After last Sunday’s win in the Brazilian presidential election, supporters of Jair Bolsonaro took to the streets clad in the yellow and green colours of the Brazilian flag.
That people and parties with more liberal and open political platforms have everywhere allowed the extreme right wing to appropriate the national flag and the power of patriotism is one of the greatest political failures of our time.
Liberals everywhere have, throughout the 20th century, allowed a mistaken conception of internationalism to blind them to both the importance and the power of the nation state. In seeking to promote trans-national co-operation, they have gone too far. They have equated any national symbol or any waving of the flag to be equated with jingoism and non-cooperation. Nothing could be further from the truth.
First of all, we need to recognise that the nation state is the primary locus of democratic legitimacy. No institutions other than national parliaments have the same level of legitimacy and democratic mandate. As such, the nation state should be front and centre for anyone who believes in legitimate democracy.
Second, it was a big mistake to underestimate the importance of the nation state to people’s sense of identity and belonging. Talk of international perspectives, co-operation, and globalism are important. But the vast majority of people’s lives are local and policies of international co-operation need not be, and should never have been, positioned as being adversarial to the nation state. Rather they are methods to strengthen nation states and increase their resilience through trans-national co-operation.
Finally, maybe the biggest mistake was what was possibly a natural consequence of the first two – to dismiss people’s legitimate concerns about the impact of mass immigration as closed-minded xenophobia.
Those of us who believe in liberal democracy need to understand that democracy cannot function without being seen as legitimate, without being close to the people within its sphere, and without a strong sense of social cohesion. All of these requirements lie within the borders of the nation state.
It is not clear that liberals are now even capable of internalising these issues and, even if they could, whether things have been allowed to get so far that they have become irreversibly associated with ’the liberal elite’ in voters’ minds.
If either of those is the case, then we should all fear for the future of liberal democracy as those parties and politicians who credibly wrap themselves in the flag will continue their ascendancy.
And rather than condemning ‘populists’ and ’nationalists’, the liberal elite should look in the mirror and accept that, through crass incompetence and putting their own biases ahead of the views and feelings of the general electorate, they themselves will have played a big part in undermining liberal democracy.