Why the world should be worried about the rise of strongman politics


Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Back in 2016, The Financial Times’ Gideon Rachman advanced the view in a commentary for The Economist that the “strongman” style of leadership was gravitating from east to west, and growing stronger. “Across the world – from Russia to China and from India to Egypt – macho leadership is back in fashion,” Rachman wrote.

In light of subsequent developments around the world, he understated the “macho” phenomenon, driven by rising populism and growing mistrust of democratic systems.

That commentary was published before Donald Trump prevailed in the US presidential election and turned upside-down assumptions about how an American president might behave.

Whether we like it or not, the most powerful country in the world – until now, an exemplar of Western liberal democracies and global stabiliser in times of stress – is ruled by an autocrat who pays little attention to democratic norms.

Spread of authoritarianism

In his lecture delivered just a day after Trump appeared to take Russian President Vladimir Putin’s side over America’s intelligence agencies on the issue of Russian meddling in the 2016 US elections, Barack Obama drew attention to the new authoritarianism.

Without referring directly to Trump, Obama issued his most pointed criticism yet of the nativist and populist policies adopted by his successor on issues like immigration, protectionism and climate change.

The politics of fear and resentment … is now on the move. It’s on the move at a pace that would have seemed unimaginable just a few years ago. I am not being alarmist, I’m simply stating the facts. Look around – strongman politics are on the ascendant.

Trump, therefore, is not an aberration. He is part of a strengthening authoritarian trend more or less across the globe.




Read more:
A growing mistrust in democracy is causing extremism and strongman politics to flourish


In the Middle East, the Arab Spring has given way to the entrenchment of dictatorships in places like Syria, where Bashar al-Assad has reasserted his grip on power with Russian and Iranian help; and in Egypt, where strongman Abdel Fattah al-Sisi continues to curtail press freedom and incarcerate political rivals.

In Europe, the rise of an authoritarian right in places like Hungary, Austria and now Italy are also part of this trend. In Italy, the bombastic Silvio Berlusconi proved to be a forerunner of what is happening now.

In China, Xi Jinping’s “new era” is another example of a strongman overriding democratic constraints, with term limits on his leadership having recently been removed.

In the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte is using his war on drugs for broader authoritarian purposes in the manner of a mob boss.

In Thailand, the army shows little inclination to yield power it seized in a military coup in 2014, even if there was public clamour for a return to civilian rule (which there is not).

In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is continuing to strengthen his hold on the country, expanding the powers of the presidency and locking up political rivals and journalistic critics. As a result, Turkey’s secular and political foundations are being undermined.

In Brazil, 40% of those polled by Vanderbilt University a few years back said they would support a military coup to bring order to their country, riven by crime and corruption.

And in Saudi Arabia, a young crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, has detained the country’s leading businessmen and extorted billions from them in return for their freedom. This took place without censure from the West.

The death of truth

Meanwhile, genuine liberal democrats are in retreat as a populist tide laps at their doors.

In Britain, Theresa May is hanging onto power by a thread against a revanchist threat from the right.

In France, Emmanuel Macron is battling to transform his welfare-burdened country against fierce resistance from left and right.




Read more:
Post-truth politics and why the antidote isn’t simply ‘fact-checking’ and truth


In Germany, Angela Merkel, the most admirable of Western liberal democratic leaders, is just holding on against anti-immigration forces on the right.

In Australia, Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, the leaders of the established centre-right and centre-left parties, are similarly under pressure from nativist forces on the far right.

What Australia and these other countries lack is a Trump, but anything is possible in an emerging strongman era, including the improbable – such as the emergence of a reality TV star as leader of the free world.

In a recent Lowy Institute opinion survey only 52% of younger Australians aged 18-29 years believed that democracy was preferable to other alternative forms of government.

In all of this, among the casualties is the truth, and particularly the truth. All politicians bend the truth to a certain extent, but there is no recent example in a Western democracy of a political leader who lies as persistently as Trump.

Like the character Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Trump lives in his own make-believe reality TV world where facts, it seems, are immaterial.




Read more:
Trump, Putin and the new international order


Inconvenient information can be dismissed as “fake news”, and those who persist in reporting such inconvenient truths portrayed as “enemies of the people”.

This is the sort of rhetoric that resides in totalitarian states, where the media is expected to function as an arm of a dictatorship, or failing that, journalists are simply disappeared.

In Putin’s Russia, journalist critics of the regime do so at their peril.

In his lecture in South Africa, Obama dwelled at length on the corruption of political discourse in the modern era, including a basic disrespect for the facts.

People just make stuff up. They just make stuff up. We see it in the growth of state-sponsored propaganda. We see it in internet fabrications. We see it in the blurring of lines between news and entertainment. We see the utter loss of shame among political leaders where they’re caught in a lie and they just double down and they lie some more. It used to be that if you caught them lying they’d be like, ‘Oh man.’ Now they just keep on lying.

In the digital era, it had been assumed technology would make it easier to hold political leaders to account, but in some respects the reverse is proving to be the case, as Ian Bremmer, author of Us vs. Them: The Failure of Globalism, wrote in a recent contribution to Time.

