Modernity has solved the Maslow problems – covering our basic human needs. From here on work and material gain have become the key elements on which we base our identity. For many people it has become more about what I am rather than who I am.
The Enlightenment has brought us rationality. The emphasis started to move more and more towards economic results. In this materialistic environment, many people have stopped having ‘thinking conversations’ between me and myself (reasoning). A process that has more to do with figuring who you are and what we think..
Populists have stepped in this void and have been able to influence people who are often (but not exclusive) less educated and less involved in “critical ‘thinking’. The people that they have been able to attract have outsourced an important part of their (political, social, economic) thinking to them. Whatever the populist says has become their own thought and is seen as absolute truth. Many people have lost the capability to think for themselves. Many others in politics, the media and in commerce have jumped on this bandwagon and are using this human weakness to their political or financial advantage. Perhaps even more worrying is that foreign groups linked to their political systems are now also stepping into this void to undermine democratic structures in other countries. It is important to realise that we are competing people on an individual level, a corporate level and a political level. All aiming at getting the maximum benefits. Truthfulness and the truth are often victims in such competitive processes. We can turn Martin Heidegger words around “truth is that which makes a people certain, clear, and strong.” Untruth makes people uncertain, doubtful and weak.
Truth is perhaps our most central concept!
We need now more than ever active participation from the people in the political decision making processes. One of my suggestions here is to built this up from the bottom. At the local level of communities and cities there is still plenty of opportunity for people to be active involved in the shaping of these communities. Here there is still a significant level of trust in the truth. Something that has become increasingly more difficult at national levels.
It is interesting in the respect to read what Professor Christopher Frith has to say in his book ‘Making up the Mind’ about belief and non-belief.
First, he states that truth telling is the default position of the human brain. While this is a rational process, in the end, the final decision depends on more primitive emotional brain processes. This is where the problem starts if you do not go through thorough thought processes. Decision become more emotionally based rather than rationally based. Another effect of the emotional process is once the brain does not believe in an issue you will start feeling disgusted about that issue. This stops any rational thinking about the issue. It is something we all will have experienced one time or another. Marketing and politics are using this to emotionally influence us to ‘buy’ their product and paint the other ‘product’ as inferior. Their aim is not to be truthful to you but to get you to ‘buy’ their product.
While there are many situations where this happens, I concentrate on the political consequences.
If politicians are successful is selling their views, many people tend to start outsourcing their thinking function to them. Over the last 40 years what we have seen is that some politicians in order to sell their message have started to dumb these messages down to slogans and simple solutions for complex problems. There are many reasons for that but basically in an ever more globalised society the problems we face have become more complex and this makes if very difficult for many people to get a good understanding of those issues. This made is possible for populists (who can be to the right as well as to the left) to grab the attention especially from those people who do find it increasingly more difficult to understand these issue. Less educated people, poorer people, people that feel victimised, those feeling hard done by, or feeling left behind are more vulnerable to such messages. Populists stand up and start telling these people that they will act on their behalf. Their followers accept the truth of the populist as their ‘truth’.
Very few of the followers of these populists care about the performance of their leader (führer in German), his/her veracity, or anything. The majority support them because they are angry. They were left by the wayside. All the wealth and progress (the humongous wealth in few enterprises) are all visible to them, but totally inaccessible. Polarised media as well as social media are using this situation as an ideal platform for business models that are based on polarisation. They only care about the profits that these models create and are no interested in the massive damage they incur on democratic values and the need for cohesive societies. The truth becomes an easy victim here in the era of science denialism and conspiracy theories.
Supported by these media it is now easy for populists and others to use this human weakness to evoke the emotional response of disgust in relation to what they let them believe is the non- truth. A major difference with the past is that thanks to the polarisation of news and information the impact of this has been magnified.
If in a rational sense the truth that these populists present is a lie, the scary thing is that those who follow and believe the populists now see the real truth as disgusting.
We see this playing out in America. Trump is in the eyes of his followers telling the truth. Independent fact finders have indicated that Trump has told over 20,000 lies. However, for his followers those lies are the truth and what really is the truth is now disgusting these people. Resulting in highly polarised and often violent situations. We see these same processes playing out in other countries with populist leaders (e.g. Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Brazil) and as mentioned geopolitics has also been infiltrated.
