As the 21st century dawned, liberal democracy seemed virtually unassailable, at least as an idea. Then, two decades later, authoritarians were looking like the trend-setters and democrats the holdouts. “The liberal idea has become obsolete,” declared Russian President Vladimir Putin as leaders gathered for the 2019 G-20 summit in Japan.
Then came the murder of George Floyd. In the wake of other high-profile killings of Black Americans by the police, the tragedy ignited the most significant social uprising in the United States since the 1960s and sparked kindred protests around the world. Beyond the struggle for racial justice, a broader conflict has emerged over national identity and fate. These events have set illiberal ethno-nationalists back on their heels, most notably President Donald Trump and his allies in America.
Still, even if the courage and verve of the protesters—and the singular repugnance and incompetence of the American president—lead to a Democratic sweep in November, the specter of illiberalism will persist in the United States. It will prove even more menacing in countries that have less deeply embedded democratic institutions than America and more talented autocratic leaders than Trump. If liberal democracy’s defenders are to refute Putin’s smug declaration, liberal party leaders around the world will have to seriously rethink their approach.
Not since the 1930s, after all, has democracy experienced such a precipitous decline on the global stage. More distressing still, the worst backsliders include the United States and India, the world’s largest democracies, as well as Poland and Hungary, formerly poster children for successful transitions from dictatorship to free government.
Why have liberal parties faltered even in established democracies? Conventional wisdom holds that rising economic and cultural anxieties are to blame, but these factors alone do not provide a sufficient explanation. The crisis can be traced at least in part to the behavior of leaders. While liberal politicians stake their fortunes on better policies, their illiberal opponents have seized upon something more powerful: rhetoric that appeals to primal, tribal instincts and projects strength and fortitude.
Around the world, illiberal demagogues are cloaking their ethnocentricity and assaults on democracy in a forceful argot of national greatness. They hammer home their purported superiority as commanders, patriots, and protectors. Illiberals characterize their transgressions as strength while portraying liberals’ defense of the vulnerable and the rule of law as weak-kneed pandering and proceduralism.
Liberals are too often losing this fight because they have forgotten how to embed their messages and policies in compelling national narratives, symbols, and rhetoric. If they are to vanquish illiberals rather than merely edge them out in the next elections, liberals must mobilize nationalism to counter ethno-nationalism and reestablish their credentials as tough-minded, confident patriots.
As protesters from Berlin to Budapest to Rio de Janeiro march in solidarity with their American counterparts, the current moment presents a historic opportunity to take back the flag from illiberal nativists and consign them to the electoral fringe.
Numerous observers have tried to account for democracy’s crisis. According to some, including Thomas Frank and Joseph Stiglitz, growing economic insecurity and injustice explain the increasing appeal of illiberal leaders. Liberal parties, for their part, are said to have forsaken the material interests of working people in favor of neoliberal policies, driving those voters into the welcoming arms of demagogues. In this account, the key to fighting the illiberal right is to double down on the progressive economic agenda.
On its face, this argument makes sense. Recent research showing an “elephant curve” in global income growth reveals dramatic gains for the bottom half of humanity as well as top earners. But growth has proved slower for the “squeezed middle,” which includes most wage earners in advanced industrialized countries, not least in the United States.
We cannot know whether these developments account for the rise of illiberals in the West. We do know that American democracy sailed through the wrenching recessions and double-digit unemployment of the early 1980s and late 2000s—not to mention the Great Depression of the 1930s. The rise of inequity in a context of decent macroeconomic conditions is not an obvious formula for crashing democracy in the United States, which has the world’s highest per capita income among countries with populations over 10 million. The middle did not realize the gains that the poor and rich did, but all groups’ incomes expanded, and the economy was on the upswing at the time of Trump’s election. Some argue that the skyrocketing costs of housing and health care swung working-class whites to Trump. But two-thirds of Trump’s support in 2016 came from voters with incomes above the median earner’s.
Nor are progressive arguments that the Democratic Party has abandoned the concerns of working people entirely convincing. Some observers point to Bill Clinton’s welfare reforms and financial sector liberalization, and Barack Obama’s support for bailing out Wall Street during the financial crisis, as evidence of a turn to neoliberalism. Debates over the effects of these choices continue, but the overall thrust of the Democrats’ policies has remained progressive. Democrats have fought for universal health care for decades. They passed Obamacare—without a single Republican vote—in 2010. In 2001 and 2017, they opposed the Republicans’ regressive, deficit-ballooning tax cuts, and under Obama they hiked rates on higher incomes. In the electorate as a whole, the Democrats’ policies have long been more popular than the Republicans’. Those who care most about inequality, moreover, have stuck with the Democrats.
