Populism, Polarization and Post-Truth

Free societies are experiencing an enemy from within. It is threatening to destroy these societies from within. It is invisible and appears friendly. This is why our first task is to name it. It is power that has taken a new malignant form. It mimics democracy while at the same time undermines it. Thus, it eats away the fundamentals of our democracy and freedoms. This is why the question whether democracy will survive this onslaught is haunting several people. The question is not just about the future of democracy. It is also about the future of freedom. Shall we continue to enjoy the freedoms that we are enjoying today?

We can see the rise of autocrats within democracy who use the very same democracy to weld power and dominance. There is a predictable play book of this autocrats hiding behind the façade of democracy: Populism, Polarization and Post-Truth. These autocrats are democratically elected but set out to dismantle checks and balances on executive power through populism, polarization and post-truth. They consolidate their power and cloak their autocratic plans behind wall of secrecy, bureaucratic obfuscation, pseudo-legal harassments, repression of the critiques, and manipulation of public opinions or manufacture of public consent.

Autocrats work under the mask of democracy. Often it is too late when the mask falls. Populism draws the line between those that are deemed as corrupt and privileged elites and the pure victimized folk. The populists leaders pretend to embody the will of the people and purport to champion their cause against the demonized elites. As populism begins to grow democracy goes on backslide. Research has shown that populism organize their bid to power on the following: Catastrophisms , criminalization of the political rivals, use of external threats, denigrating experts or intellectuals , militarization, crumbling national borders, undermining media, messianic delivery etc.

Once, populism is established, polarization is used to gain and retain power. Polarization divides the citizens and eliminates the possibility of middle ground, pushing everyone to take sides. Identity politics is often used to polarize citizens to harvest votes. Post-truth is the next strategy of the autocrats to establish credibility and stay in power. Post-truth is more than lying. It is brazen propaganda . Post-truth is about muddying the waters so that it is difficult to discern the truth. The three Ps : Populism, Polarization and Post-Truth make a very good recipe to pursue and maintain power. But the power that it gives is malignant and corrodes our democracy and freedoms.

Absolute power survives by mimicking the democracy it corrupts and hence it becomes difficult to discern as well as seek an emancipative response. Besides, the new technologies of communication are often used as force multipliers of the reigning autocrats and mass media is tamed to serve them. Thus, the power of media control is made to serve the autocrats as masters. Moreover, the power of money and muscle is also employed indiscriminately. The long arm of the law is used to strangulate opposition and rivals. It also employs the power of revenge. People do envy the elite. Often, this envy is converted into revenge by populist leaders. The power of revenge is linked to power identity. Power of revenge is employed as a tool to gain recognition for one’s identity. Thus, the quest to immunize one’s identity and community , the autocrat can even use the power of emergency to weld more power, legitimacy and win votes. In several places unfortunately there is a strong link between mafia and Governments. In such places, we may have state mafia and criminal governments. Thus, the malignancy of the 21s century needs therapy before it weeds out our freedoms and democracy.

How are we to resist the autocrats of the 21st century? The task is not easy. We need to develop critical consciousness. The autocrats preys on inequality and failed expectation of the people. Hence, we need critical modes of thinking to discern how the populist leaders are using our inequalities and our failed expectations. Another important clue that we can use to discern this disorder in our democracy is the manner in which corporate power is harvested by the rulers. In some way we can sense how our country is made safe for autocracy with the play of power of populism, polarization and post-truth. Truth has a way of coming out. There is power of after truth. Hence, we have to strive to unearth truth. It is very difficult to get this after truth. But we have to live up to this challenge. It is only after truth that can fail the power of populism, polarization and post-truth. Truth can set us free. It is truth that will unveil the mask of the autocrat. We have the challenge to work to ring in this moment of truth. To bring this moment of truth, Mosses Naim in his book, the Revenge of Power says that we have to win five big battles:

1. Battle against Big Lie
2. Battle against Criminal Government
3. Battles against autocracies that undermine democracies
4. Battle against political cartels that stifle competition
5. Battle against illiberal narratives.

Perhaps, the battle is mental. We have first win this inner war and come out fearlessly to enlighten others and built an architecture of critical consciousness in our society.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao