In the article, “Why the world should be worried about the rise of strongman politics”, Tony Walker laments the rise of strongman politics throughout the world and the dangerous consequences of it. In light of subsequent developments around the world, he is of the opinion that the “macho” phenomenon, driven by rising populism and growing mistrust of democratic systems was understated by the world. Through illustrations of several examples throughout eastern and western countries, he warns the readers of a spread of authoritarianism, with populist policies on issues like immigration, protection and climate change. Some of the most concerning actions of such governments are that of curtailing press freedom and incarcerating political rivals, completely disregarding basic principles of democracy. Genuine liberal democrats are facing a hard time governing with constant revanche from the right. This struggle is characterized by a basic disregard for facts, with social media and the internet becoming a tool for the government to try to become the dominant player in how information is shared and how the state can use data to tighten political control. Indeed, liberal democracies that emerged as the dominant political structure after the cold war are in crisis in today’s globalized world. But before lamenting the consequences of such strongman politics, we must try to understand why such politics is on the rise.
With the opening of national economies through globalization in the last decades of the 1900s, most countries saw a rise in what came to be known as the “middle class” in societies. Such middle class experienced an immense economic growth in the initial phases of globalization, but due to the neoliberalist policies of free market and laissez faire economy adopted by most liberal countries, the world saw an eventual increase in inequality and gap between the rich and the poor. This was further aggravated by the economic recessions, especially that of 2008 where the growth of middle class stagnated but the economic elites remained relatively unaffected. This is becoming true for developing countries, for example, Brazil whose inequality stems long back to its colonial past, or India, where an Oxfam report concluded that in 2018, the wealthiest 1% of the population, held around 75% of the country’s wealth. With this started a sort of economic conservatism and general distrust of the state and institutions, that tend to be seen as in favor of the elites.
Furthermore, this economic inequality gets further aggravated by the stances of social inequality in developing societies and that of issues of immigration in the developed ones. In countries where socialist governments and leaders tried to implement policies to reduce this inequality and ensure inclusion of all sectors of society through socio-economic policies, there tends to be resentment of the majority towards these deprived minorities, who are seen as “freeloaders”. The supporters of such a stance believe that in implementing such reservations, the majority of the population who have the right to progress due to their merits gets marginalized by those who get these rights just because of their race or historical discrimination. A similar phenomenon can be observed in the west with the immigrants and refugees who are tend to be seen as stealing jobs and social benefits from those who really deserve it in the country.
The populists feed themselves on this social divide in the society created by sentiments of anti-elitism and anti-pluralism, beliefs which are further reaffirmed among the population due to the contraction of the public sphere in today’s world. The media tends to treat citizens as consumers, and it is hard for consumers to buy something they don’t like. Hence, we observe a phenomenon of increasing customization of information tailored to our preferences in the name of consumer choice. This creates a sort of filter bubble around us, leading to reinforcement of our biased views through a distorted perception of reality. The lack of any diversity of information or serendipity in the public sphere inclines us to see our own views as the absolute truth. Leaders like Trump have mastered the art of using this customization to their own advantage, to create a politics of fear and resentment through personalization and oversimplification of information. Moreover, they tend to disregard the traditional media which is seen as in favor of the elites and use informal communication methods like social media to give an illusion of being anti-establishment and closer to the people.
The social divide gets translated into a political divide in the institutions, characterized by weak coalitions that cannot gather enough support to implement policies or leaders trying to cater to the needs of all parts of the society, which are then seen as weak as they don’t implement any singular strong policies but try to find a balance between economic growth and social inclusion, and respect of political institutions and the rule of law. This gets further aggravated by their inefficiency to curb corruption and ensure high economic growth or ensure protection in the times of risks such as terrorism due to institutional limits. This tends to explain the rise of strongman politics, who are ready to implement the will of the “people” but at the cost of strengthening authoritarianism and disregards for democratic values. Indeed, we see a rise in the number of people with a ‘democratic fatigue syndrome” who are more and more in acceptance of a quasi-authoritarian regime that can provide faster economic growth, greater security, and national pride.
It is a crisis of the western conception of universalization of representative democracy through voting and reduction of this democracy to elections. In today’s world, one single leader cannot accommodate the needs and wishes of all parts of society, and one single party cannot represent an entire population. This strength can only come at the cost of repression of any kind of plurality and authoritarian implementation of the wishes of the majority. We must ask ourselves what is more important, effectivity or accountability of the political leaders. And if it is the latter, we need to find new views of a representation of the society in politics, that is both effective and accountable and really representative of the pluralism of society.