In Europe, the countries that have experienced the worst democratic backsliding had previously authored the most impressive economic success stories. Between 1993 and 2015, the year that the democracy-busting Law and Justice (PiS) party captured a parliamentary majority in Poland, GDP per capita more than doubled and the country sustained comparatively low levels of income inequality. Hungarians likewise generated growth with equity. From 1993 to 2010, GDP per capita expanded robustly. In 2010, when Viktor Orbán’s illiberal Fidesz party won a parliamentary supermajority and started dismantling democracy, Hungary’s level of income inequality was the same as Denmark’s.
Bread-and-butter explanations for democracy’s crisis do not readily fit India, either. Between 1991 and 2014, GDP per capita tripled, poverty plunged, and life expectancy shot up from 58 to 69. Yet in 2014 the ethno-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a parliamentary majority, and its imperious leader, Narendra Modi, became prime minister. In 2019, Modi renewed his mandate in a landslide despite decelerating economic growth.
On balance, ordinary people are more prosperous than at any time in history, yet many are turning away from liberal candidates and parties at the polls.
If economic grievance cannot readily explain democracy’s crisis, does dismay over immigrants pouring over borders, a Black American president, and gay marriage account for the rise of illiberal demagogues?
Bigotry and hate undoubtedly constitute one of the world’s most pressing problems. Still, surveys offer little evidence that countries suffering democratic deterioration have grown more culturally conservative. The percentage of non-Black Americans who believe landlords should have to rent and sell to people regardless of race rose from 37 percent in 1978 to 78 percent in 2018. In 1988, 11 percent of Americans supported gay marriage, compared with 68 percent in 2018. Views on legal immigration have become much more positive since the 1990s.
Liberalizing trends are manifest in other democracies in danger as well. At the time of PiS’s 2015 victory, Poles were more pro-immigration than were the French, the British or the Belgians. Hungarians’ attitudes toward immigrants held steady between 2002 and 2006 and actually turned more favorable between 2006 and 2010, the year of Orbán’s big win. On cultural issues, Poles and Hungarians have grown markedly more liberal across the board. Evidence of liberalization in cultural attitudes is present in India as well.
Might a backlash against declining bigotry be to blame? In a magisterial recent volume, Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart argue that once liberal values became predominant, a “tipping point” was reached, triggering an “authoritarian reflex” in attitudes and “a counter-revolutionary conservative backlash.” Ultimately, the authors expect socio-economic modernization to resolve the conflict in liberals’ favor. But for now, “heated culture wars disrupt politics and society.”
Yet when are modern societies not in a “tipping point” era? Consider racial attitudes. Perhaps the liberalization of opinion on integrated schools in the 1950s and 1960s was the tip. Or did it come in the 1980s, when a majority of white Americans broke decisively for nondiscrimination in housing? Did it arrive in the 2010s, resulting in Trump’s election? Or have we reached it now, with the spectacular upsurge and widening of the Black Lives Matter movement? Disillusionment over cultural change runs deep in every era. Like economic injustice, the passage of tipping points is a constant in modern societies.
Perhaps liberal parties’ problem lies at least as much with their messaging as it does with policies and underlying social forces. Contemporary liberals have typically been preoccupied with policy solutions, overlooking the imperative of telling a compelling national story. In the United States, even if Trump is defeated and progressive reforms are enacted, without a rousing liberal-national narrative the illiberals’ story of a nation under siege by immigrants, minorities, and cosmopolitan elites will continue to infect public discourse and yield electoral dividends.
Democratic Party operatives seem to recognize that something is missing. After incurring heavy losses in the 2014 midterm elections, the party convened a special task force. Topping their list of concerns was the widespread perception that the party is little more than a “long list of policy statements.” In order to develop a unifying message for future elections, the task force proposed a “National Narrative Project.” Evidence of its fruits have yet to surface.
To find such a narrative, Democratic leaders need look no further than their mid–20th century predecessors. The progressive leaders who dominated American politics for decades offered forceful national narratives that tethered rights, equality, and welfare to America’s identity and highest purposes. They consistently strove to make liberal democracy patriotic—and patriotism liberal and democratic. They enacted Medicare, Social Security, and civil rights over furious conservative opposition by appealing to nationalism as well as a spirit of compassion, benevolence and justice.
Franklin Roosevelt spoke about his social reforms in a nationalist idiom that is rarely heard from current-day Democratic Party leaders. In a 1936 speech, the president praised the New Deal for having “Americanized” the tax system:
First, we gave a credit to earned income. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Secondly, we decreased the tax rates on small corporations. Wasn’t that the American thing to do? And third, we increased the taxes paid by individuals in the higher brackets. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do? Fourth, we increased still further, more steeply, the taxes paid by individuals in the highest bracket. … Wasn’t that the American thing to do?
This was stock rhetoric for FDR, who justified his every move in terms of American traditions, interests, and values. It aided his efforts to enact the kinds of deep reforms that helped restore the economy—and save democracy to boot. The fact that FDR was largely authoring the story as he went—America in fact had little tradition of the radical economic measures he enacted—testified to his appreciation of the power of narrative and of “Americanizing” his every reform in the minds of the voters. In a country allergic to “socialism,” FDR’s language helped him sell his radical economic program.
John F. Kennedy also tapped national sentiment to advance progressive causes. In June 1963, as George Wallace tried to block integration at the University of Alabama and police Commissioner Bull Connor set dogs on peaceful civil rights demonstrators, JFK addressed the nation in a bold speech on civil rights. He not only spelled out a litany of disturbing data on the disadvantages faced by Black people that spoke to Americans’ sense of justice—he also appealed to national pride: “We preach freedom around the world, and we mean it … but are we to say to the world, and much more importantly to each other, that this is the land of the free—except for the Negros?” Kennedy also bound specific progressive policies to national greatness. In a May 1962 speech that laid the groundwork for Medicare, he linked strong, assertive action by the national government to the nation’s “great pioneer heritage” and declared that “cooperation between an alert and progressive citizenry and a progressive government is what has made this country great.”
Advancing a powerful liberal-national narrative in support of domestic causes was not the only feature that distinguished America’s midcentury progressives. They also spoke in robust, muscular terms about national interests, tying them always to the defense of freedom. In a January 1941 speech, with Hitler in control of the European continent, Roosevelt denounced “the new order of tyranny that seeks to spread over every continent today.” He continued, “The American people have unalterably set their faces against that tyranny.”
Martin Luther King, the moral conscience of midcentury progressive patriotism, showed that nationalism need not be martial. Even as he excoriated the folly of Vietnam, he offered a soaring vision of national greatness: “My beloved nation … can well lead the way in [a] revolution of values,” one that would diminish “deadly Western arrogance” and end the age of imperialism. Arguing that “the day has passed for superficial patriotism,” he declared: “I criticize America because I love her. I want her to stand as a moral example to the world.”
Post-Vietnam progressives answered King’s call to eschew imperialism but they mistrusted nationalism. Many came to regard it as just another expression of toxic tribalism that modernization and popular enlightenment would one day wash away. Democrats have told stories of class, gender, and racial injustice, and they have rightly pressed for ameliorative policies, but they have typically failed to scale up their message to a full-blown narrative that joins the pursuit of justice to the nation’s ideals, identity, and greatness. Most party leaders have also refrained from taking the lead on national interests and security, leaving that to the Republicans. As a result, they left the flag with politicians who carried it into another reckless war—and eventually turned it over to Trump, whose patriotic pretensions too often go unchallenged despite their manifest hollowness.
American liberals have been relatively comfortable talking about race but have forgotten how to speak the language of nationalism. If ever there was a time to rejoin the two and leverage nationalism to counter ethno-nationalism, it is now. The seismic events of recent weeks have induced a remarkable rise in popular awareness of structural racism, and people of all ethnicities are flooding the streets alongside their Black American brethren. Still more may remain on the sidelines, waiting for liberal leaders to craft a message that resonates with them.
King, Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson all marshaled patriotism in the service of racial justice. Not only that, their messages gained currency among a sufficiently broad audience to help usher in the most significant civil rights legislation in a century—and in an age marked by greater hostility to racial justice than that which prevails today.
