Ernst Troeltsch, a colleague of Max Weber, distinguished between “church” and “sect”.

Church refers to an established religion, which finds reasons to be inclusive. Like the Anglicans, political parties are keen to proclaim they are a “broad church”.

Sects on the other hand are in the minority, and insist their members must be true believers, and are more rejecting of those that differ. With the fragmentation and polarisation of media audiences, the market rewards are increasingly for sectarian rather than centrist journalism.

A common way of describing the success of Fox News is to say that it catered to a more conservative part of the audience spectrum that the more liberal TV networks had neglected. This is essentially misleading.

Fox did not cover stories from a conservative point of view – it simply chose stories that suited its agenda. It would hammer its chosen stories and simply ignore others, such as when the American involvement in Iraq started to sour. It did not seek to promote debate, but to dismiss and scorn other views.

For example, rather than cover the complexities of healthcare policy, the trade-offs between expense and the reach and quality of care, Fox News simply denounced “Obamacare”.

Fox’s Sean Hannity said that Obamacare meant telling old people they may want to throw it all in rather than be a burden. Former Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin claimed that old people would:

… have to stand in front of Obama’s “death panel” so his bureaucrats can decide … whether they are worthy of health care.

Glenn Beck opined:

This is the end of prosperity in America forever if this bill passes. This is the end of America as you know it.

A perceptive critic of the political consequences of this trend has been former president Barack Obama. He observed that a “Balkanised media” has contributed to the partisan rancour and political polarisation that he acknowledged worsened during his tenure. News consumers are now seeking out only what they agree with already, thereby reinforcing their partisan ideology.

Obama bemoaned the absence of a common baseline of facts underpinning the political debate and accused the Republicans of peddling an alternate reality.

Hanson has made many claims about Muslims, even arguing that Islam’s “religious aspect is a fraud”. Despite police denials, she has continued to assert that halal certification was financing terrorism and that Muslims were seen dancing and celebrating on the streets of Sydney after 9/11.

She asked:

Do you honestly want to see the legal age for marriage lowered to nine for little girls? Do you want to see hands and feet cut off as a form of punishment? Do you want to see young girls going through female genital mutilation?

Even if refutations of these claims occur in quality media, they may be powerless to penetrate the alternate reality subscribed to by her supporters.

Countering Pauline Hanson’s many claims about Muslims may be pointless, given the alternate reality many of her supporters live in. Richard Milnes/AAP

The decline of newspapers

A related trend is also underway in newspapers. The circulation of print media has radically declined.

In 1947, almost four metropolitan newspapers were sold for every ten Australians. By 2014, only one was sold for every 13 Australians. The newspaper penetration rate was thus less than one-fifth of what it had been in 1947.

Although newspaper sales lagged behind population growth for decades, it is only in the 21st century that individual titles have declined in absolute terms. And their circulation now is very much tied to an older demographic.

A similar decline has also been evident in Britain, especially among the tabloids. The biggest-selling newspaper, Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, now only sells just over one-third of the copies it sold at its peak.

Instead of seeking to appeal to new audiences, the tabloids’ strategy seems to have been to double-down on appealing to their core demographic by becoming ever more aggressive. But sometimes the old attack dogs still have some bite.

There was a strong overlap between the tabloid readership and those who voted for Brexit. As Katrin Bennhold wrote in The New York Times:

Their readers, many of them over 50, working class and outside London, look strikingly like the voters who were crucial to the outcome of last year’s referendum on membership in the European Union.

On the night of the referendum, Tony Gallagher, the editor of The Sun, texted a Guardian journalist:

So much for the waning power of the print media.

Tabloid newspapers, commercial talk radio and Fox News all thrive on a continuous diet of confected outrage. The targets are ever-changing but endless – elites, political correctness, reverse racism, terrorist dangers, soft treatment of criminals, and so on.

In March 2016, the headline story in The Daily Telegraph stated that University of NSW students had been told to refer to Australia as having been “invaded”. The paper had discovered the university’s “Diversity Toolkit”, a guide to suggested language on some aspects of Australian history. It consulted historian Keith Windschuttle and a fellow from the Institute of Public Affairs, who said the guidelines suffocated “the free flow of ideas”.

That morning, several radio commentators joined in the denunciation of the university. Kyle Sandilands, for example, denounced the university’s “bullshit” and the “wankers who were trying to rewrite history”.

It transpired that the guidelines, which are not obligatory, had been in place for four years and had provoked no complaints. What, then, made them so newsworthy? It is a typical “culture war” story. The topic had no substantial importance, did not touch its readers’ immediate lives, but fitted the preferred narrative of ‘political correctness’ running against traditional views.

Culture wars are appealing to sectarian journalism because they offer easy copy with few demands on gathering and verifying evidence. They provide easy ammunition for the risk-free expression of outrage.

Insults to patriotism are a common target. During the EU referendum, The Sun had a union jack-draped front cover urging its readers to “BeLEAVE in Britain”.

One annual story pursued by Fox News is the “war on Christmas”. In December 2010, Fox reported that an elementary school in Florida had banned “traditional Christmas colours”. Several programs covered the story, but no-one called the school district – the entire story was a lie; all the bluster and outrage had no basis.

In December 2012, The O’Reilly Factor devoted more than three times as much airtime to the “war on Christmas” than it did to actual wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya and Gaza.

There was a strong overlap between the newspaper readership and those who voted for Brexit. Reuters/Peter Nicholls

Generational politics

One key in the rise of restorationist sentiments is the shift in generational politics.

The ageing society produces an ageing electorate, so that older voters are proportionally more important.

No generation is politically homogenous. While older voters have always tended to be more politically conservative, contrast those reaching retirement now compared with those doing so in the 1960s and ’70s. That generation had lived through an economic depression and a world war followed by what the economic historian Angus Maddison said was the greatest period of economic growth in world history, from the late 1940s to 1973.

And the benefits of affluence led to a tangible improvement in the quality of life. More people owned their own home than ever before. They were the first generation in which the benefits of having a car, a washing machine and a TV were widely diffused. They had a broadly optimistic view of social progress and were confident about their children’s prospects.

Although the last generation has also been one of substantial economic growth and, overall, living standards have risen, it has also been a time of more economic insecurity and displacement as well as growing inequality. The major “victims’ of many of these changes have been the younger generation, who face, for example, much higher housing and childcare costs.

But in many ways it seems that it is the older generation that has become more pessimistic. Perhaps it is the constancy of change, the questioning of old certainties, and a seemingly much more unpredictable world that has induced in some of them a cultural fatigue.

VUCA is an acronym coined by the US military in the 1990s standing for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, to capture the radical unpredictability of the contemporary world. VUCA has now also become part of management jargon to highlight how the need for rapid response to unforeseen developments brings a new urgency to organisational responses.

But have the media and our political processes adapted to a VUCA world? We have a news media that technologically has global reach, but where the news values are still often very parochial. A world that is genuinely complex and difficult seems even more threatening and inexplicable by how it is covered in the news.

We have political controversies guided by the narrow logic of party advantage, in a barren spectacle that alienates many. Many citizens find it tempting to disengage.

Surely, things were easier in the past.

You can read other essays from Griffith Review’s latest edition here.

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