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August 18, 2020
Missing America
2. Nationalism

In This Episode

How did a backlash to globalization build into a wave of nationalism that has reshaped politics around the world? In Europe, nationalist leaders have risen by appealing to their supporters’ most primal needs for security and belonging. Host Ben Rhodes talks to David Lammy, a member of the UK Parliament, about the forces that gave rise to Brexit and nationalism across the West. Then we hear from European activists who have had success in pushing back, and from Americans about what the U.S. needs to do differently.

 

Transcript

 

EPISODE 2 – NATIONALISM

 

Ben Rhodes: November. Twenty-sixteen. Just a couple weeks after the Presidential election. 

 

[MUSIC BEGINS] 

ARCHIVAL CLIP: U.S. President Barack Obama has departed for Athens, in Greece, on his farewell tour as the U.S. head of state… 

I joined Barack Obama on his final trip overseas as President of the United States…. to Greece, then Germany, then Peru. And let’s just say… it was not the victory lap we’d been hoping for. 

In Berlin, Angela Merkel’s staff was grim. Trump had just given the world a preview of what his Presidency would be like… by appointing the arch-nationalist Steve Bannon to his staff.

It made headlines all over Germany. 

“We know Bannon,” one of them told me. And it wasn’t hard to figure out what part of German history he was referring to. 

When Obama said goodbye to Merkel the next day, she had a tear in her eye. And if you know Angela Merkel, you know that never happens. 

As we got back on Air Force One, Obama said to us  ”Angela, she’s all alone.”

[MUSIC ENDS]

I knew what he meant.  All across the West, nationalist, anti-democratic movements and leaders were making inroads.  And gaining power.  

A wannabe dictator Viktor Orban ruled Hungary.

The far-right Law and Justice Party ran Poland.

Great Britain had just voted to leave the European Union.

At every stop of Obama’s final tour, leaders kept pulling us aside. Would Trump join this tide of nationalism? 

Obama offered the only reassurance he could give.

“Wait and see,” he’d say. “Wait and see.”

[MUSIC BEGINS]

He put on a brave face.  Until our last stop.

We were driving in the Presidential limousine, riding to Air Force One after our final meeting in Peru.  

And Obama said, “What if we were wrong?”

“About what?” I asked.

We’d all been trying to process how Trump could have won the election. *How?!*  After tens of millions of Americans got health care. With gas prices low, unemployment plummeting? 

Obama wondered aloud if maybe the problem had been the belief that drove his whole presidency.  

The belief that America was becoming more inclusive. More tolerant. That our diversity could set an example for the world. A blueprint for how people around the world can work together across differences. 

“Maybe we pushed too far,” he said.  

“Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

I’m Ben Rhodes, and welcome back to Missing America. A look at the political afflictions spreading unchecked across the world… in the absence of American leadership.  

This week: Nationalism. The growing wave of leaders grabbing power for themselves… by preying on our need to belong to something *bigger* than ourselves. 

British politician David Lammy literally wrote the book about it. It’s called “Tribes.”  From him, we’ll learn where nationalism came from. And where it can lead.

LAMMY: We can get world wars. We can get an extremism that destabilizes major European powers. 

But he also has ideas for how to beat back the tide.

So do activists and leaders across Europe, who’re struggling with this virus just like us.  

KLEINER: The most important thing is like, be popular! Like, you can be popular without being populistic.

From them, we’ll learn a few things about how to act like America again — and lead the fight *against* nationalism. Both overseas… and right here at home… on Missing America. 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

ACT ONE 

David Lammy was first elected to Parliament in the year two thousand. He was twenty-seven — the youngest MP at the time.  

They have an unofficial name for that in Parliament, by the way: “Baby of the House.”   

LAMMY: Tony Blair was in power. It was such a different time to now, because at the time, people were talking about apathy. A lack of political engagement. The political parties had converged, to some extent, because people like Tony Blair and Bill Clinton were kind of moving to the right. Um… If you like, it was boring!

Then, a decade into his career — no longer Baby Of The House — David felt the tenor of UK politics… shifting.  It wasn’t boring.  

Instead… it was getting pretty frightening.

LAMMY: I suddenly found, about 10 years ago and it certainly accelerated in the last five years — people starting to question… whether I was British. 

[OMINOUS MUSIC]

People questioning my stake… in the country that I was born in.

David Lammy, I should tell you, is black. His family is from Guyana. I probably *don’t* need to tell you that the Brits questioning his Britishness…were white.  

LAMMY: And so I noticed this tribalism growing. And I… and I also, it also is consistent with the period in which both of our countries have had attacks and death threats, and actually attempts at murder on politicians…

ANNOUNCER: “The murder of British MP Jo Cox shocked Britain and the world.  The killer, Thomas Mair, a 53-year-old man with extreme right-wing views, has been sentenced for life…” 

ANNOUNCER: “Updating our top story now, a gunman shot Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others today at an outdoor event in Tucson, Arizona.

LAMMY: …A kind of growing anger. And rage. And hate. So that’s what led me to start thinking about, “What’s behind all of that?” 

Especially because it wasn’t just gun-toting thugs expressing all those grievances. And it wasn’t just white supremacists voting for the Brexit Party — which was led by Nigel Farage, a dog-whistle racist. It was a lot of average, middle-class Brits.  Including some of David’s friends.

[MUSIC ENDS.]

Last year, David paid a visit to two of them, in the town of Peterborough. A couple of hours outside London.

LAMMY: I get off the train, and I’m met by this wonderful man, Clive, who’s known me since I was eleven, who’s now in his early 70s. He meets me in the car park. He actually — I’m there with one of my senior researchers, and despite the fact that I’m there with my researcher, he greets me in the car park with a big kiss on my cheek as if I’m still a young child [laughs]! So, you know, instantly you’re taken back. 

As a kid, David left his London neighborhood of Tottenham to study in Peterborough. A move he compares to leaving Harlem to study in Denver.  

Clive was a parent of one of David’s friends. Today? He’s like a surrogate Dad.

LAMMY: We get in his car. We drive to the bungalow that he lives in with his wife, Cathy. And sitting there, drinking cups of tea and eating British scones and jam and cream, I talk to them. And the story that comes across from them in middle England is a story of deep unease. 

Deep unease with the way Peterborough has changed. From safe, homogenous suburbia… to a place full of immigrants. With ways very different from Clive and Cathy’s.

LAMMY: They talk about Eastern European shops suddenly dominating the high street because of all these European people that are coming in. They talk about the way in which there are now mosques everywhere, almost more mosques than there are churches. I remember Clive telling a story of how they had to move house because next door moved some young men from Eastern Europe into a house. They were obviously working, but people kept coming and going and they just couldn’t stand it, their neighborhood basically changed. And you know, obviously, I’m sitting there as a progressive, as a labor politician. I don’t agree with all of their views, but I’m listening because I care about these people and having some sympathy, actually, for how they describe change, and how change makes them uncomfortable. 

But David wondered how that fear of change could lead people like Clive and Cathy to vote for Brexit, to side with people like Nigel Farage?  

A man whose vision of England not only excludes people who look like David Lammy, their surrogate son….

But who wants to basically fracture a post-war European society… that’s given them a pretty comfortable life? Not to mention 75 years of peace after two world wars?

LAMMY: You know, and it’s ironic, I’m sitting there with Clive and Cathy in their bungalow. They haven’t got a mortgage. They’ve paid it off. They have a good pension. They’ve worked hard — they have one. They are baby boomers. You know, on one level, their life is great. Their kids have done well. Their grandchildren are thriving. So on one level, you ought to think, “Well, what’s the problem?”

[EXPLAINER MUSIC BEGINS]

David says the problem… is that over the past few decades, people like Clive and Cathy have been denied something else.

Something more important to human beings, than money.  More important than comfort.  

It’s the cultural need to *belong.*

LAMMY: There’s a lot, now, of evidence that actually as human beings, we do have an instinctive nature to define our tribe.  And therefore to look beyond our tribe and define the enemy. You can do experiments with children who are at, you know, they’re six, seven, eight, and they’re thirty kids in a class. You give 15 blue shirts, you give the other 15 red shirts, and after a week, the children will start dividing alongside the color of their shirts — when you didn’t even tell them to behave in that fashion.

Clive and Cathy feel increasingly alienated from the community and the country they used to feel they belonged to.  

Upset that it’s changed, and that they’re called backwards for saying so.  

They’re ripe to be offered a new-colored shirt.  

[MUSIC FADES OUT]

Ideally, liberal democratic governments would’ve given them some constructive way to channel their tribal energies. But it’s not that easy.

LAMMY: You have to put a lot of effort into that common story, that common belonging, the business of nation-building. And what we find is that many countries have kind of let that slide. Sometimes it’s been replaced by kind of consumerism. A watercooler moment, that’s the Olympics or a particular moment on television. But even that’s changed with the growth of cable TV. So belonging, it turns out, is really, really important. And guess what? The only political parties that are talking about belonging, are on the right. 

Right-wing nationalists promise middle England an easy team to belong to. And a wealth of enemies to stand opposed to.  

Middle and working-class people, they’re the “real” Brits…  Versus more educated, cosmopolitan elites. Versus immigrants. Versus anyone who worships in a mosque or a temple instead of a church. Versus a free press that dares to tell you any different.  And almost certainly versus those who aren’t white. 

LAMMY:  And more than anything else, I think that the conception of nationhood as an ethnic conception — i.e. a white conception, And that leads to, very sadly, a white supremacy — is uplifting! It’s emboldening! It makes you feel like you, you know, you matter again. The liberals appear flat footed, unable to talk about culture, unable to talk about country, unable to understand belonging, Just really flat-footed. And more than anything, we’re yearning for progressive politicians that know once again how to tell stories. And evocative ones.

For a long time, the story progressives told was about the advance of liberal democracy and globalization. Of being free citizens of a brave new world.

But it’s a story that a lot of people don’t buy anymore. And I can tell you almost the *exact date* when the bottom fell out. 

NEWS REPORT: The collapse of Lehman Brothers triggered turmoil in markets around the globe. Stocks tumbled in Taiwan and India, then plummeted in Europe by nearly five percent… 

September 15th, 2008. 

The fourth-largest bank in the world went bankrupt that day. And the financial crisis officially exploded.

NEWS REPORT: What we’ve seen over the last 24 hours is an earthquake we’ve been waiting and expecting for some while. Now, we’ve got the aftershocks to come, and the clearing up to do.

The day it happened, I remember I had to pull an all-nighter to write a speech about it. For then- Presidential candidate Barack Obama. 

I went outside to have a smoke, and ran into our top economic policy staffer.  

He told me there was a 50 percent chance that the entire global economy would collapse… *before I finished writing the speech.* 

[DARK MUSIC BEGINS]

It didn’t collapse. Barely. But it was the greatest economic shock since the Great Depression. People across the Western world lost their homes.  Their jobs.  Their life savings. 

And even for those who didn’t… it was obvious who to blame: 

Banks that made reckless bets with peoples’ mortgages.

De-regulation and tax cuts that helped the wealthy and well-connected — never the masses. 

And instead of rectifying those mistakes?  

Many leaders… especially in the European Union… compounded them.

LAMMY: We’ve had a period, following the 2008 crash, of real austerity in whole swathes of the world, where books have had to be balanced. And instead of more taxation for those who can afford it, we’ve actually seen a cut to services and more taxation for those who can least afford it. 

Banks were bailed out, and people weren’t.  For many in the middle and working classes, it was the ultimate betrayal. A feeling that was shared on our side of the Atlantic too.

Not only had globalization caused their neighborhoods to be changed by strangers… the tradeoff hadn’t been worth it.  

Liberal democracy and a globalized economy *hadn’t* created a tide that lifted all boats. 

They seemed like just another way to fleece the little guy.

LAMMY: And peculiarly, these folk are seduced by the idea that it’s the liberal elite that did this.

Or maybe… not so peculiar. Because starting right after the crisis, a new wave of nationalist leaders seized the opportunity to plant exactly that idea… in a lot of angry people’s minds.

The idea that the institutions that brought us globalization needed to be replaced.

 By an older sense of *belonging*… 

[MUSIC ENDS]

Viktor Orban was one of the first leaders to ride this wave.

In 2010, he was elected Prime Minister of Hungary. At the time, it was a young democracy. Now it’s basically a dictatorship.

My friend Sandor Lederer watched it happen from Budapest. He runs “K-Monitor,” an NGO that keeps tabs on Hungarian government corruption. 

LEDERER: I think our prime minister is a door opener or pioneer of, you know, how you exploit these tendencies in politics. So I think a lot of leaders in the region, and probably also at other places of the world, learn from him.

Sandor says after the Cold War, democracies became complacent: 

LEDERER: Democracies and democratic leaders became, I think, too comfortable when they saw that, “OK, communism, the Soviet Union is over. We won. And now everything will work perfectly because the system is good as it is.”

But after the financial crisis, Orban sensed people’s anger. And an opening. He set a plan in motion that might seem eerily familiar to Americans.

First, he gave the angriest Hungarians a team to belong to: He glorified an older vision of a white, Christian nation. 

 

He lined up a shifting cast of enemies that he claimed were undermining that vision: immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and George Soros. 

 

He befriended Vladimir Putin, who wants to see nationalist politics spread across a divided West. And yes… He even built a border wall to keep migrants out. 

 

Usually, the President of the United States would see the danger of a leader like Orban. Instead, Orban got an invitation to the White House.

 

TRUMP: Thank you very much, it’s a great honor to have with us the Prime Minister of Hungary.  And, uh, Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many different ways…

 

[THEME MUSIC BEGINS]

Meanwhile, the same brand of nationalism has spread next door, to Poland. It’s infected Great Britain. The United States. India. Nationalist parties across Europe have been on the rise.

Sandor Lederer knows that this sort of thing, historically, has not ended well..  

LEDERER: For me, one thing I remind myself very often: That actually we had in the region a war, in the ‘90s, in Yugoslavia. And people who managed to live peacefully for decades together started to kill each other based on nationalistic arguments, and being fueled up by politicians who actually just thrived for power. So I think that’s a huge danger.

David Lammy puts it even more bluntly.  

LAMMY: What we call in Europe “a white working class community of people,” they’re now living in a world where they’re seeing huge inequality opening up, and their children are not going to get the same crack that they even got. When these people get angry… shit happens. We can get world wars, we can get an extremism that destabilizes major European powers. And I’m afraid that’s where we are.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Who we elect in November will help determine whether we let nationalism continue to spread unchecked…with all of the risks that poses. 

Or we can take a different path…one that can make the last few years a detour instead of a destination. To do that, we can learn from activists and leaders in places like Poland, England and even Switzerland, who are coming up with ways to push back. 

Coming up, we’ll hear their stories….and learn how they’re turning the tide against nationalism… when Missing America continues. 

[THEME MUSIC ENDS]

 

— ADS —

ACT TWO

[ARCHIVAL: NEWS CLIPS ABOUT CHANGE IN THE WORLD]

NEWS REPORTER: Students around the world are skipping school today and taking to the streets to protest global warming.

NEWS REPORTER: In this broad ruling by Justice Kennedy he says the right to marry is a fundamental right.

NEWS REPORTER: Whether you look at women taking combat positions in the military, or fathers staying home – almost nobody is living out the kind of gender script or marriage script that their parents did.

NEWS REPORTER: Robots, artificial intelligence are going to change the way we interact with technology, there’s no question.]

Economic disruptions…a warming planet… changing social norms… the rise of A.I. It’s a lot for anyone to process.  And when it all seems to hit at once… there are political consequences.

SCHAAKE: We have a big challenge with the amount of change that people are experiencing in the world. And, I believe that when change is overwhelming, it makes people conservative. It makes them change-averse. It makes them want to pause and stop and have a little bit of a break of all the change. 

That’s Marietje Schaake. For a decade starting in 2009, she was a Dutch representative in the European Parliament. 

SCHAAKE: And so it puts us progressives and progressive politicians in a sort of corner in terms of what is the positive agenda for change, how are we going to navigate this change? How are we going to give people the confidence that we can come together and deal with the sharp edges, shave off the sharp edges of the change that’s coming, but not allow the fundamentals that have created our quality of life, our fundamental freedoms, to actually be be sort of washed away with the change that that’s also happening. 

American progressives *have* seen some of those fundamentals washed away.

For the last three and a half years, we’ve watched Donald Trump — enabled by his party — appeal to the angriest members of society.  And turn them against democratic norms and institutions. Day, after day, after day.