As Trump rose in the 2016 primaries, political psychologist Jonathan Haidt warned Democrats of the need to challenge Trump’s patriotic credentials. Trump’s opponents, he suggested, should not only stress how he threatens justice for the underprivileged but also how he “brings shame to America and weakens our stature among our friends.” Haidt’s advice was rooted in his theory of the “moral foundations” of politics. He and his colleagues identified five such foundations: care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. They showed that contemporary liberal leaders invoke a language of care and fairness while leaders on the right lean on a parlance of authority, loyalty, and sanctity.
Thus, the general tenor of contemporary Democrats’ rhetoric amounts to humanitarian pleas. After the Republicans passed their tax bill in December 2017, typical responses included Hillary Clinton’s excoriation of the policy as part of a “very mean-spirited campaign.” Sen. Cory Booker called it “unjust and just plain cruel.” That same year, Sen. Minority Leader Chuck Schumer labeled Republicans’ proposed health care bill “heartless.” The compassion is there in spades, but less visible is the jaunty nationalism of FDR that pushed a progressive vision to “Americanize” the tax system and JFK’s association of government-sponsored health care with the pioneers.
Unlike their progressive successors, America’s midcentury liberals intuitively appealed to all five moral foundations. While the defensive rhetoric of today’s progressives castigates voter suppression in terms of its “cruelty,” King called the “denial of this sacred right” by its proper name: “betrayal.” Kennedy likewise spoke in moral absolutes and invoked symbols of sanctity and authority as well as care and fairness. Speaking of Black Americans’ civil rights, he declared: “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue. It is as old as the scriptures and as clear as the American Constitution.” In contrast, current-day progressive politicians often allow an increasingly illiberal conservative party to monopolize the rhetoric of authority, loyalty, and sanctity. They routinely attack Trump as heartless, mendacious, and incompetent, but charges of disloyalty to country, degradation of the presidency, and betrayal of American values figure less prominently in their messaging.
The Democrats’ approach has electoral consequences. According to the research of sociologists Rob Willer and Jan Voelkel, the language political leaders use to talk about their policies is more important to voters than the policy stances themselves. The authors further report that for a Democratic presidential nominee, summoning patriotism and the American dream beats the Democrats’ usual language of compassion and justice.
From day one, Trump’s bizarre fealty to Russian dictator Vladimir Putin, his serial betrayals of U.S. national security from Ukraine to Syria, and his party’s tireless efforts to cover his tracks invited Democrats to bolster their bona fides as resolute patriots and guardians of national security and prestige. It similarly afforded them the chance to purvey their own narrative that linked progressive policy to national greatness and to paint Trump as a suck-up rather than the indomitable boss who marches to his own drum. Yet the Democrats mostly treated Trump’s treachery as a distraction from their policy goals.
To be sure, some Democratic Party leaders have attacked Trump’s patriotic credentials, using a forceful language of authority, loyalty, and sanctity. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House Intelligence Committee, did so during the impeachment proceedings. Joe Biden and others have sometimes spoken in similar terms. But generally speaking, this is not the approach most of today’s party leaders take, and they certainly do not do so with the relentless consistency of their mid–20th century forebears. The task has instead fallen to the #NeverTrump movement of recovering Republicans, whose ads typically go viral. One recent spot denounced the Confederate flag, beloved of so many Trumpians, as a symbol not just of white supremacy but of treason as well. The closing line captures the choice in blunt terms: “America or Trump.”
Democrats have also neglected to leverage their opponents’ patriotic lapses to advance progressive reforms. Campaign finance is an example. Trump’s ties to Putin and Republicans’ receipt of big donations from Putin’s oligarchs offered the Democrats a golden opportunity. They could have reached out to centrists and conservatives alarmed by an anti-American autocrat’s attack on the country’s sovereignty. Yet the Democrats stuck with their traditional depiction of campaign finance reform as a matter of class justice—a message that has never yielded a winning coalition for change.
The Black Lives Matter movement has rightly placed racial justice at the forefront of the progressive agenda. Clearly, a reckoning with the historical roots of the structural racism that pervades American life is long past due. With such a shameful legacy to confront, leading progressive Democrats might be loath to link their programs and campaigns to a proud national narrative. But the country’s mid–20th century leaders also had to grapple with past crimes even as they struggled to advance civil rights. MLK, JFK, and LBJ did not whitewash America’s checkered past as they smashed Jim Crow. But they consistently distinguished the virtues of the nation’s founding principles from the failings of its conduct. By calling out the failure of America to live up to its lofty ideals, midcentury leaders summoned national pride in those ideals to mobilize a coalition for change. They told a compelling story of the nation to challenge the country to do better. Redemption and progress lay at the heart of their messaging.
