#98: The Populist Attack on Democracy During the Pandemic

When the pandemic hit the world, it unleashed more than just a deadly virus. It has put us all in a crucible. Nature has been testing our ability to be political animals, forcing our societies and our politics to make impossible decisions. Who shall we protect? Am I my fellow citizen’s keeper? How much economic and social pain can we tolerate while defending us against a virus? If this spiky microorganism could speak, it might very well want to quote Shelley’s Ozymandias and say “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.”

Desperation is political dynamite. It has the ability to creep into every crevice of society, poison minds and souls, and even to tear everything asunder. There is a reason politics seems at a loss sometimes. We are still racing through the night, the outlines of the path becoming clearer only to threaten to be obscured again. We have been playing this deadly game for over a year now, and it is not over till it is over.

The only guidance system we have is science. It is an imperfect system, but it is the only one that works. Its imperfection lies in the availability of data which influences the analysis of the problem and the creation of solutions. Science yields tentative answers, which eventually may form a theory, but everything is always under revision depending on new facts. This is a politician’s nightmare, and it is not intuitive for how human beings think. There is a reason that the systematic pursuit of science is an invention in itself that took millennia to take hold. Yet the fight against superstition and anti-science is never won, and it has become more difficult during the pandemic.

Science works in the collective mode, not in the heroic narrative of the lone voice in the wilderness. For there to be a situation in which established scientific view is so solidly mistaken, during a global emergency, is peculiar. As Carl Sagan has frequently said, “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” The scientific consensus, based on the available data, is clear: the pandemic is real, the threat is real, and the approved vaccines work safely. The extraordinary position here is not the denier perspective, but the scientific consensus.

Yet it is the heroic mode, the tale of the hero fighting against the forces of darkness, that appears most seductive to human beings. There seem to be only a small number of medical, legal or scientific experts (typically in fields other than virology or epidemiology) that disagree with the established view about these matters. They have taken on the mantle of the hero that can fight against the medical crisis by denying its existence and by pointing to a wholly different threat.

We all have seen that our personal relationships have been put under tremendous stress. One of my closest friends has become a Covid denier. They have always been more interested in esotericism, astrology and popular psychology than in science or academic thinking. Their children and they themselves suffered from the lockdown, and this suffering led them down the path laid out to them by the algorithm of popular social media platforms.

There is an element of real pain here that is exploited by these platforms. People indeed feel crushed both by the pandemic and the measures taken to curb it. We are irrational beings much more than we would care to admit. Fear of the virus may lead to denying its existence. Lack of understanding of science may lead people to be suspicious of experts changing their minds when facts change. overall. Both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson were famous for dismissing experts and won elections on this very bias. We can all see politicians being frequently helpless in the face of the pandemic. People need someone to tell them that it will all be ok. If desperate enough, people will turn to false prophets. History is full of such stories, and it should teach us humility. Our system has indeed failed all those who now are moving to turn away from it, it has failed them in matters of education, civic engagement, and the recognition of everyone’s individual dignity. We are figuratively throwing people to the wolves, and down the rabbit hole.

The rabbit hole is electronic nowadays, and it is powerful. The alternative world view unfolding to the initiated speaks of a pandemic planned in a global cooperation of politicians, scientists, entrepreneurs and the typical cast of allegedly diabolical characters. The sinister purpose remains unclear but overall follows the well-worn paths of typical antisemitic conspiracy lore. The more you enter this world, the more you are inundated by it, and the more you connect to the similarly initiated few that are the only ones able to see the light and to prepare for a post-“plandemic” future. The pandemic, of course, does not exist as the established media want us to believe, but instead there is talk that a “Great Reset” is on the way to allegedly subjugate all of humanity.

At first I was confused about this. What could possibly be the motivation behind the denial of the existence or threat level of the pandemic, or the safety of the vaccines?

The answer is emerging more and more. The Coronavirus Pandemic is used by populists to attack democracy itself.

We see some of this happening currently in the United States. With the Republican party and the conservative movement in disarray, there are some voices echoing conspiratorial notes. Outside the United States, the picture becomes more clear. In Germany, for instance, a new alliance between discontented voters who would formerly identify with the established parties either of the left, center or the right, now are coalescing into the New Right. Leading players of the so-called “Querdenker” movement (“critical” or “lateral” thinkers) ally themselves with sovereign citizens, with esoterically or anthroposophically influenced groups, with old and new authoritarians.

Their demands are clear: sweep away the old system, which includes all politicians, all established media, all scientists and all academics and all their supporters. Establish a new, allegedly truly democratic movement and govern through the direct will of the people determined by the assumed wisdom of crowds. Trust the natural healing powers of the human body, and let nature run its course. Reject “globalists” – a smear word created to distort the legitimate critique of neoliberal globalization and turn it into an antisemitically tinged libel of the United Nations, free-traders and multinationalists – and bring back the nation state. Seek alliance with Russia, as Putin has taken his country down that path already.

This sounds very familiar. It has a name, only its clothes are slightly recycled. If we let it fester, if we do not find clear answers, the national socialist movement is already growing, hiding behind – as it used to – a romantic fixation with nature, with esotericism, with anti-science and populist authoritarianism claiming to be democratic.

Like Shelley’s Ozymandias, the Coronavirus will eventually be defeated, managed, return to memory, with the possibility of return. The political virus that we deemed to have overcome is still lingering. As Berthold Brecht has said, “the womb is fertile still from whence this crawled.”

#94: What Is Political Extremism Today?

We are conditioned to think in political categories of “right” versus “left”, with an underappreciated center in between. This model has become deeply entrenched in political thinking, no matter how simplistic it actually is.

Politically, “left” and “right” derive from seating arrangements of pro- versus anti-monarchist forces in the National Assembly during the French Revolution, but the principle, of course, goes deeper.

First, this understanding of power is based on thinking in a strict dichotomy, in a way of thinking believing in either-or propositions, in adversarial style, in a simplistic for-and-against way of conceptualizing every single issue, or even a worldview.

Second, it typically includes gradations, especially in systems that have more than two political parties (or rather, whose election system is not based on winner-takes all, which seems to cause the two-party system – CGP Grey has some great videos explaining voting systems). The more diversified the parties become, the more there may an entire panoply of parties. Some parties may be directly in the center, others center-left, others center-right, others moderate left or right, others extreme left or right, whatever “right” or “left” may mean at the time. Traditionally, “right” suggests establishment, “left” suggest reform or revolution.

(Fun fact: whoever you consider to be a “sinister force” in politics depends on your knowledge of Italian: “La sinistra” is the left. But if you think of old clips of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show depicting Dick Cheney as Darth Vader, the music may have sounded sinister, but the implication certainly was not that Cheney was a leftie. But I digress.)

Third, we now have a problem on the extremes. There are both right-wing and left-wing versions of extremism that are no friends of democracy and its values and institutions. Some models – for instance the “horseshoe theory” – point to similarities amongst both extremisms. There may still be something that separates them (it’s not a closed circle in that model), but they look rather similar.

Is that even a helpful distinction? There were moments in recent history where surprising thought alliances appeared. Agreement with or resistance to allowing stem cell research was and is still an issue finding support along strange ideological lines (Greens + Conservatives), but they deviate when it comes to the issue of abortion (Conservatives). Globalization critique used to be left-wing and has now also found equivalents on the right, albeit sometimes with a different tone. Support of Israel used to be a stalwart issue on the left, and now finds it, at least rhetorically, on the right, though not in the outright Nazi parties, I would assume (though once you find out about Jewish Neonazis, you have seen everything).

Personally, I have never found the left-right paradigm useful. It is too simplistic, and I am not much in favor of party loyalty. You support who you support based on issues and personnel, but even that is dicey as party programs oftentimes don’t mean much. But my voting record has always been mixed, and so it shall be. I prefer to be flexible, depending on what I see on the table (or rather, on the ballot).

Politics is a game played by politicians, and to assume them to follow clear philosophical principles which sustain their ideology is a bit of a stretch, in my view. A good politician does what works, and chooses the respective ideology as they see fit. A bad one makes reality bend to their ideological blinders and either doesn’t get anything done at all, or won’t succeed in the long-run. A strict reality-orientation though will eventually banish all ideology, and so it should be. That does not mean that ideology is useless, but if it is at the point of becoming dogma, it needs to be seriously questioned.

But especially with regards to new developments during the Coronavirus crisis, we can see that anti-democratic extremism arises from a new background that might formerly have been described as “left” or “right”. Things are becoming confusing very fast, and I would suggest that rather to use tired old labels, to stick to the actual issues.

I have thus began to work on a tentative list of extremist thought that still uses coded language but appeals to extremist and anti-democratic thought. There is certainly no assumption of completeness, but it may be helpful to shed some light on some of these here.

Versions of the following key statements always occur on the extreme fringes, especially now in parties catering to Covid Deniers or the New Right:

  1. Insistence on Freedom as an absolute value: All democratic parties value freedom, but it is not the only value in a democratic society, nor is it always easy to define. My own freedom has limits if it severely limits the freedom of others, for instance.

  2. Insistence on Sovereignty as something absolute: A democratic country recognizes that its people are the sovereign, and they send representatives into political office. Government actions thus always have to align with popular will, which is in turn measured through elections and other democratic processes. The sovereignty of a country is thus an extension of the sovereignty of its citizens. It is in the interest of the citizens to exert this sovereignty in a way that benefits the people as a whole. Given constant change, the concept of the sovereignty of a country needs to adapt. If it is to the benefit of the country to enhance free trade and cooperation with other countries, traditional concepts of sovereignty (closed borders, own currency, own military) may actually limit the sovereignty of its citizens.

  3. Insistence on Patriotism as identical to nationalism: Healthy patriotism is a positionality towards your own country in which you see yourself in service to the benefit of all its people, to its wellbeing, to its future. Like sovereignty, this may well include honoring international and supranational treaties, cooperation and connections. Patriotism should always be a positive position (supporting your own country and its allies) and not define itself in the negative (against other countries).

  4. Insistence on a static National Identity: National identity is complex, historically grown, and always changing. Multiculturalism is the historical norm; mono-ethnic states almost always the result of ethnic cleansing or forced assimilation. Immigration is a constant historical presence, and while it is always important to integrate immigrants successfully into your society, this integration needs to be limited to the adherence of laws and common standards, and cannot mean the rejection of all cultural traditions (as long as they are not in conflict with sensible laws of the new country).

  5. The claim to represent the true majority, the “base” or the “forgotten people:”
    There are no citizens “first class” or “second class.” The insinuation that some of the people in the country are not really representative of it and must be silenced in favor of an assumed “silent majority” has always been an excuse used by dictatorships to shut out undesired populations.

  6. The elites are all corrupt: Corruption is a mainstay of all societies, sadly, and it needs to be fought. But the insinuation that all so-called elites would be corrupt is a typical strawman argument typically used to delegitimize all democratically elected officials of a country, as well to discredit teachers, professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, and whoever else may have enjoyed higher education. It also is used to dismiss any possible legitimacy to the claim personal wealth or influence. This is another typical tactic of demagogues.

  7. There are secret powers directing our fates: In a highly networked world, it is completely normal that ideas flow from person to person, from country to country. The almost infinite interplay of institutions and people from around the globe is what constitutes civilization and society itself. Some of these influences are transparent, some are not. This is normal. Conspiracies typically do not work out, and if they do so, only on a small scale. People talk, have divergent interests, and governments change. Nothing will stay secret forever. It is virtually impossible that in a global context, there could be organizations of people thinking in complete lockstep. The insinuation that there could be secret powers that control our politics is simply ridiculous. It is another strategy to delegitimize democratic governments.

  8. These secret powers form a hidden international network: This accusation has been used to demonize populations that due to their diasporic spread and their minority status – frequently a result of discrimination – can be found in many countries and had to struggle to adapt to the majority culture while still maintaining traces of their own. This accusation is a core component of Anti-Semitism, but also of any xenophobia against immigrant groups, and has been leveled against Jews, Muslims and Catholics (under the assumption that religious beliefs systematically would pit them against their countries of immigration), or any sizable ethnic minority.

  9. You cannot speak freely anymore, there is an official dictate of opinion (“Meinungsdiktatur” in German): Free speech is a core component of any democratic society. It must be seen as absolute. Without it, democracy cannot survive. However, speech always means counter-speech, and if you want to participate in the national discourse, you will also need to appreciate critique and debate. Should that critique be too excessive and endanger your employment or even your life, that is of course something that cannot be tolerated in society. This point mixes legitimate critique of cancel culture with a naïve and illegitimate expectation to be allowed to say whatever you like without critical counter-speech. This point is also frequently mentioned to insinuate that we are living in a dictatorship in which drastic speech codes are enforced. Sometimes this critique is also used in order to defend speech that some might consider deliberately insulting, demeaning and hateful.

  10. You cannot trust the established media / the press is lying / all news we don’t like are fake news:
    If you have built your world view on believing that the world is controlled by powerful forces outside democratic control, then the purveyors of information that are trusted by the established system cannot be trusted. What is typically agreed upon as real becomes fake, what is believed to be reliable becomes suspicious, and the media that transport that which everyone else believes to be true needs to be seen as fake. It is no coincidence that the primary vehicle for disinformation and alternative reality in the United States is called “Infowars.” Facts need to be countered with alternative facts, truth becomes lies, and journalists are seen as the enemy. Fear of an Orwellian system leads to the creation of an Orwellian counter-reality in which doubt is celebrated as patriotic only if it criticizes the other side, never your own.

  11. Reality itself is not what you think it is. We know better and can educate (red-pill) you about the truth.
    You basically believe in The Matrix, and need to see the truth. Only we can tell you. This is Brainwashing 101.

From there, it is all down the rabbit hole. To be continued.

#83: The Purpose of History, or, We Need to Explain Democracy Better

Francis Fukuyama has been much ridiculed for allegedly claiming that we had reached the “end of history” in the 1990s after the victory of democracy over socialism. His argument, however, was more complex, and consisted rather in an update of Hegel’s analysis of the consequences of the dual victory of Napoleonic France (and its proclaimed democratic ideas) over both the Holy Roman Empire and the Kingdom of Prussia. Hegel’s definition of history – put very simply – is the process throughout time by which the ideal political system is discovered. The “end of history”– again, very simplified – thus happened in 1806 in above mentioned victories.

Napoleon’s aim was the restoration of the Roman Republic under a French banner, utilizing the rallying cry of “liberté, egalité, fraternité” – liberty, equality, fraternity – for his success. He did end the institution of serfdom (a version of slavery widespread in Europe) wherever he triumphed. As he did not triumph in Russia, serfdom there ended later. In the end, Napoleon succumbed to the seduction of empire and cannot be understood as the bringer of democracy; but the ideas his armies transported were successful enough to scare the sclerotic Prussian state into reform. Already, democracy had taken root in the American colonies, just as British Parliament had become more important than the king. The signs of the times were clear: the old ways – or rather, the monarchic ways – were done. The very old ways – Roman Republicanism – were the way of the future.

This is what “the end of history” means: From now on, any government that does not draw their legitimacy from the people as the sovereign, will be seen as illegitimate and is doomed to fail eventually. This is the reason that even the worst dictatorship on the planet calls itself either a republic or democratic. Already in Hegel’s times, it was clear that the victory of democracy was merely rhetorical. Democracy in France did not succeed until 1871, and Prussia would not become democratic overnight, but it would take till 1918 for the first German democracy to come into being.

Communist-Socialist states called themselves “people’s republics”, National Socialism claimed to bring about true democracy, and some monarchs or autocrats routinely see themselves as the vehicle through which the people somehow rule. The terms “democracy” or “republic” are regularly used to hide non-democratic systems.

This is done frequently by the means of a major conceit: “Democracy” is reduced to the mere act of holding elections. This is a deliberate distortion aimed at limiting the threshold for respectability. Any dictator can hold elections; but the trick lies in how you set up the democratic field, what candidates you allow, how you count, and what count you publish.

Democracy is more than that. Elections do matter, but are meaningless without the reliable, equal and incorruptible rule of law. The rights of the individual are paramount to any democracy, and underlie the demand for human rights. Civil liberties, including absolute free speech, freedom of religion, and the absolute freedom of the press are paramount. Connected to that are property rights, and free enterprise (which does not exclude regulation ensuring a free and fair functioning of the market). Corruption has to be minimized. Minorities need to be protected, specifically political minorities. Democracy does not work if the winners in an election can punish the losers with abandon. There needs to be a separation of powers and a form of checks and balances. Changing the constitution should be difficult. Representative democracy will be necessary for any state larger than a single town. Federalism and strengthening local governments will help to undercut the danger of democratic deficits originating from representative democracy (republicanism).