A decade ago, it appeared that a revolution in information and communications technologies would empower the individual at the expense of the state. Western leaders believed social networks would create ‘people power,’ enabling political upheavals like the Arab Spring. But the world’s autocrats drew a different lesson. They saw an opportunity for government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control.

In his conclusion, Bremmer has this sobering observation:

The ConversationPerhaps the most worrying element of the strongman’s rise is the message it sends. The systems that powered the Cold War’s winners now look much less appealing than they did a generation ago. Why emulate the US or European political systems, with all the checks and balances that prevent even the most determined leaders from taking on chronic problems, when one determined leader can offer a credible shortcut to greater security and national pride? As long as that rings true, the greatest threat may be the strongmen yet to come.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Advertisements

A growing mistrust in democracy is causing extremism and strongman politics to flourish



File 20180703 116120 18rgwmr.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
As democracy loses favour around the world, support for alternatives, such as strong man governance, continues to rise.
Pixabay

Mark Triffitt, University of Melbourne

Nearly every indicator of a healthy Western democracy is failing globally. Public trust and voter engagement have declined over the past decade in established, core democracies around the world, including in the US, Europe and Australia.

The percentage of Americans who say they “can trust the government always or most of the time” has been below 30% since 2007.

A similar pattern of mistrust can be found in many democracies across Europe, as well.

Young people, in particular, are detaching themselves in droves from active and passive participation in the formal democratic system.

In Australia, public trust and satisfaction in democracy has fallen to record lows over the past 10 years, while a Lowy Institute survey last year found that less than half of Australian voters under the age of 44 preferred democracy over other forms of government.

As democracy’s popularity decreases, support for alternatives, such as polarised and extreme politics and “strongman” governance, continues to rise.

A shift to the extreme

As voters disengage with politics, the character of democracy begins to shift. Democratic systems have moved away from moderated, representational versions of themselves into what might be termed “democratic extremism”.

There is a growing “representativeness gap” in Australian politics, for instance, with major parties organised around narrow, ideologically driven policy and “culture war” debates.




Read more:
Friday essay: Australia’s dangerous obsession with the Anglosphere


These parties are increasingly dominated by former political advisers and career party functionaries with comparatively little life experience. This comes at a time when occupational, gender and life-experience diversity is increasing in society at a rapid rate.

The rise of Donald Trump is an example of ‘democratic extremism’.
Pixabay

The election of Donald Trump in the US and the populist forces that underwrote Brexit illustrate the extreme polarisation of politics at the moment, as well.

This “unrepresentative” democracy creates a feedback loop. As the public invests less interest and commitment to democracy, the democratic arena is captured by those with narrow, unrepresentative world views. Growing public disengagement leads to the greater capture of democratic processes by outlier groups and individuals who are hostile to democratic institutions and practices.

The rise of strongman governance

Support for authoritarian-style governance has grown around the world, as it is often seen as more “effective” in addressing real-world problems.

Strongman governments are characterised by a weakening of democratic checks and balances. They are also marked by rhetoric and decision-making that promotes intense nationalism, while undermining core democratic values of tolerance and openness.




Read more:
How conservatives use identity politics to shut down debate


The construction of walls and other physical barriers across democratic Europe in recent years to curtail refugees and “keep Europe Christian” is a potent example of the trend.

Young people are increasingly becoming supporters of these types of strongman and populist governments. They are more open to democracy alternatives, such as military rule, and more likely to express support for authoritarian regimes.

However, these “solutions” often ignore democracy’s values and practices, further eroding its legitimacy and support.

Disruption in democracy

In theory, extremism is weeded out from democracy through its “trimming” system.

Public input flowing into a democratic system – supported by basic democratic values as free speech and freedom of association – “trims” away extreme views and policies.

But as mainstream voters turn off or tune out, democracy’s inherent barriers against extremism are dismantled, as well. This leaves democracy hollowed out and at risk of being hijacked by those at the fringes.

Trust, participation, and support for democracies continues to decrease.

At its core, the values of democracy haven’t changed. Democracy remains the only political ideology designed to protect individual freedom, speech and choice, which can empower the voices of ordinary citizens in extraordinary ways.

The problem lies with the current “delivery system” of democracy, which is organised around the parliaments, mass political parties and periodic elections that emerged in the late-18th and early-19th centuries.

There have been almost no significant reforms to democracy’s delivery around the world for more than a century.

The delivery system of democracy needs reform.
Flikr

Reform challenge of our age

We need to reinvigorate democracy to meet the expectations of citizens as to how 21st-century democracy should engage and perform.

A few years ago, the idea of citizen juries to advise parliaments, diversified political representation, and stronger checks and balances on partisan politics would have struggled to gain public support.

Now, amid growing public recognition that our current configuration of democracy is not working, they are seen as imperative reforms by voters themselves.

The ConversationWithout urgent and strategic democratic renewal, there is the danger that soon there will be little left on which to rebuild.

Mark Triffitt, Lecturer, Public Policy and Political Communications, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.