A 21st-century liberal-national narrative can and must offer a searing indictment of the nation’s failings as well as a soaring affirmation of its progress and promise. These two elements hardly preclude each other. The narrative can exalt the nation’s capacity for critical self-evaluation as a powerful facilitator of American progress and greatness. It can recount, too, the nation’s mighty progressive tradition that has labored to bend the arc of history toward justice. Above all, it can stress America’s status as a country founded on a noble idea—to establish self-government, equality, and individual rights.
Liberal leaders can harness nationalism to promote social inclusion and progress. And they can rely on hard rhetoric that taps into voters’ longing for authority, loyalty, and sanctity as well as care and fairness. When liberals neglect these imperatives, demagogues who claim preeminence as patriotic national guardians while identifying the nation with only part of its people are sure to step forward and press their own ideas about how to make their country “great again.” From Washington to Warsaw and Budapest to Bangalore, that is exactly what has happened.
During their struggles against communism, the leaders of Eastern Europe’s democratic movements tore down the patriotic pretensions of Communist Party rulers who relied on Moscow’s backing. They also fostered a sense of optimism and common national purpose that helped steer nascent democracies through the hardships of transition.
Poland’s Solidarity trade union movement famously fused liberal and national aspirations. Its leader, Lech Wałęsa, never failed to summon the martyrs of Poland’s centurieslong quest for national independence, often in the same breath that he demanded political liberalization. At their First National Congress, Solidarity’s leaders issued a “Letter to Poles” that stated: “Here, on the Vistula, a new Poland is being born. … Born of the whole nation’s will, Solidarity is … a civic social movement of people conscious of their rights and their duties towards the Fatherland and its independence.” Movement leaders adopted Żeby Polska była Polską (“Let Poland Be Poland”) as Solidarity’s anthem and adorned countless factory entrances with their chosen emblem, a worker bearing the Polish flag.
In Hungary, the revolution of 1848 and the anti-Soviet revolt of 1956, the historical cornerstones of national independence, figured prominently in the democratic movement’s imagery. József Antall, an opposition leader and Hungary’s first post-Communist prime minister, called forth national pride in the service of democracy as Wałęsa did in Poland. In a speech marking the 1956 revolt, Antall reminded his audience that “it was the Hungarians who punched a hole in the ship of tyranny.”
Yet over time the liberals lost sight of nationalism’s significance—a mistake that would prove costly for themselves and for democracy. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, head of the right-liberal Civic Platform and prime minister from 2007–14, fixated on prosperity and the EU. The liberals indeed posted a strong record on the economy. But Tusk and other liberal leaders often implied that Brussels’ approval was the measure of Poland’s success. They struggled to respond when Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the illiberal PiS, accused them of ignoring national interests and characterized Tusk as a weak-kneed servant of the EU. Kaczyński portrayed himself as a dominant figure capable of staunchly defending Poland’s sovereignty in the face of the EU’s overbearing demands and Russia’s imperial designs.
Hungary’s democrats did not display the same overt devotion to Brussels or weak-willed response to their illiberal foes. Still, as Bálint Magyar observes, their failure to marshal national symbols to legitimize the new democracy prevented “the ethos of the republic … from touching the souls of the people.” Nor did they advance a stirring narrative that couched the nation’s recent democratic success in the heroic tradition of the 1848 and 1956 revolts. Instead, they surrendered the mantle of Hungarian nationhood to Orbán’s illiberal Fidesz. Orbán plies a language of strength and dominance to distinguish his nationalist pretensions, depicting himself as the head of an age-old movement to build a mighty Hungary. Fidesz won an overwhelming majority of seats in 2010 and repeated the feat in 2014 and 2018.
A similar pattern is evident in the world’s largest democracy. In the decades before and after independence, the Indian National Congress (INC) and its liberal leader, Jawaharlal Nehru, owned the Indian tricolor. Nehru embedded his fervent commitments to democracy and minority rights in an inspiring vision of India’s identity and global mission. In 1947, on the eve of independence, he hailed “the birth of freedom,” a moment “when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.” But Nehru’s INC successors neglected to integrate their commitments to religious minorities and the poor into an absorbing narrative of national glory.
