Smart people should ensure leaders do not bury democracy
It takes a special person and philosophy to seed fear in people and then cultivate and harvest it.
If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it." The advice from Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda, may have taken a leaf from the parable of 13th century Iranian poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi The Students and Teacher. In Rumi's story, students wanting a holiday dupe their teacher into believing he is ill by each telling him he is so. The teacher returns home worried about his health and berates his wife for being unconcerned.
The world over, citizens are veering right, concerned about migrants and dilution of tradition and culture. These are sometimes couched in terms of economic loss.
Others gawp in disbelief with the rise and mass appeal of bigoted leadership.
It takes a special person and philosophy to seed fear in people and then cultivate and harvest it. The right-wing nationalistic philosophy is insular and against the human instinct to commune and socialise, almost bordering on xenophobia. Such philosophies and their proponents reinvent ancient history, birthing self-righteous victimhood while stoking fires of race and religion. They become leaders by projecting disdain for accepted conventions.
Thus, Donald Trump was elected US president making promises of "draining the swamp" and "Make America great again" despite being a bigot with at least 20 women accusing him of sexual misconduct. India's Narendra Modi was elected with similar promises, reducing the 2002 Gujarat riots during his tenure as chief minister to a non-issue. Vladimir Putin continues to lead Russia despite allegations of corruption and unexplained deaths of journalists, and war-mongering. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines embraced allegations of murdering fellow citizens on charges of drug-dealing during his tenure as mayor and vice-mayor of Davao City.
Citizens in democracies repeatedly elect leaders who show scant respect for the law, minorities and the economically disenfranchised, leading to a decline in law and order and normalisation of bigotry.
The battle for equality between the haves and have-nots based on justice has mutated. Today it is the ideology of fear and suspicion that drives the battle. Even as globalisation changes society through the transfer of capital, goods and more, it weakens existing social pillars through new concepts. Current forms of globalisation involve systems that offer the potential to be equitable. In this round of globalisation, unlike previous forms, everyone participates and collaborates, willing or otherwise. To reap the benefits of this new economic order, nations must promulgate new laws on everything from products to welfare. Though new processes enabled new entrants to find socioeconomic space and a political voice, many are left feeling alienated. Political leaders ignored this disquiet.
Even as they promise better times, the leaders develop a siege mentality by finding bogeymen - refugees, migrants, Mexicans, Muslims, neighbouring nations, Romas and so on. To ensure they remain beyond reproach, these leaders target the media and other critics. The Indian government has a dual approach when it comes to media that don't toe the line and discontinues advertising in publications. Journalists have been trolled and murdered. The World Press Freedom Index ranks the Philippines at 134th place because of the government's crackdown on journalists.
Russia is at 149, a nod to the government's suppression of independent media. Hungary has fallen 14 places to 87, with journalists openly "stigmatised," while in Poland "the state-owned media have been turned into propaganda tools and are increasingly used to harass journalists."
Far-right leaders suppress the voices that raise questions and inform citizens and instead communicate directly with people through Twitter and other social media, rallies or government-broadcasting networks like Modi's radio broadcast Mann Ki Baat, loosely translated as Heart's Voice. Direct communications quell disquiet about intentions or quality of leadership, ensuring ignorant servility and adulation.
These leaders strive to make themselves beyond reproach. Using due process, they weaken other pillars of democracy - the judiciary, education, administration and police branches. At this juncture, it would be natural to wonder whether globalisation threatens to democracy or offers the answer to growing bigotry. Such concepts have yet to mature to answer the fears of many. This limbo has resulted in the rise of the far-right. Paradoxically the far-right is using globalisation and the democratic process to destroy what has been achieved. It therefore stands to reason that a globally connected population must defeat this Goebbelsian effort to bury democracy.
Samir Nazareth writes on socio-political and environmental issues