When confronting a challenging problem, it’s sometimes useful to listen to someone who looks at it from an entirely different angle. That’s why I found it fascinating to talk about the rise of populism and nativism with Bono last weekend at a summit in Kiev. The Irish singer-activist-philanthropist sees the same forces that we all do, particularly in Europe, but he zeroes in on something intangible yet essential. The only way to counter the dark, pessimistic vision being peddled by nationalists and extremists, Bono says, is to have an uplifting, positive vision. Homing in on the trouble in his part of the world, he told me, “Europe needs to go from being seen as a bore, a bureaucracy, a technical project, to being what it is: a grand, inspiring idea.”
To that end, Bono’s band, U2, has been choosing a moment during its concerts to unfurl — wait for it — the flag of the European Union. “Europe is a thought that needs to become a feeling,” Bono wrote in a recent op-ed in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine. He is trying to give that feeling meaning. To him, Europe is about the ability of countries that were once warring to live in peace, for people of many different lands and languages to come together. “That idea of Europe deserves songs written about it, and big bright blue flags to be waved about,” he wrote.
Bono admits that Europe is a “hard sell” today. The continent is ablaze with populism. These forces have taken control in Hungary, Poland and Italy and are steadily gaining ground elsewhere, including Germany and Sweden. It seems that everywhere the fuel is the same: hostility toward strangers, foreigners, anyone who is different. In April, NPR’s Joanna Kakissis reported on a Hungarian sociologist, Endre Sik, who had polled Hungarians about allowing asylum seekers into the country. He found strong resistance to accepting particular groups such as Romanians, Chinese and Arabs, and then he decided to ask about the “Pirezians.” The Pirezians are a fictional ethnic group of Sik’s own creation, yet Hungarians roundly refused to take them in. Sik told NPR, “The Hungarian form of xenophobia is, let’s say, the classic form: ‘They are different, we don’t know them, therefore we hate them.’ That’s the beast in us.”
Bono’s message resonated because I had been reading Francis Fukuyama’s new book, “Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment.” Fukuyama argues that identity stems from humans’ deep-seated psychological need to be recognized as possessing dignity. In recent decades, in the understandable search for recognition, persecuted minority groups (blacks, Hispanics, gays) have celebrated their identity — and so have working-class whites, who now feel ignored and forgotten. The answer, Fukuyama says, is not to reject identity politics but to construct broad identities that can embrace others and unify different groups.
The founders of the E.U., he argues, spent too much time building the technical aspects of the project — laws, rules, tariffs. They neglected to nurture an actual European identity, something people could believe in not for rational reasons but for emotional and idealistic ones. In the American case, he argues, the anti-populist forces have to create a broad identity centered on core American ideas and values rather than narrow ethnic, racial or religious ones. Thus, we need a much greater focus on assimilation, on the celebration of American identity, on the things that make us all love being American. We need to connect with people in their guts, not just in their heads.
The European challenge might seem much greater than the American one, but in fact, distrust of foreigners doesn’t necessarily mean a rejection of Europe. Even in Poland and Hungary, where ethnonationalist sentiments run high, support for the E.U. is quite high. According to the latest European Commission surveys, 71 percent of Poles say they feel attached to the E.U., more so than Germans or Spaniards, while 61 percent of Hungarians feel attached, outstripping the French, Swedes and Belgians. The problem is, it isn’t a deep, emotional bond — they are three to four times more likely to feel very attached to their own nation than to the E.U.
What people in Europe and the United States ought to be proud of, what they should celebrate, are the remarkable achievements of diversity. “I love our differences,” wrote Bono, “our dialects, our traditions, our peculiarities. . . . And I believe they still leave room for what [Winston] Churchill called an ‘enlarged patriotism’: plural allegiances, layered identities, to be Irish and European, German and European, not either/or. The word patriotism has been stolen from us by nationalists and extremists who demand uniformity. But real patriots seek unity above homogeneity. Reaffirming that is, to me, the real European project.”
And, I would add, the American project as well.