An added problem in America is the high level of reliance on market forces to solve their problems with less reliance on social policies as a solution. Market forces act on behalf of the benefits for the operators (profits, returns for shareholders) and not on what is best for their customers. There are plenty of examples cigarettes, drugs, gambling, sugar, porn. The more addictive the batter for the market operator and their investors. This is more rampant in societies based on the individual.
A more cohesive society would offer a larger safety net. A more cohesive society is in a stronger position to weather rampant capitalism, populism as well as authoritarian storms than one that put individualism above society. There are good examples in Western Europe where also populists have made strong gains, but here they have so far not been able to obtain enough power to put their policies in place.
The situation in America is so polarised that even since Trump lost the next election, his followers still treats his lies still as truth. So, Joe Biden for example had already have the stamp of disgust on him by these people even before he started office. Such high level of disgust will also stop any rational behaviour in voting. A two-party system creates an ideal environment for polarisation.
Polarisation never results in good outcomes. If we come at issues where polarisation arises the only way out is to lift the issue to a higher level and start looking for solutions where parties are able to find each other. The more polarisation is fuelled the harder it becomes to move up to those higher grounds.
Rational thinkers should neither be disgusted by either Trump, Biden, or anybody else as such a behaviour is not going to lead to good outcomes. However, the major problem in America now is on the Republican side. This by default has also led to a further polarisation on the side of the Democrats as the choices they have to counteract them in a rational way are severely limited. Republicans do have more of choice as it is hard to believe that all Republicans support Trump above Biden, but polarisation makes the choice for them equally difficult as many feels ‘disgusted’ about Biden and or the Democrats in general. There is little rationale in such a polarised two-party system, emotions have clearly taken the overhand.
To stay in power populists will use this disgust to steer people away from the real complex issues and provide them with fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD). They link these issues to empty promise that more ignorant people accept as being the solution. These followers have lost the capability to argue in their own mind about the validity of those solutions. Populists often direct the core of these problems to others such as anybody who opposes or question them, independent media and often use migrants and refugees as scapegoats.
Populist paint the picture that these people and organisations are a threat to them and that they are the people are a victim of this (again those supporting the populist take that as the truth).
If populists gain more power, they increase their FUD policies to further undermine and silence the media, the opposition, block free speech, support covert violence, etc. They do so by increasingly using fear. The political situation than quickly moves into more of an authoritarian and even a totalitarian regime (Iran, Russia, North Korea, China).
Political philosopher Hannah Arendt in her book The Origins of Totalitarianism argues that totalitarianism is a “novel form of government,” that “differs essentially from other forms of political oppression known to us such as despotism, tyranny and dictatorship” in that it applied terror to subjugate mass populations rather than just political adversaries. Further, Arendt states that, owing to its peculiar ideology and the role assigned to it in its apparatus of coercion, “totalitarianism has discovered a means of dominating and terrorising human beings from within”. Erasmus has also to say something on this subject: “he who allows oppression shares the crime“.
As mentioned, those who can think for themselves and therefor are in a better position to uncover the truth should not fall into the same trap and simply be disgusted about the populists and their flocks. This would not solve the issue. Instead populists need to be dismantled and exposed in a rational way. This is hard and difficult work. As we have seen in history keeping quiet about unjust and not wanting to take a political stand only allows the populist to slowly move towards totalitarians.
This is a rather famous quote from German Pastor Martin Niemöller. He was silenced by the Nazis and spent 7 years in a German concentration camp.
First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out— because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
One of the reasons why I feel strongly about these issues is that my father also did speak up during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and he also ended up in a concentration camp, which he survived. I feel a strong obligation to speak out against lies, unjust, prejudice, racism and for the need to warn against not acting – while we still can- to stop populism to move towards authoritarianism and eventually totalitarianism. Let history be our guideline here.
The key to improving the situation in my opinion lays with the purveyors of disinformation: politicians, media, companies. We do need much better leadership among those people and we – the people – through our democratic processes – need to put the pressure on these institutions to make that happen.
All ‘thinking’ people have an obligation to ensure that we protect our values and our democratic way of life. Already ancient philosophers such as Plato and Socrates indicated that we need to be bold to speak what is true.
In our fast moving world with a deluge of news, information, opinions and so on it is important to pause before we instantly react to it. Just look at confirmation, corroboration, verification, in short do a quick fact check before passing the info on, before you like it or react to it.