Anemoia is the word for “yearning for a past that you never actually experienced.” It is a word that I imagine you have never even heard of, but when it comes to understanding the issue of defending democracy, it is becoming ever more prudent to use these days. Often talked-about threats to democratic ideals are a rise in radicalism, nationalism, extremism and similar divisive, controversial subjects. But the roots of such movements that fuel these threats in various nations are often overlooked. Movements which embrace anti-democratic ideas also commonly embrace a false perception of history used to justify their political and cultural agendas.
This phenomenon is not the trait of a single ideology or a specific culture — the stagnation of traditional mainstream parties in the political landscape of any country carries the potential of increasing the popularity of radical views. An infamous example of this effect is the current political situation in the United Kingdom (U.K.), which is still under political instability after the Brexit referendum of 2016. Since then, the effects of leaving the European Union, the subsequent economic stagnation and the future of Scotland and many other political subjects have been debated extensively. However, one thing that has been consistently overlooked is the political trend that led to this situation. Right-wing nationalism saw a rapid boost in popularity among fringe parties throughout the early 2010s and used populist rhetoric to rally portions of the British population against Europe, immigration and other key issues. Most importantly, an important tactic that was used during this time was the portrayal of the British Empire legacy as a time of greatness, seeking to “strengthen” the U.K. by reverting to the political and social norms of past decades. While parties such as the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP) and other hardliner movements lost popularity toward the end of the 2010’s, it is still possible that the ongoing political stagnation may attract voters to radical ideologies that seek to undo the ideas of democracy in Britain.
A similar case has been developing in Germany, which is arguably the leader of the European Union. Though the meteoric rise of parties, such as the Alternative for Germany (AfD), has gained significant attraction, the reliance on historical demagogy that has greatly affected the political landscape of the country is often overlooked. This is especially prevalent in Germany due to its complex history. There is a plethora of subjects that ignite a sense of nostalgia for earlier times in history among people. The lasting legacy of East Germany, commonly referred to as “Ostalgie” in German, continues to influence politics in the eastern parts of the country where both leftists and radical right-wing parties fare better than mainstream parties. The economic disparity between the eastern and western parts of Germany continues to form an invisible wall that fuels disillusionment which plays into the hand of such movements. Coupled with that, radical groups, such as the Identitarian Movement and the infamous Reichsbürger Movement, which gained media traction for their aims of overthrowing German democracy and their ties to Monarchist and Neo-Nazi conspiracies, makes the political future of Germany ever more unstable and a cause for concern in global politics.
Beyond the trends that occur abroad, the United States faces the same issue when it comes to fanatical devotion toward a false idea of its own national history. The past decade was marked by a large number of events, rallies, incidents and scandals that raised important questions about the value and meaning of such crucial aspects of United States history, such as the Confederacy, slavery, racism, immigration and civil rights. With the polarization of both media and politics becoming more and more prevalent, conversations on history have also become more divisive and resulted in the radical voices becoming more influential in mainstream politics. As the United States is rapidly approaching a presidential election, it is clear that the policies and ideas regarding whether the United States ought to advance into the future or revert back to its past will be heavily influenced by politicians.
The commonality between the political situations of major democracies is that economic stagnation or political inefficiency fuels disillusionment against what is mainstream, allowing fringe parties and radical policies to gain traction. Promises of a better society, a more robust economy, safer streets and higher wages become tied to calls to go back to the supposed “good old days” of the past which look appealing under rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, but contain hardships and issues that must never be overlooked.
Democracies around the world face the need to address their own past and draw a line between what is history and what is future. For Italy, that is the legacy of fascism. For Spain it is the memories of the Civil War. For Canada it is the brutality against the native tribes and so forth. And curiously, one common thing we in 2024 have with the world in the 1920s is that this exact issue also plagued the democracies of that era too. Nazism, fascism, falangism and other totalitarian nightmares emerged from first the stagnation and then the stifling of human rights and liberties. For democracy to survive as a value, facts of history must be defended against manipulation, agitation and subversion by those who seek to erode and erase them.
Deniz Gulay is a freshman majoring in history.