Voting for Nostalgia?: Authoritarian Legacies, Social Identity, and Political Behavior in Post-Authoritarian Democracies

More than three decades since the Third Wave of democratization, authoritarian nostalgia still drives individual political attitudes and related behavior. I investigate the underlying determinants of authoritarian nostalgia with a special focus on political psychology and further examine this nostalgia’s behavioral implications. I argue that the presence of authoritarian nostalgia can produce significant effects on social identity, partisan attachment, candidate preferences, and more. I test may arguments with original data collected from South Korea, Taiwan, and the United States.

My dissertation project includes two main chapters that establish and test main theoretical arguments and one chapter testing the scope of these arguments. The first part theorizes that authoritarian nostalgia originates in personality traits and external threat perception. Focusing on the Big-Five personality traits, I predict how each individual predisposition contributes to a propensity for authoritarian nostalgia. Longing for an authoritarian past can also function as a response to external threats, with the past suggesting a solution to a current malaise. I examine both dispositional and situational factors in explaining which types of citizens are more or less likely to feel authoritarian nostalgia. I improve the previous research by providing a much-needed dispositional foundation for authoritarian nostalgia that transcends the boundaries of generational differences.

The second part of my dissertation focuses on investigating the behavioral implications of authoritarian nostalgia with the understanding that this nostalgia may provide a primary source of social identity among some post-authoritarian citizens. I further argue that voters high in authoritarian nostalgia may increase their attachment to political parties which are linked to and frequently reference back to the former dictatorship. I empirically test the degree to which authoritarian nostalgia facilitate social identity of post-authoritarian citizens observable through ingroup and outgroup sentiment. I further employ a candidate choice experiment to probe the motivating effects of authoritarian nostalgia on voting behavior. Voters may select nostalgia-evoking candidates not solely because they are attracted to nostalgic rhetoric but because their policy or ideological preference aligns better with these candidates. By randomizing candidate types based on their policy approaches (democratic, authoritarian, and nostalgic) and the most-preferred policies, I show that voters with heightened nostalgia are indeed more likely to feel close to and select a candidate evoking authoritarian nostalgia over other candidates with higher programmatic or ideological proximity. Consistent findings from my dissertation demonstrate compelling evidence that authoritarian nostalgia has determining implications on voter attitudes and behavior in post-authoritarian democracies.

In the last chapter of my dissertation, I test the scope condition of my arguments by studying American voters. In the past few years, American voters witnessed a surge in nostalgic rhetoric with former President Trump referring frequently back to a past with his slogan, “Make America Great Again.” I examine whether the dispositional determinants of authoritarian nostalgia from East Asian cases are applicable in the American context. Acknowledging that American nostalgia reference to a more abstract past than the post-authoritarian nostalgia, I further investigate the degree to which the nostalgic sentiment in the US influences voter behavior.

This research is funded by the Taiwan Fellowship from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Taiwan, Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation for International Scholarly Exchange, CEAPS Graduate Student Dissertation Travel Grant, Nelle M. Signor Graduate Scholarship in International Relations, and Ferber & Sudman Dissertation Awards for Survey Research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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Sanghoon Kim-Leffingwell
Sanghoon Kim-Leffingwell
Senior Lecturer and Program Coordinator