As you can see, this is all much more complicated, but it is complicated for a reason. Dictatorships and dictatorial movements – even if the couch themselves in the language of democracy – have nothing but disdain for any of that. Sham elections and party-line courts guarantee that true democracy does not endanger the rule of autocrats or oligarchs.

Right now, it seems that democracy is under attack by a variety of forces. Some dictatorships have seemingly had successes in good governance and modernization. That is certainly not impossible in the short run, but problems will accumulate in the longue durée.

The argument for democracy, in the end, is about practicality: It is the only system that works for everyone over time. It is the only system that can self-correct and increase liberty, equality, and the values of shared humanity for all. It is also the only system that will be at peace with systems like itself. Functioning democracies do not wage war against each other – it has never happened in history. Wherever democracy succeeded, peace followed, and social peace and justice have been allowed to progress. History may not be over, but the path, the destination, the telos (meaning purposeful end) is clear.

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Clearly, this is a more complicated topic, and I will follow up on this in more detail in further posts. As they say, “stay tuned.”

#46: We Need to Move Beyond the Left/Right Paradigm

There have been plenty of attempts to redefine the Left/Right paradigm that still seems to reign supreme in most people’s minds, especially in journalism.

Originally established in the French National Assembly in 1789, it divided parliamentarians between those in support of the French Revolution on the left, and the supporters of the Establishment on the right. It is a seating arrangement from more than 230 years ago. It makes sense to simplify matters when it comes to seating, as you have to place people in a room, and where one person sits, nobody else can sit. This was my first lesson as an altar boy, and it makes sense when it comes to such matters.

But aren’t political ideas more complicated than seating plans?

If you generalize the seating, it becomes immediately clear that it is a very situational problem. If the division is between disruption/revolution on the one side, and conserving/establishment, depending on the political party, what is “left” and what is “right” cannot be considered stable. If the establishment follows Socialist ideas, are supporters of Socialism suddenly right-wingers? If both Socialists/Communists and National Socialists on one side stood against Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals on the other in the Weimar Republic, are those in favor of disruption all on the “left”, and those in favor of democracy all on the “right”?

Is everybody who is not on the side of the Socialists on the “right”? Social Democrats have suffered for decades under being labeled failed revolutionaries – and sometimes seem to surrender to the stereotypes themselves rather than to defend their moderation in defense of democracy against disruptive radicalism. Similarly, what do Conservatives who defend democracy have in common with Fascists and National Socialists? This simply makes no sense.

We currently see a vivid demonstration of the outright idiocy of such labels:

  • Those “resisting” Coronavirus prevention measures fall visibly into a variety of political camps. Recent demonstrations in Berlin illustrated that clearly: Alternatives, Hippies, LGBTQ advocates, concerned democracy defenders, so-called sovereign citizens, as well as outright Neo-Nazis joined in a happy commingling. In the US, social protests of any spectrum seem to merely pay lip service (if at all) to protective regulations.
  • Putin has shown support for both right-wing and left-wing extremist parties in the recent decades. He is seen as an inspiration for both.
  • China’s communist leadership is cow-towed by everybody expecting political and economic favor, notwithstanding its civil rights abuses.
  • Antisemitism has flourished on both the “left” and the “right” recently under the label of “criticizing Israel”, a very transparent attempt to single out the Jewish state as the alleged source of all evil in the world (this becomes clear by being a sin of omission: the same “critics” remain silent on China, Turkey, Russia, or any other state (every single one!) that has ever incorporated territory originally not their own).

There are countless more examples, and there air several attempts at solving the classification problem by thinking in quadrants rather than two sides only (typically, by drawing an axis of totalitarianism vs. libertarianism, and another of individualism vs. groupishness).

It is disappointing to see the old and outdated paradigm still abound. Either we are not learning anything, or old ideas simply die hard…