#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.”

#76: We Need No Saviors

In the darkest hour, the savior will appear. He alone will bring us out from the darkness into the light, from despair into hope, from misery into triumph. He knows what to say, what to do, we can trust him explicitly. If we follow his lead, redemption, salvation, and the future await. If only we had a leader with charisma, with greatness, with vision, we would all be better off.

Or so it goes.

We have seen this narrative rise up historically time and again, in fiction and reality. Plato’s Philosopher Kings, King Arthur, the return of Barbarossa, and plenty of real-life politicians. The desire for a leader, for a leader’s charisma, for some almost magical solution to all problems is a romantic desire that is certainly understandable, certainly, apparently, human, and can motivate people easily.

But it never works, and there are basically two reasons. First, such a savior does not exist. He (or rarely she) is a fiction, a dream-construct, a projection of our hopes for some great parental figure that knows what to do, that absolves us of our fallibility and our duty and will do the hard work for us.

There have well been great leaders in history, some of them even good, but all of them flawed. Augustus, maybe not just the first but the best Roman Emperor, built his empire with the blood of his enemies. When we indulge in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, we need to overlook his actual policies, and the person groomed as his successor, Commodus. When we look at the enlightened artfulness of Frederick the Great, we need to also consider his wars. Napoleon brought freedom and law to countless serfs and subjects, but he also brought war and suffering. And it all goes downhill from there when we look at the great hopes brought towards Hitler, Stalin, Mao and all the other sociopaths of the 20th century.

But these extreme examples are not helpful, because even the small saviors, the discount saviors and snake-oil-selling politicians who will never be dictators but just fumble around in incompetence and empty promises, selling out those believing in them, even those are dangerous – mainly because they are leaders of desperate people who they will lead astray and eventually betray and leave behind even more dejected, more hurt, more rejected as deplorables, and more cynical.

Second, all such saviors – the little ones and the big ones – will be found out eventually, hopefully not after they have had bodies piled up in their wars of resentment and revolution. Their days will come eventually because humans will not tolerate their incompetence and abuses for too long. Saviors have a history of becoming scapegoats.

This holds true also for the true, good-hearted, and needed community leaders that have been put up on impossible pedestals. The list of assassinated champions for justice is long, be they Socrates, Spartacus (yes, a flawed person, but still inspirational), Cicero, Jesus, Thomas More, Giordano Bruno, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, Yitzhak Rabin, Anwar Sadat, and on and on and on – killed by those who rejected the positive change they were striving towards.

We need no saviors, and those with a savior complex should remember to vae victis – to remember the vanquished leaders, bad and good.

Relying on leadership is a shortcut, a lazy and potentially dangerous mistake. We should never assume a single human being should have such power over our hearts and minds. Have no heroes. Want no saviors. Just recognize that for change to happen, regular people need to step up. We need no cynics, we need committed democratic citizens willing to do the work, to educate, to inform, to serve in local, state and federal politics, and to commit themselves to truth, just and the – sorry – American way, but not as Superman, but as ordinary people united to make the world a better place. The cause should transcend the individual, and the only thing we need saving from is the complex of needing a savior.

#69: No, American Democracy is Not Dead

The gloating of the assembled dictators of the world and their cronies had a certain unintended humor in it. After a few ragtag misfits decided to play the role of domestic terrorists and invade US congress, causing a half-day of mayhem and chaos, including four casualties, the premature glee and schadenfreude coming out of Iran, Russia, China and Venezuela heralded the end and decay of US democracy. This was predictable Soviet-style propaganda – I grew up with that, and it feels very familiar to me. It is the propaganda of those whose biggest fear is the victory of their own people over their corrupt and criminal governments.

Surely, the pictures were worrisome, embarrassing, sometimes shocking. But nowhere to be seen were police or paramilitary or military troops shooting on unarmed civilians. Nowhere to be seen was the mass arrest of protesters. Action was taken, eventually, against those who took up arms against the democratically elected representatives of the people. But the freedom of speech of those otherwise protesting peacefully was not harmed, even though they clearly voiced opinions from beyond the pale.

At the end of the day, Congress resumed the business that was so rudely and criminally interrupted. The election of Joe Biden was certified, Trump uttered a quasi-sincere message of peacefulness, Republicans discovered their backbone, and the nation – having stared into a small abyss for a few hours – came to their senses. Criminal behavior will be punished, peacefully uttered democratic dissent will not.

The lesson here is the opposite to what “concerned critics” are wanting to see: This nation has survived a more than imperfect founding, a Civil War, the seductions of both fascism and socialism, the Cold War, Watergate and 9/11. It will survive Trump. It will survive because of democracy, but it will need to address the conditions that brought up so much mass discontent. Whatever problems the US has, and it has quite a few, they pale in comparison to those countries mentioned above.

Predictably, there were also “concerned voices” coming from democratic allies like Germany. Ironically, Germany had witnessed a similar event rather recently – the storming of the Reichstag steps by a similar mix of people, including the harassment of parliamentarians in the building by known agitators brought in by the extremist party Alternative for Germany. Surely, what happened in DC looked more dramatic – but in all honesty, the scenes in Germany were more foreboding. Nazis on the steps of the Reichstag (and their cronies inside of it) still look more ominous than a guy in Viking dress together with his ragtag co-conspirators rummaging through the halls of Congress.

Today, Trump realized he lost the election, and announced a regular transition. He understood that what happened was much more damaging to himself and the cause of his supporters than to democracy. He is now in damage control mode, while the country has been shocked back to attention. The US has survived its four-year stress test of democracy, and will survive many more.