Around the world, polarization between the political right and left has reached new heights. Political scientists have suggested many reasons for this political chasm.  I recently examined a possibility that's rarely considered—how the right and left diverge in how they evaluate the past, present, and future.

Consider, for example, Trump's past-oriented campaign slogan "Make America Great Again," compared to Obama's more future-oriented "Hope" and "Change" campaign posters. I wondered whether a similar backward-looking versus forward-looking attitude could be observed among people on the right versus left around the world.    

I surveyed 1,200 people from the U.S., UK, Italy, South Africa, Mexico, and Poland—countries with different economies, cultures, and political regimes. Participants were asked to report whether their opinions could be better described as "right-wing" or "left-wing". Everyone evaluated three time periods: the time spanning 1950 to 2000, the present day, and society 25 years in the future.

The Right Prefers the Past, the Left Prefers the Future

In every country, right-wingers evaluated the recent past more positively than left-wingers did. By contrast, left-wingers were more optimistic about what humanity could achieve in the near future than right-wingers were. However, left-wingers' relative optimism was only evident in the U.S., UK, and Poland. The present was not viewed differently by the left and the right, suggesting that their divergence concerns the past and future society, not the current one. In sum, the right's more positive view of the past is shared across countries, but the left's greater optimism is not.

The Role of Nostalgia

But why do people on the right view the past more favorably? Perhaps being more nostalgic about the past predisposes people to embrace right-wing views. I explored this possibility in a study that first encouraged people to think about the past more favorably. Thinking about the past more favorably did not make people more open to right-wing opinions.

Another possibility is that people's initial political views nudge them to interpret the past more positively or more negatively. To test this, in another study I encouraged people to freely reflect on their political opinions, focusing people on their political views. This reflection exercise made right-wing participants more nostalgic about the past and made left-wing participants less nostalgic. This suggests that something about right-wing opinions themselves leads people to be more nostalgic, while something about left-wing opinions does the opposite.

One last study explored nostalgia for the past in more detail. Here I considered two potential forms of nostalgia. Some people are nostalgic for tradition—traditional communities, the old hierarchical order, stronger family ties, and traditional culture. Other people are nostalgic for the state of the economy, hearkening back to a time when governments tended to intervene more. I wanted to see whether the right was more nostalgic about tradition, the economy, or both.

Results showed that people on the right were more nostalgic for tradition than were people on the left. People on the left were more nostalgic about the economy, although this difference wasn't as strong as the difference in nostalgia for tradition. Taken together, this helps explain why the right can, overall, be considered more nostalgic than the left.


These findings suggest that the divide between the left and the right is a conflict between two alternative stories. The story favored by the right calls for a return to a glorious past. The story preferred on the left calls for mobilizing people to construct a new society. These diametrically opposed visions for society make it hard to bridge the political divide.

For Further Reading

Rigoli, F. (in press). Ideology shapes evaluation of history within the general population. Political Psychology.

Francesco Rigoli is an associate professor at City, University of London (UK) interested in studying the psychological processes involved in cultural phenomena such as politics, religion, and morality.