PastForward: The political uses of the past in digital discourses about Nordic futures

In democratic elections, voters regularly have the chance to decide the future of their country. They can choose between parties with different visions for society that promise them to solve today’s problems and crises. In the project PastForward, we want to find out how parties communicated these visions in their online communication in the last elections in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden. We will do this with a specific twist by asking how they used the past to justify their visions of the future and how this is debated on social media.

But why the past? Because every vision of the future is a response to where we come from and how we got to where we are today. Understanding oneself in relation to the past is not only how each person makes sense of who they are but also how societies create a shared sense of belonging and nationhood. This is why our project examines how parties present their vision of the future as rooted in national or Nordic history and memory.

It is important to look at how parties use the past because it can create a powerful relationship with voters. A shared understanding of the past creates a common national identity. Yet, there are many interpretations of the past circulating in public debates. An important figure, a significant event, or a historical period may be celebrated as an inspiration by some but discredited as a cautionary tale by others. With PastForward, we will examine how parties use the past during elections to anchor their vision of the future in the national norms, values, and traditions established in the past to appeal to voters.

The past, however, can also create a sense of entitlement about what supposedly belongs to certain groups of society, which might then lead to a polarization and conflict. Especially right-wing populist parties have promoted visions of the future that revive the past as a refuge for those who feel disenfranchised by foreigners or other minorities. To identify such tendencies in the Nordic region, the project investigates if parties across the political spectrum claim to reinstate past privileges and securities for their voters by excluding others or if they present agendas that aim at a future including all members of society on a path forward. By comparing the political uses of the past in the four selected Nordic countries, PastForward will determine whose needs and demands for the future are given legitimacy based on their place in national and Nordic pasts – and whose not.


Bodil Aurstad. Photo: NordForsk

Bodil Aurstad