Trump: We’re building a wall between here and Mexico, he’s giving us very unfair rulings….They said it was fake news…But you also had people, very fine people, on both sides…You what I am, I’m a nationalist, ok?

For us, it can feel like a shock. Something we’ve never experienced before.

But as we go through it, we should remember that there’s a whole community of progressives in different countries who are fighting the same battles.

SCHAAKE: I’m very optimistic that there is a big wake up call among young people, among many people in Europe and I think in the U.S. as well, that politics really matters. That is not just a place for protesting or giving protest votes against the system, against the establishment, but that it can really lead to a fundamentally different government, for example, which has consequences. So I I’m hopeful that people perceive their own agency again.

There is so much we can learn from each other…about how to resist….and how to win. 

[RESTAURANT AMBI]

BEN: Ok, if you can just say your name?

KLEINER:  Yes, I’m Flavia Kleiner?

Flavia Kleiner is an activist in Switzerland.  

Where you may be surprised to learn a right-wing nationalist party has dictated the political agenda for twenty-five years. They’re called the SVP — the Swiss People’s Party.

Over coffee at a Zurich cafe, she told me about them.

KLEINER: They are the biggest party in our parliament. And they really shape the public debate, and they influence other parties strongly with what they do. And what we see now in the past years is that it… really there is a systematic attack on liberal institutions, on our judges, on our government, on our parliament, on separation of powers, on international law, on human rights and so forth. And that’s why, actually, we see we need to step up. 

For her, the moment of truth came in twenty-fourteen. 

That year, the SVP deployed one of its favorite tactics: It put an anti-immigration, anti-EU law up for a popular vote. In the form of a national referendum.  

By the way, that’s a tactic Nigel Farage would copy a couple of years later, to get Brexit passed.

This SVP referendum put a cap on the number of immigrants who could enter Switzerland each year. If it passed, Switzerland would be forced to violate its own immigration agreements with the European Union.

KLEINER: So what happened is that it was accepted by a really close margin, of like 50.3 percent. It was about 20,000 votes. So to me, it was like 20,000 who didn’t get up in the morning, you know? And it was accepted. And this brought us like three years of heavy and difficult negotiations with the European Union to somehow save our bilateral treaties we have with the European Union. And to us, it was some sort of a Brexit moment. We said, “OK. This is not the Switzerland how we see it. This is not this open, prosperous, cosmopolitan country as we want our country to be seen.”

The “we” she’s talking about were a few of her friends. Students in their twenties. None with much of a background in politics. They organized anyway. Into a group called “Operation Libero.” Crowdfunded. All-volunteer.

It had a single goal: deploy a grassroots campaign to defeat SVP referendums.

They didn’t have to wait long to put that to the test.

KLEINER: So after the elections in October 2015, only like one month later, we learned that we are gonna to vote again on a really dangerous popular initiative, the so-called “Enforcement Initiative, It was about expelling foreigners even for petty offenses, And this would have caused, like, some sort of a two-class legal system in Switzerland. Where Swiss would be treated differently than foreigners. 

Early polls showed the initiative would win, with close to seventy percent of the vote.

Flavia’s group campaigned against it. Pretty much on their own.  

KLEINER: All the other parties said, ‘Woof, we’re just tired! We don’t have money, the elections are just passed again, the right wing populist became the strongest party in Switzerland, why should we even try?’ 

Operation Libero tried.

And amazingly… they *won.*  

[UPBEAT MUSIC BEGINS]

The referendum failed. The most powerful party in the country had been beaten — by a bunch of student volunteers. What was their secret?

For one thing: their media campaigns of short videos and memes were designed to be upbeat, funny, and actually entertaining.

KLEINER: The most important thing is: Be popular. Like, you can be popular without being populistic. And I think that’s really important. Sometimes we, like liberals, we tend to be too intellectual, to be a bit afraid of finding simple words for big issues, you know.   

And sure enough, these simple memes *did* serve a bigger purpose.

They changed the political narrative.

See, the Nationalists had tried to make the conversation about dangerous, criminal foreigners threatening patriotic Swiss society.

But Operation Libero didn’t take the bait.  Their media campaign didn’t even *mention* foreigners. *Or* crime. And importantly, they didn’t attack the SVP.

