Unify and Stand For Something! Lessons from Center-Left Defeats in Hungary, Israel, and Italy
"React! Say something! React!" yells the film director at his television in Nanni Moretti's 1998 movie "Aprile" as he watches leftist Prime Minister Massimo d'Alema struggle to respond to the lies being told on air by Silvio Berlusconi.
The billionaire's short-lived 1994 government not only brought neo-Fascists into office for the first time in Europe since 1945, but Berlusconi, owner of Italy's largest commercial television networks, also started an aggressive campaign to debase the truth that took the center-left by surprise.
Today's progressive politicians might find this scene of Moretti's movie painful to watch as they wrestle with electoral defeats this year in Hungary, Israel, Italy, and elsewhere. Some have still not figured out how to best respond to authoritarians who shamelessly lie and steal.
An analysis of these defeats highlights the importance of a unified opposition and proactive messaging. At a time of economic hardship, climate and public health crises, and discouragement with establishment politicians, attacking the right is not enough to win over voters --although calling out their lies in real time and pivoting to your own platform, which D'Alema and other Italian politicians often failed to do when dealing with Berlusconi, is essential.
The need to articulate a progressive alternative to the right is doubly felt among Gen Z voters around the world, who are acutely aware of the existential threat they face from the climate crisis (and, in the US, gun violence). They want vigorous advocacy by dynamic leaders who will fight with and for them for accountability and against climate change and the rollback of voting, LGBTQ, reproductive and other rights.
While being against authoritarianism is obviously key to preserving democracy, articulating and standing for progressive values and policies and communicating a vision of societal justice that will lead disaffected voters to re-invest in the political process is just as important right now.
This alignment of vision, values and policy was mostly absent among progressives during the run-up to the September elections in Italy that brought the far-right Brothers of Italy party and Italy's first neo-Fascist prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, into power. Enrico Letta, head of the Democratic Party (PD), refused to ally with the Five Star party, and infighting among the center-left doomed the kind of "big tent" opposition that might have defeated the Brothers of Italy-League-Forza Italia far-right coalition.
Yet even unity and a different leader than Letta (who will be stepping down as a result of this setback) would not have solved the other major problem of the Democratic Party: it is seen by many as an elite entity that has lost touch with the real economic and social struggles of Italians.
The PD’s presence in the political establishment has helped to block the far right from coming to power in the past, but right now its associations with the technocratic governments of Mario Draghi and others have eroded its leftist identity for many (Meloni's party stayed out of Draghi's recent national unity government, which boosted her populist credentials).
The PD's failure to take on the big battles of economic inequality, LGBTQ rights, and other causes that matter to working class and other voters who have historically supported the left also proved consequential.
The prominence of Christian Democrat and former Berlusconi ally Pier Ferdinando Casini within the PD symbolizes the party's loss of identity. "We've failed to get our message across," said a trade unionist interviewed by France24. Yet that message was also clouded by caution and candidates seen as out of step with the history and soul of progressive politics.
Lack of unity and uncertain messaging also took a toll on progressive forces in Israel, where the Labor and Meretz parties did not unite on one electoral slate, blunting their power. "The center-left was essentially afraid to speak its name," wrote Dan Perry in The Jerusalem Post, even though it faced new threats to democracy from extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir.
Nor did the center and leftist parties pursue an aggressive messaging campaign against Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently on trial for corruption and could have been vulnerable in a well-designed electoral campaign. These strategic errors, plus some degree of internalized intimidation or distaste at taking on Bibi, cost the opposition dearly, leading not just to Netanyahu's victory but to the most rightwing governing coalition Israel has had in recent memory.
What if unity is not enough? That was the case in Hungary, where an unprecedented six-party opposition coalition came together in April to defeat Viktor Orban --and lost resoundingly. Here the miscalculation took the form of settling on conservative Christian politician Peter Marki-Zay as the opposition candidate, and including the far-right Jobbik party in an attempt to win over moderate voters from Orban's Fidesz party.
As it turned out, Jobbik voters wanted nothing to do with the progressive elements of the opposition coalition. 800,000 of them defected to Fidesz or, tellingly, to the neo-Fascist Our Homeland party. This "desperate pivoting to the right," as one Hungarian journalist, diluted the strong pro-democracy message. And although Marki-Zay spoke clearly about the dangers of Orban's "corrupt dictatorship," he remained, for many, just too centrist.
Of course, the Hungarian opposition could have done everything "right" and still have lost the election. Such is the fate of opposition parties in an "electoral autocracy," the system that Orban has developed over twelve years in power.
As Hungary expert Kim Lane Scheppele writes, Orban knows how to "game the system." He rigs elections in technical ways, threatened voting officials or harassed them with expensive legal proceedings, and domesticated the media so that the campaign ads of opposition politicians reach far fewer voters. That and other factors is why election monitors from the Organization of Security and Cooperation concluded that the Hungarian elections were not fair.
The lessons of Hungary, Israel, and Italy are clear:
Unity is everything when combatting the right, which does its best to polarize society and set people and parties against each other.
Moving to the center to beat the right can be a counter-productive strategy. Instead, inspire people with an authentic alternative to right-wing politics.
Warn against abuses of power and all that can be lost, but stand for something --articulate a clear and compelling vision of society that draws people in and lets them see a path forward.
We can apply these and other lessons to United States politics to continue the positive trajectory we have laid down with the midterm elections. We will need to develop messaging and political strategies capable of protecting our democracy in the coming years.