Newspaper Article 19/02/2023
The rise of populists around the globe has often dealt significant blows to democratic governance. Institutional strength and political messaging are key to defeating populists at the polls.
We are living in a post-truth age, where lies are peddled as coherent narratives, or bayania, and proudly disseminated. For populists, popularity is more important than truth. Even educated people, who presumably have the knowledge required to tell information from falsehood, get swayed, knowing fully well that a lot of the narratives being peddled are lies. Satisfaction that the narrative has done well is the usual refrain of the zombies following their cult. A lie is crafted, and then packaged in credulous gift wrapping by modern day Goebbels of social media. By the time a lie has run its natural course, another is invented and the zombies begin to thirst for the new lie, conveniently forgetting the old. The information overload on social media leaves no time for any meaningful fact checking or for the truth to be ascertained. The masses are fed one toxic dose after another, polarizing the social and political discourse between enemies and friends, leaving no middle path.
In this post-truth age, any demagogue with a hint of charisma could invent lies to keep his flock in a trance, till the tipping point of reality casts its saturnine spell for the followers inebriated on promises from their Messiah. But by then the damage is done, reputations are tarnished, the discourse is polarized and truth covered in a bodyguard of lies. Only in the present case, the mendacious cohort of media bodyguards buries the truth forever, condemning the masses to a cyclical series of lies masquerading as political bayania. Everything is fair and foul in this fetid cesspool of political competition as viewed from the partisan lens of cult followers. Welcome to the post-truth age of cults, populists and the lies.
Perhaps the nihilism of Jacques Derrida explains best this post truth-age where all grand narratives and meta-truths have been opened up to the reductionist interpretations of the truth by post-modernists.
In order to make sense of the increasingly complex and unequal world, the post-modernists rejected the intellectual rigor needed to understand common threads running through seemingly disparate social phenomenon. Truth to the existentialists like Jean Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir was relevant to one’s perspective, that popularized the notions of individualism and the primacy of human experience over abstract philosophies and religious ideologies. The post-modernists challenged this new meta narrative, privileging the preferred interpretations of reality unfettered by and unrelated to grand narratives like religious creeds and moral strictures.
The moorings thus loosened; preferred notions of self-created reality were free to roam around, creating a socially constructed and individually curated reality. Things would have remained manageable but for the emergence of populism and the digital media revolution. Populism initially thrived in the late nineteenth century, and managed to get new wings after the communication revolution of the twenty first century, which has put technology at everyone’s disposal to disseminate their thoughts through unregulated social media spaces. Populists first emerged as the leaders that championed the cause of the downtrodden, pitting them against the exploitative elites.
One of the many downsides to the populists was their propensity to oversimplify complex political and social issues to simplistic and catchy slogans. Populists, as per Jan Werner Muller threaten the democratic order because of their aversion to checks and balances, that in their opinion “stifle the will of the people.” Populists also have an incurable predilection to claim allegiance of whole segments of the population, which might not be true in reality. According to Larry Diamond, populists detest accountability and prefer personal deification at the expense of party institutionalization. The ensuing lack of institutional governance results in the cultivation of personality cults and eventual democratic breakdown. The examples of Argentina, Zambia, and Venezeula during their descent into authoritarianism are pertinent in reminding one of the perils of populism.
Populism first emerged in industrialized societies, where trade union activity was employed as a prop to support populism. In recent times, European political parties like the “League” in Italy, “Freedom Party” in Austria and the Center-Right “Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Alliance” in Hungry represent such parties led by populists. In the USA, the quintessential populist Donald Trump personified all of the traits of modern-day populists, from the use of social media, exclusionary politics, polarizing rhetoric, boisterous policy announcements without implementation and a no holds barred demonization of political opponents. Pluralism and participatory politics of accommodation are an anathema for populists.
The most dangerous impact of populist politics in developing countries where democratic traditions have not yet fully developed is the radicalization of young impressionable minds into the politics of agitation and entitlement. As a result, the poorly educated and heavily indoctrinated masses, especially the youth forget about their political and social obligations, and develop a fixation on rights and entitlements. Instead of exhorting charged cadres to be mindful of their civic responsibilities and political obligations, the charged discourse of populists keeps them in a constant state of agitational frenzy. The need to keep their followers constantly charged forces the populists to resort to demagoguery as a communication tool.
The compulsion of populists to invent several transitory narratives to keep the focus of their followers fixated on the evil elite results in a cyclical sequence of narratives. The PTI was the first political party in Pakistan to develop the use of social media as a lethal weapon against their opponents into a fine art. Strategic communicators and keyboard warriors become important tools in this war of narratives. The compulsion to keep an enemy alive and direct the hatred of masses towards political opponents results in a peddling of lies and calumnies with a brazen disregard to the niceties of morality and truth. The post-truth variant of post-modernism therefore appeals ideally to Generation Z, with an average attention span of just 8 seconds.
Tweets, Instagram and WhatsApp are the universe occupied by the millennials and Generation Z that constitute the fanatic followers of a promised Messiah like Imran Khan. The followers of Imran Khan, tired of bad governance and patronage politics, look upon him as a Godot for whom they have waited for long. The fantastic promises and the constant U-turns do not bother them one bit as they lurch from one cleverly crafted narrative to another. Seeking refuge in social media’s make-believe world of possibilities, they create their WhatsApp and Twitter groups, which ultimately degenerate into echo chambers promoting groupthink and muzzling dissent.
These social media groups act as Godfather’s mafia, where “opinion offers” are made such that they cannot be refused. In this digital mafiadom, dissent is a capital sin and the criticism of the promised Messiah is blasphemy. Empirical evidence of the torrent of vitriol reserved for the contrarian view is easily available through a quick browsing of the social media landscape. The worst effect of these echo chambers of opinion is the denial of facts and the distance from reality, which deprives the followers of political cults from a sobering reality check. The unidirectional brainwashing and concomitant euphoria provided by echo chambers of opinion thus leads towards snowballing of hope; the same hope when ultimately confronted with reality gets shattered and the resultant anger is yet again cleverly directed towards political opponents who have been painted into the black corner in perpetuity.
The victim worst impacted from all of the lies, cults and populist rhetoric is national cohesion and the public’s trust in institutions. Since a populist relies on cult of personality to retain the allegiance of his followers, institutions that come in the way of his popularity also suffer the slings and arrows of his megalomania. The damage that his political expediency inflicts on national institutions that attempt to constrain his ambitions is often irredeemable. Populists hardly recognize any limits to their popularity and are not amenable to personal accountability. Their ambitions can only be kept in check through strong institutional accountability in a polity, with the requisite balance between parliament, judiciary and the executive.
A stronger counter narrative to the populist narrative is vital for weaning people away from their hypnotic influence. Democratically minded political opponents would therefore need to beat the populists at their own game through a more compelling mix of narratives rooted in reality, as opposed to the fantasy centered narratives of populists. Business as usual and a reliance on discredited political practices of the past will get the political opposition nowhere vis-à-vis a populist leader. In this game of perception management, the alteration of reality is as much important as alteration of perceptions. Without this, the game against populists is lost.
Note: This article appeared in TheFridayTimes, dated 19 February 2023.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article are of the author and do not necessarily represent Institute’s policy.