Instead, they told a patriotic story of their *own.* About a Swiss society that is great because of its *constitution.*  The central tenant of which is the “rule-of-law.”  The idea that laws apply equally to everybody. It’s an idea the SVPs referendum… would’ve shredded.

KLEINER: We spoke about Swiss values as we see them in our constitution, as they were founding Switzerland and making Switzerland to what it is today. And it was a really patriotic campaign. 

*Proudly* so. Libero even adopted a super-patriotic mascot.

KLEINER: Helvetia, who’s like an allegorical figure, like the mother of all the Swiss? And she represents all these values of democracy, of rule of law, for inclusiveness. What we managed to do through this is like to regain the sovereignty of interpretation over what Switzerland stands for. And, the biggest compliment that the right wing populist leader could give me after the vote was when he said, ‘I don’t know what happened, but at some point we all spoke about rule of law.’ And that’s why we thought, ‘Okay. We managed to somehow get him on our battlefield.’ Nobody spoke about criminal foreigners in the end. People spoke about the rule of law and what this initiative would do to it.

A few months after losing this campaign? The SVP tried to pass another anti-immigrant referendum.

They lost that one, too.

And a few months after that? They lost *again.*

[UPBEAT MUSIC ENDS]

So lesson number one: Organize. Go on the offense against nationalists. Tell the *progressive* version of your national story — instead of letting it be defined by the right, as David Lammy’s seen in England.

LAMMY: You know, in the UK, the English flag, the flag of St George, has become a symbol of the far right, the national front, the BNP. It is not something that mainstream politicians, certainly not in my party, feel comfortable talking about, or feel comfortable putting a flag up in their home. 

How could that be, that your national flag, you’ve allowed it to be taken over by sinister forces on the far right?! 

We need to get into this cultural zone. We need to start talking not just about inequality and economics if we are to win people’s hearts and minds.

Here’s *his* idea for how to do that — call it lesson number two:

He says governments need to do “positive nation-building.” The kind of thing that could make the Clives and Cathys of the world feel that sense of national belonging..

So he calls for a required national civic service. Like a draft — but instead of serving in the military, young people from all walks of life spend a year improving communities around the country.

LAMMY: Why do I do that? I call for it because in the UK — and this is similar in the United States — if you go to university, you will meet young people from different parts of the country, different backgrounds, studying, But if you don’t go to university… and that’s that’s still the majority of young adults in the UK…how are you going to meet — if you live in Sunderland, the far north east, or you live in Peterborough — how’re you going to meet a young person from Tottenham in London, where I represent? The truth is: you’re not. And you can live and share very, very different visions of this country. And we need to be bringing those people together. 

Now, Clive and Cathy love that idea, but Progressives hate it. The reason they hate it is not the National Civic Service — they’re up for that. But what they hate is compulsion! It’s the idea that all young people should do this!

And so we need to be clever. We need not just to have an economic account of life, but to have a cultural account of life, to get into a cultural zone, to get into a place where we are fostering what we share as a country. 

And that idea — investing at the community level? That plays into another lesson? Before we get to it, I want you to meet Adam Bodnar.

[MUSIC BEGINS]

BODNAR: So my position is the Commissioner For Human Rights of the Republic of Poland. And the traditional name for my position is the Ombudsman. Which means that I’m the highest state official that is responsible for protection of rights and freedoms in Poland.

That’s a tough job.  

‘Cause for the last 5 years, Poland’s nationalist Law & Justice Party — led by Jaroslaw Kacjinsky — has been busy delegitimizing democratic institutions.  Like Bodnar’s own office.  

BODNAR: So what the current government is doing is basically repeating the Hungarian scenario. Which means that we are on the road towards so-called “illiberal democracy.” Which means that this government is restricting powers of different independent institutions such as prosecution service, civil service, public media or courts.

The goal, of course? If you de-legitimize the institutions that could check your power… you can seize *more* power.  

[MUSIC FADES OUT]

Bodnar says Kacjinsky learned this from Viktor Orban in Hungary. Literally — they actually met and exchanged strategies. Including one that Bodnar calls “the salami tactic.”

BODNAR: You are cutting slices of the, uh, of the salami sausage, which means that you are cutting, step by step, independence of different state institutions. So basically, that is what Orban did in Hungary over the last 10 years, less than 10 years. And basically Kaczynski repeated this.

