Editor’s note: The author will participate in the St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs, which runs Tuesday night through Friday. Click for more details.
By Paul Kubicek
Special to the Tampa Bay Times
“Each nation gets the government it deserves” is an aphorism attributed to French diplomat and monarchist Joseph de Maistre (1753-1821), who was no fan of democracy. While today many may bemoan the state of democracy worldwide, de Maistre’s ghost must be having a good laugh.
Examples of the “wisdom” of voters are legion. The leader of the largest party in the Italian parliament is a comedian. Brazil’s newly elected president celebrates the country’s brutal military dictatorship as a “glorious” period and claimed an opposition congresswoman was “not worth raping” because “she is too ugly.” The president of the Philippines has bragged of personally killing criminal suspects and that he would be happy to slaughter 3 million drug addicts. The Czech Republic’s prime minister, the country’s richest man, is under numerous corruption clouds and courts have determined that he was a secret police agent during communist rule. Hungary’s leader embraces a host of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim tropes.
As for the United States, long regarded as the world’s leading democracy, where should one even begin?
Lack of political experience, not to mention cronyism, dishonesty, racism, misogyny, support of violence, and disregard for constitutional norms, all seem to be winning strategies for “democratic” leaders across the world. This raises profound questions, less about them and more about those who elect and support them.
Disparaging wide swaths of voters as “deplorables” is both smug and overly simplistic. While it is true that many leaders appeal to the uglier side of human nature, they also succeed because of what people are willing to ignore. Studies have shown, for example, that voters will overlook corrupt behavior in “their guy” if they believe all politicians are corrupt. Furthermore, pedantically trying to persuade people about the vacuousness, fallacies or outright lies of their preferred candidate or party is ineffective; convinced partisans are apt to double-down on their beliefs. A larger issue is that today many believe that they are being effectively dis-empowered by numerous changes, both cultural (for example, secularization, new gender norms, emergent multi-culturalism) and economic (for example, globalization, automation and demand for different skill sets), and that traditional politicians on both the left and right have either endorsed or ignored these phenomena.
There is, I would say, some truth in this last assessment. A drive across rural America, for example, will reveal large parts of the country that have been left behind and have few clear economic prospects. While problems such as these could be remedied with nuanced policies (for example, targeted investments in infrastructure and re-training) and a recognition that change is both inevitable and presents new opportunities, today’s “populists” portray themselves as saviors of the nation, providing simple answers (“build a wall!” “law and order,” “traditional values,” “America first”) and seeking to re-create a near mythical “golden age” (for example, thousands of new steel and coal-mining jobs) that, while perhaps viscerally appealing to some, often scapegoat others and are either unrealistic or gloss over complex policy questions.
Short term at least, such sloganeering is hard to combat. Does anyone seriously think that Elizabeth Warren’s stated aim to “nerd-out” on policy details is a political winner? On the other hand, those who might wish to “go low” should be mindful of George Bernard Shaw’s admonition: never wrestle in the mud with a pig; you both get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.
What, then, can be done? One important (perhaps idealistic) step, I would suggest is to engage in a broad conversation to establish basic facts. The upcoming St. Petersburg Conference on World Affairs at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg is one step in this direction. Furthermore, each nation should agree on basic norms that should never be violated. Those that transgress such norms — again, it is not hard to think of real-life examples — should be immediately called out and condemned.
As time progresses, however, there are grounds for greater optimism. Corruption cannot be permanently hidden and will benefit only a select few. Once in power, outsiders have less ability to rail against the establishment and have fewer means to pass the buck on unpopular policies. And, finally, what might be the greatest solace is that incompetence will reveal itself. In this regard, the failure of Donald Trump — “I alone can fix it” — to get his beloved wall is patently clear for all to see and has done more to erode his support than anything else. One only hopes that opposition to such leaders will remain steadfast and, if told again that “what you’re seeing and reading is not real,” voters will have the wisdom to believe their own eyes.
Paul Kubicek is professor of political science at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.