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Open to an Authoritarian Past?: Personality, Identity, and the Politics of Authoritarian Nostalgia

Abstract

Why do people feel nostalgic for a former dictator? Democratic rule has been the modal political system since the Third Wave of democratization, but the legacies of authoritarian rule and nostalgia for dictators still drive political behavior in many Third Wave democracies. Politicians often evoke the achievements of a former autocrat and parrot political rhetoric from the old regime. Voters respond with more positive sentiment towards the former dictator, romanticizing the authoritarian past, and casting votes for the successors of the dictator in the hope of restoring the authoritarian prosperity. My dissertation investigates the types of voters who feel nostalgic for an authoritarian past. Longing for the authoritarian past can function as a remedy for a lack of satisfaction with the new democratic regime and help construct social identity with those who embrace core values from the authoritarian period. This dissertation project seeks to establish a yet unexamined concept of authoritarian nostalgia and explain its effects on political attitudes, preferences, and voting behavior in post-authoritarian democracies.

Research overview

Why do people feel nostalgic for a former dictator? Democratic rule has been the modal political system since the Third Wave of democratization, but the legacies of authoritarian rule and nostalgia for dictators still drive political behavior in many Third Wave democracies. Politicians often evoke the achievements of a former autocrat and parrot political rhetoric from the old regime. Voters respond with more positive sentiment towards the former dictator, romanticizing the authoritarian past, and casting votes for the successors of the dictator in the hope of restoring the authoritarian prosperity. Defining authoritarian nostalgia as positive affective attachment to the achievements from the former period of dictatorship, the theoretical argument starts with understanding authoritarian nostalgia as consisting of two distinct but related features: authoritarian nostalgia as a coping mechanism and a value orientation. Those individuals feeling insecure or sharing a psychological orientation toward authoritarianism under the new liberal regime may romanticize economic and social order from the past and construct strong attachment to an authoritarian past. Longing for the authoritarian past can function as a remedy for a lack of satisfaction with the new democratic regime and help construct a social identity that embraces core values from the authoritarian period. This dissertation project seeks to establish a yet unexamined concept of authoritarian nostalgia and explain political attitudes, asymmetric political bias, and voting behavior in post-authoritarian democracies.

Such a emotional return to the past also leaves lingering effects on political attitudes and behavior in post-authoritarian democracies and I further investigate political consequences of authoritarian nostalgia on partisanship and democratic support. I argue that authoritarian nostalgia acts as a key source of social identity and strengthens affective attachment to authoritarian legacy parties. This psychological connection to the authoritarian past also leaves enduring effects on how citizens view democracy and I argue that people high in authoritarian nostalgia are less likely to support democratic values and institutions.

I develop and test my theoretical arguments with an emphasis on Taiwan and South Korea as two of the post-authoritarian democracies and the United States as an established democracy. In the first two countries, former authoritarian ruling parties still remain as one of the main political parties in two-party competition and the authoritarian past still dominates ordinary political discourses. I employ various empirical strategies to test the main theoretical arguments. First, I will collect quantitative data through survey experiments testing the main causal pathways of this project with a new reliable measure of authoritarian nostalgia. Second, I will collect data on the quality of authoritarian nostalgia and political behavior through focus groups, investigating the collective nature of authoritarian nostalgia. Lastly, this project expands the scope of the suggested theoretical arguments by investigating the types of voters who respond to the call for “Make America great again” in the US. I expect the theoretical arguments developed in East Asia can shed light on the rise of populist rhetoric of political nostalgia around the globe.

Sanghoon Kim
Sanghoon Kim
PhD Candidate