So Bodnar’s office is constantly under fire. Always about to be sliced away.

BODNAR: Sometimes you know I make this comparison to the Minecraft video game. You know, in Minecraft you have this so-called “survival mode,” where you have all those creepers that are running around you. And all the time you have to fight them back in order to survive. So there were moments in my term that basically I felt a little bit the same? That all the time I had to respond to different attacks on me, or different ideas how to dismiss me.

Yet for years, he’s fought off the creepers. He’s still in office, while other checks on the government’s power have been silenced. 

How did he do it?!

BODNAR: Being in this mode for surviving in my role as the ombudsman, I’ve understood one thing: that in order to survive, you have to prove to people that you are needed to them.  That you are the state institution, which is not just abstract to their lives, but the institution which is really needed for the daily needs of people. 

So that’s the lesson: Go local — a strategy that has worked for a lot of Democrats across the country since Trump’s election. 

As much as Bodnar wants to fight the big political fights for human rights? These days he prioritizes different battles. The ones that help people understand: 

Government – and safeguarding human rights – actually make their daily lives better. 

So he helps the elderly or people with disabilities get the state benefits they’re owed. He makes sure people get relief when they complain a local factory is stinking up their neighborhood. Not hot-button social issues.  But important nonetheless.   

BODNAR:  You know, over my term, I visited more than 200 Polish cities.  And I had discussions with citizens in all those 200 cities talking about their daily cases. And it appears that almost nobody wanted to talk to me about, you know, LGBT rights, women’s rights, or migration crisis, or access to reproductive rights. So, about those issues that are high on the political agenda on a daily basis. But we are talking a lot about patients rights, rights of persons with disabilities, rights of elderly people, homelessness, about environmental damage caused by some factories in their community… about all different problems that people experience locally.  

It might not be how all progressives define human rights…but it’s a way to make human rights matter to more people.  

And that is essential to every cause we care about. None of the progressive goals that we have fought for — civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights — can move forward while millions of people question the legitimacy of democratic government itself.  

We’re in survival mode.

[MUSIC BEGINS]

But here’s the good news. The nationalism we’re struggling against? *Can’t* solve people’s local problems. Or really *any* problems. Samatha Power is the former U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

POWER: It’s not a coincidence that you’re seeing many of these illiberal forces riding concerns about globalization, riding the gross inequality that plagues so many societies to power. But then as voters realize that their paychecks are not going up, that their health care prices are going up, that the quality of schools is deteriorating. They know the facts of their lives. State propaganda can only take these leaders so far.

So now, what the U.S. needs first of all… is a President who isn’t taking cues from the nationalists. A President willing to demonstrate what democracy can do… and the nationalists can not do. 

POWER: And in a post-Trump U.S. foreign policy for the president of the United States to be delivering that message, to be defending the democratic and rights-respecting model– not as an abstraction, as some, you know, morality play, but as the only system that can deliver returns for citizens. Because the only system in which citizens have an equal voice in who governs them and how they get governed. 

And then: We have to cooperate across borders, and win the argument against the nationalists together. 

POWER: The next president will inherit a community of democracies around the world who are hungry to come together as democracies. 

Remember that question that Obama posed in the limousine: what if we were wrong? 

We still don’t know the answer….that depends on the choices we make in this election, and those to come. 

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Next week, another threat to democracy and human rights — the authoritarian model from China. Which unlike Europe’s nationalists, *has* shown results.  

POWER: The fact that the China model is out there is a powerful force, you know, and is going to become ever more potent unless democracy gets its act together.

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Missing America is written and hosted by me, Ben Rhodes.

It’s a production of Crooked Media.

 

The show is produced by Andrea Gardner-Bernstein.

Rico Gagliano is our story editor.

Austin Fisher is our associate producer.

Sound design and mixing by Daniel Ramirez.

Production support and research from Nimi Uberoi and Sydney Rapp.

Fact checking by Justin Klozco

Original music by Marty Fowler. 

The executive producers are Sarah Geismer, Lyra Smith, and Tanya Somanader.

Special thanks to Alison Falzetta, Tommy Vietor, Jon Lovett and Jon Favreau.

Thanks for listening.

[CREDITS MUSIC FADES]

 

Missing America