“How did he do it?” That’s the question I was asked more than once by European friends the day after Alabama’s Senate election: How did Doug Jones win? The question was not idle. In many ways, the electoral challenge Jones faced in Alabama was strikingly similar to the challenge facing European politicians of the center-left and even — or maybe especially — the center-right: How to defeat racist, xenophobic or homophobic candidates who are supported by a passionate, unified minority? Or, to put it differently: How to get the majority — which is often complacent rather than passionate, and divided rather than unified — to vote?
This was the same question asked after the victory of Emmanuel Macron in the French elections, and part of the answer, in both cases, was luck. Nobody predicted a Roy Moore sex scandal. Nobody predicted that the French political establishment would fold so quickly either. France’s previous, center-left president was so unpopular that he discredited his party; France’s center-right leader, François Fillon, was knocked out of the race by a scandal. Macron wound up as the leader of a new centrist coalition, the electoral arithmetic was in his favor, and he won.
But beyond luck, both Macron and Jones also tried to reach across some traditional lines, in part by appealing to traditional values. Macron, fighting a nationalist opponent in the second round of the elections, openly promoted patriotism. Instead of fear and anger, he projected optimism about France and its international role. He spoke of the opportunities globalization brought to France instead of focusing on the dangers, and he declared himself proud to be both French and a citizen of the world.
He wasn’t the only European to take this route: Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader who is now president of Austria, used a similar kind of campaign to beat a nationalist opponent. Van der Bellen’s posters featured beautiful Alpine scenes, the Austrian flag and the slogan “Those who love their homeland do not divide it.”
In Alabama, Jones used remarkably similar language. Jones’s Facebook ads (archived by ProPublica) used the slogan “restore honor and civility,” emphasized his background in law and order and, like Macron and Van der Bellen, projected patriotism instead of nationalism. “I believe the United States of America is a land of laws, justice, freedom, equality and opportunity,” he said. He also described his own fight against racism as an important civic achievement with benefits for all: “I prosecuted KKK terrorists, getting justice for the four young girls who were murdered. Join our campaign and bring civility and compassion back to Alabama.”
Of course, there were other factors in all of these victories. A successful voter turnout operation in Alabama, for example, as well as more-targeted advertising, helped Jones win. Macron was also helped by timing: French awareness of the Russian and online alt-right role in the U.S. election strengthened the resolve of both media and voters to ignore their attempts to influence the result in France.
Still, if they hadn’t reached for something higher, victory might have eluded them. Modern democracy is by definition an exercise in coalition-building, whatever the voting system. In big, diverse, complicated countries, where people have vastly different interests and backgrounds, politicians seeking national office (or in the United States even statewide office) have to find common denominators as well as specific messages for particular groups. The nation that we all share, our common history and aspirations, is the most obvious.
As these elections prove, an appeal to national pride doesn’t have to be xenophobic or close-minded. At least some Alabamians — as I know from my family there — voted for Jones because they want to see their state as part of an American story that includes the civil rights movement and the emancipation of women. They want to live in an America that is tolerant and open. An appeal to that strand of the American tradition can win them over.
Even Europeans, many of whom live in countries that really are — unlike the United States — defined by a single ethnic group, can be reached by this kind of appeal. You can be French, Polish or Dutch and still be a citizen of the world. You can love your country because it’s a part of an international community. And you can refuse to let xenophobic nationalists define what it means to be patriotic, too.