Their missteps opened the way for Modi and his BJP to commandeer the conversation about national mission and fate. Promising to put “India first,” Modi quipped in 2012: “[INC leader] Rahul [Gandhi] is not just a national leader but an international leader.” Modi also contrasted his own muscular stance on foreign policy with INC’s “weak and feeble” approach.
Nehru wielded Indian nationalism to crush ethno-nationalists, accusing Hindu chauvinists of “betraying our country.” But his heirs avoided such stalwart rhetoric when it came to the BJP. “They make people fight, spread anger,” Rahul Gandhi proclaimed in 2014. “We spread love and compassion.”
INC prime minister Manmohan Singh (2004–14) presided over high growth while spearheading employment, food security, and education schemes. Still, in 2014 the BJP steamrolled the INC in parliamentary elections and Modi became prime minister. While Modi’s Islamophobia draws much attention, his message appeals far beyond his Hindu-nationalist base. He propagates a vision of a mighty, rising India commanded by an indomitable leader, and his national vision and reputation for decisiveness, more than his Hindu zealotry, explain his rise. His message is designed to make Indians across castes and classes feel great about their country—and the man responsible for that sentiment.
Leaders like FDR, JFK, Wałęsa, and Nehru demonstrated that democrats can propound powerful liberal-national narratives. History is full of mighty leaders who mobilized nationalism to promote freedom, equality, and progress.
With November 2020 approaching, the door is wide open for democracy’s defenders to assault Trump’s pseudo-patriotism and bolster their own nationalist credentials. By urging the use of military force to crush Black Lives Matter protests, Trump dishonors American troops and constitutional traditions. His hapless response to the COVID-19 pandemic not only reveals the need for a robust social safety net but also lays bare the administration’s abject failure to protect the nation from a grave menace. His cowering before Putin evinces a disgraceful disloyalty to country. By attacking patriotic civil servants who testified against him in impeachment proceedings, Trump degrades the presidency and betrays the nation’s front-line protectors.
Etching such facts into voters’ minds in a manner that invokes a powerful national narrative and projects dominance—Americans will not stand for this—may be key to subduing the illiberal challenge over the long haul. Next time, Democratic Party leaders might not have the luxury of facing an opponent as bungling as Trump.
For now, the people are taking the lead. The protesters thronging America’s cities and towns are toppling Confederate monuments and spurring calls to rename military bases that honor Confederate traitors. A movement that began as a protest against racist police violence has become a pitched battle over the American story. Trump’s GOP acolytes are digging in, defending not only the memorials to treason but also a president who has made betrayal of country routine. Democratic Party leaders are laudably calling for criminal justice reform, but their instinctual focus on policy is causing them to miss a broader point: George Floyd ripped the flag from the hands of the illiberal right. It is now up for grabs. Will liberal leaders now claim it, at long last, for all American citizens and aspirants to citizenship?
Rarely in recent history has custody of the flag been so contested in so many countries. In India, Modi’s proposed National Registry of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Bill prompted furious popular resistance from flag-waving, constitution-quoting, national anthem–singing demonstrators, most of them women. As Prerna Singh notes: “Protestors are challenging the BJP’s attempts to define the national identity” and “breaking from a common liberal response of rejecting national pride.” As a result, Modi found himself on the defensive on a major initiative.
In Switzerland, a grassroots movement, Operation Libero, has helped defeat a string of referenda sponsored by the ethno-nationalist Swiss People’s Party. “To tackle rightwing populism,” explains Flavia Kleiner, the group’s young co-founder, “you have to dispense with peevishness and be very much on the offensive—you must lead the narrative.” As polls showed overwhelming support for a measure to expel foreigners for petty violations, Kleiner says her group “avoided entirely speaking about foreigners and criminality.” Instead, it “deliberately argued in a patriotic way,” tying equality before the law to the country’s constitution and deepest national traditions. As the vote drew close, she reports, the referendum’s sponsors “found themselves having to explain why they wanted Swiss values to be upended.” In conceding defeat, the leader of the Swiss People’s Party seemed baffled: “I don’t know what happened but at some point, everyone was just talking about the rule of law.”
Such popular movements show how liberals can reinvigorate the spirit of democracy by tapping nationalism and reestablishing their reputations for optimism and strength. The organizers grasp that robust economies, liberalizing social attitudes, and attractive policies may not be enough to quell the illiberal challenge, and that standing up to authoritarian bullies requires attacking them relentlessly, using the full force of a national narrative. By taking their cue, democratic leaders can arm themselves for the protracted battles that lie ahead.
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