Crowded into Old North Church in Boston, the site where the beacon was lit to spur on Paul Revere’s ride, John Shattuck discussed the populism and nationalism plaguing this nation and poisoning the ideal it was once believed to be. Shattuck drew comparisons between the democratic backsliding in the United States and that of Hungary, remarking on the similarities between Donald Trump and Viktor Orban. In the attempt to end his lecture on a positive note, Shattuck outlined the ways in which he believes this country can be saved and avoid the fate of Hungary, most interestingly that the left must reclaim patriotism and make saving this democracy a united front, not just a liberal one. Many scholars have brought up the idea of America needing more patriotism, showing the sides of the country that we should be proud of not just that which has to change and how this might be the key to saving our democracy from dangerous backsliding.
There has been a recent wave of wins for right and far-right parties, often attributed to their use of patriotism. This strategy adopted by the right has transformed patriotism into nationalism, creating us versus them mentalities that damage the foundation of our democracy. As Shattuck discussed, this is the fate of countries like the United States and Hungary. Donald Trump in the United States has amplified discrimination on the bases of religion, sexual orientation, race, and gender. As he panders to only part of his constituency, he is not simply ignoring the other portions but actively encouraging his followers to engage in violent behavior. While this is attractive to his base and, as such, allows Trump to win his short terms goals, it puts the democracy of the country at risk as he is placing his will at odds with the country’s needs. While patriotism is often used as a tactic to bring many, if not all citizens of a specific country together under a common cause, Trump’s nationalism separates the country and poses a threat to democracy.
Hungary is encountering a similar fate in the hands of Viktor Orban. By using the migration crisis of 2015 to promote his nationalist ideals, Orban gained power and quickly consolidated it to ensure he could maintain a strong hold on the country. He campaigned under visions to make his country great again, a sentiment American’s are now all too familiar with, arguing that the root of all their problems was the mass number of immigrants seeking refuge in their country. Both Trump and Orban represent the patriotism turned nationalism of the right conservative parties. These nationalist mentalities fracture the tactical judgment that democracies rely on. According to Lust and Waldner in the USAID theory matrix, democratic backsliding can be linked to leaders who pander to extremist points of view in order to gain power quickly, those that forgo tactical judgment (2015). As the radicalized form of patriotism, nationalism encourages violence and is attributed to democratic erosion, so how is the left intended to reclaim the narrative?
The answer is simple: the nationalism of Trump and Orban is not what Shattuck or other pundits propose of the left. Their argument lies in the reasoning that love of one’s country is not inherently dangerous, but excluding others based on that love is detrimental. By reverting to the base ideals of the country, inclusivity and freedom, patriotism was a driving force for the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. It became the job of the people to advocate for all, to fight for the equality they were promised. The leaders of the Civil Rights capitalized on the “self-made man” mindset so popular in this country and framed the movement, not as a handout but as hard work with a high reward. However, this logic has been lost by the decades. As more recent movements, namely Black Lives Matter, have rightly focused on the failings of this country and the lives that have been lost. However, they stop just short of the success of the 1960s, by highlighting the problems that we face but not turning the conversation completely to a single goal or solution like the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
By highlighting the faults of the country and establishing a fear of nationalism, the left has lost their claim to patriotism and lost their right to call individuals to action. People do not want to be blamed for something they have little control over, but to give someone a problem with the solution as part of the question encourages them in helping to answer it. By reinvigorating this narrative and reaching out, the left could widen its base and accomplish the goals this country so desperately needs. In addition, by reaching out to border supporters or outlaying voters, the campaigns would make strides in increasing civic culture, a factor in increasing democratic performance and decreasing risks of backsliding according to Lust and Waldner’s USAID theory matrix (2015). In order to use patriotism to their advantage, the left must advocate for all, create a sense of shared membership to the country, and make efforts to reform a responsibility, not a choice.
Trump and Orban both capitalized on the feeling of the lost man, the idea the country forgot its middle-class workers. These “forgotten voters” were targeted directly by these politicians and given a voice they felt they had lost, but this strategy was intended to be exclusionary and only attractive to a portion of the population. In order to properly reclaim the rights to patriotism, the left cannot be exclusionary and must listen to the concerns of all, with the exception of beliefs founded on hate. By including as many induvial and voters into their narrative as possible, the left can then call on them to create the positive change we need to see by making it a responsibility, a duty, and an honor, not a job or obligation. There is no perfect solution when asking how to save a country from backsliding nor is this an easy answer. However, transforming the salvation of democracy into a patriotic honor and not a liberal struggle could be a leap in the right direction and one that we need.
Lust, Ellen and David Waldner. Unwelcome Change: Understanding, Evaluating, and Extending Theories of Democratic Backsliding. USAID, 2015
Photo: Cahill, Natalie. “Understanding Nationalism Versus Patriotism”. Entity. December 2016.