A new book, “Has Populism Won? The War on Liberal Democracy” by Daniel Drache and Marc D. Froese, details a disturbing trend. A report by the authors in The Star, October 28, 2022, runs under the headline, “Populism’s rise means worst will replace bad”. And these two professors of political science, Drache at York University, and Froese at Burman University, detail the trend line from bad far right populist leaders, in various jurisdictions, to worse, more dangerous leaders who weaponize discontent.
· From Boris Johnson, to Liz Truss in the U.K.,
· Rodrigo Duterte in the Philipines to a ‘new group of authoritarians including his own daughter and the son of disgraced dictator Ferdinand Marcos,
· From trump to more extreme DeSantis and Marjorie Taylor Green
· In Sweden, far-right Sweden Democrats now control parliamentary committees responsible for crime and immigration, where “thousands of immigrants and refugees are likely to be expelled” in the next decade
· In Hungary, after four election wins, Viktor Orban “each time he degrades democracy more,” and the European Parliament has voted to declare Hungary an elector autocracy
· In Alberta, Jason Kenny was replaced by Premier Danielle Smith who “courts the political fringe” (and has made the Sovereignty Act her top legislative priority)
· In Saskatchewan “Premier Scott Moe..is backing a white paper to increase his province’s sovereign independence from Ottawa”
· In Ottawa, federal Conservatives followed Sheer and O’Toole with Poilievre and “now the party is doubling down on Pierre Poilievre’s hard right support for the whole populist bag-from anti-vax to the trucker convoy.
What the professors do not specifically address in their Star precis, Vladimir Putin, in a four-hour address yesterday, did when he declared there are “two Wests” and he has obviously decided to ‘side’ with the ‘hard-right’ forces in the West, in his perverted attempt to justify his invasion of Ukraine, and the sabre-rattling about the use of nuclear weapons in that war…even though he declares he will not go there. Dictators like Bolsonaro and whomever might succeed him and Xi Zing Ping and Kim Jung Un, the latter two on top of already established tyrannies, are not mentioned in the Star piece. No one knows, either, who might follow Putin in the Kremlin, but worse would be a nightmare of horror.
These professors write, in their excerpt in The Star:
(T)here is no easy way to harness the hard right’s ‘animal spirits’ without falling prey to its toxic messaging. When mainstream politicians try to bottle the populist secret sauce, they find they must embrace the lowest common denominator….Weaponizing discontent destroys the norms of fair play, undermines values of co-operation and compromise and tears up the unwritten rule book upon which Canada’s liberal democracy depends….Once a party, a politicians, or a movement has been sucked into the big lie, they never escape unscathed.”
And while this book documents the trend line of the dots of regimes and leaders who have moved even farther and harder to the right, the other side of this coin is the tidal surge of those who have put those leaders in place. What is going on in so many places where people either cannot stop or willingly and eagerly submit to these hard-right attitudes, values and policies and their short-and-long-term impact?
Some would argue, as a political neophyte put it recently, “people here are lazy and take no responsibility to seek information that is readily available…aka they need to be spoon-fed.” Others would say that, retrieving a glib and headline-filled news diet from social media, and then falling into the trap of the faux-informed and basically illiterate citizen (with respect to public issues and their complexities), a kind of “psychic fatigue” like a welcome fog of detachment takes over that part of the person that might have and even might still wish to participate in civic affairs. Others, themselves inoculated against the venom and the virulence of the hard right, having succumbed to its glossy, glittery and headline-grabbing rhetoric and obsession with the pursuit of power, have openly diagnosed a local mini political drama which saw a loud-mouthed control freak out-duel a moderate conciliator/facilitator who simply withdrew, this way: “He just made more noise than the moderate!”
And while there is a grain of accuracy in that reductionism, in that volume of decibels, and the capacity to garner headlines, will seem to over-shadow more reasoned and nuanced and “in-the-weeds” approach to any public issue, it is far to benign as a worthy political governing principle or ethic. Married to the pursuit and design of any tactic that will generate headlines, ratings, and donations, is the fundamentally flawed and cancerous ingredient of lies. Seemingly, the more odious the lies and the more frequently they are repeated, and the more intensity that energizes their repetition the more the public simply ignores, denies, avoids, or even counter-punches with a vote for the miscreant. That Herschel Walker is even tied or leading Senator Raphael Warnock in Georgia, for example, is another glaring example of how the hard right is continuing to dominate the political rhetoric, and eventually the policies that deprive voters of their right to vote, a woman’s right to choose, and ….and….who know how far this avalanche will fall taking with it much of what we considered somewhat stable liberal democracy.
The fetish-fixation on the stroke suffered by John Fetterman, candidate for Senate in Pennsylvania, against TV-doctor Mehmet Oz, is a litmus test for just how “low” the hard right, trump-endorsed candidate and movement will go to acquire power. The multiple hard-right-election-denier candidates seeking election in the November mid-term vote in the U.S. foreshadow a period in which election results themselves will be brought into question, and legitimate vote counts will be replaced by results favourable to those nearly 400 ‘deniers’ whose position on the ballot, itself, ought to be in doubt.
Hard-right political persons, (not leaders), being followed by even worse harder right persons, is a weather-vane for the mood and the attitude and the inclination of the electorate in those places where voting still takes place.
Anger, resentment, fear, distrust, gossip, personal attacks, based on whatever morsel of gossip is available to bring the opponent down….these are the symptoms of a culture that is no longer willing to tolerate corporate profits, establishment expertise, professional political operatives, and language and demeanour that would be and still is fitting and expected in the court room, the lecture hall, and the operating room, not to mention, presumably from the pulpit.
Although the pulpit is not immune from playing an active and subversive role in this cultural slide into ‘gutter-sniping-politics’….we have always known the cliché that politics is a “blood sport” (some might say body-contact sport) in which political foes do whatever it takes to win, and thereby obliterate their opponent. However, over the last three quarters of a century, for the most part, there have been unwritten rules, call them minimal, gentlemanly expectations, that, as the competing attorneys in the court room, before a presiding judge, the discourse, the arguments and the demeanour will remain ‘professional, respectful and honourable’ even if the evidence to be adduced is horrific, despicable and tortuous. Indeed, the judge there, and metaphorically in the public arena, s/he symbolized the public interest, as a non-biased, non-partisan, somewhat objective referee, to uphold and maintain the best traditions of the court and the supportive legal system.
There is no longer a literal or a metaphoric referee in the political debate arena. There is not even a whimper of an imitation of the “wrestling” ring in which fake chops and epic throws are all part of the show. Whereas previously, war and the initiation of military combat was something considered so dangerous and threatening to all combatants, it was entered only hesitatingly, tentatively, and with considerable pause….that is until the public pressure was created, or boiled up spontaneously, to require engagement.
No only is there no referee any longer; there is no reflection, consideration, pause, or ambiguity in the modus operandi of the hard right….action, action…and action premised on the zero-sum edict in which there are only winners and losers. And even some allegedly highly educated men and women, (think Yale and Harvard Law for Desantis, for example) now see this method acting of the hard right as the most effective path to victory, in his case, the White House.
Opportunism, however, is certainly not restricted to the political class. It has infected the world of the corporate and the academic and the medial and the legal fields for decades, if not centuries. On an individual basis, our young men and young women are titillated and induced into a perception and an attitude that, if and when they are anointed with a bar admission, or a medical degree, or a PhD, or a professorship, or a corporate executive suite, or ….or ….like the stars of the sports fraternity, the entertainment sector and even the entrepreneurial world, money, power, influence, and the shortest and most effective pathway to whatever ‘brass ring’ is in the dream….these are the not merely preferred steps on the ladder to success; they are virtually revered to the extent that individuals will sacrifice their physical and their mental and emotional health to achieve the acclaim and the reverence that the public deems warranted, upon reaching the peak.
War, as is so blatantly and tragically evident in Ukraine, is one theatre which demonstrates the human capacity to “kill” and to “main” and to “lay waste” and to do all this with not merely impunity but with considerable swagger, and the hubris that the swagger needs. We, each one of us, and collectively, all of us, have wantonly participated in a cultural slide not unlike the slide down the escape shoot from a downed jetliner, after the crash. In our case, the slide, however, has pre-empted the full enactment of the crash, and yet the warning signs are everywhere.
If our earth-ship were in fact flying through the skies, the warning lights on the cock-pit dashboard are already flashing red…our engines are on fire, the cabin oxygen is already starting to escape and those overhead oxygen masks are already unable to provide the amount of oxygen that we will need to slide down that escape shoot safely on the safety of firm ground, in an atmosphere that supports terrified and traumatized travellers. Our pilots and co-pilots, as well as our aircrew are panicking in the full knowledge that they are responsible for what now appear to be an inevitable crash, and the air-traffic controllers, while watching the drama of a crippled ‘ship’ flounder in the sky, seem helpless to offer the kind of assistance, guidance and support that would bring the ship down safely.
And, we are all flying together in this ‘metaphoric’ air-ship, fully conscious that, like those aboard the Titanic, it might very well be too late to change the course of the flight and the potential outcome…and so we order another drink, sing another song, ask anyone with a musical instrument to start playing and gasp in horror as we come to our senses about our shared, and yet preventable, fate.
We thank our political science professors for their yet another ‘canary in the coal mine warning about the trend line toward autocracy, hard right attitudes, and dictatorships, all of them staring us in the face, regardless of the seductive camouflage in which they are attired…and as we reflect upon their detailed observation, we nevertheless, seem impotent and ineffectual to change the direction of this earth-ship’s political, environmental, economic, military, and cultural direction.