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Mon 28 September 2020
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Andy Myles looks at the democratic apathy that has allowed populists such as Trump, Bannon and Cummings to activate an effective hardcore base.

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Fintan O’Toole, the incisive Irish commentator, has been warning for the past few years of the threat posed to the world’s democracies by “pre-fascist” populists.

Figures such as the US President Donald Trump, his former campaign manager and Breibart chief Steve Bannon and Boris Johnson’s chief advisor Dominic Cummings test and test the edges of what is acceptable in a civilised society, moving us along a trajectory of what they can and can’t get away with. All they need to do to continue getting away with it is to maintain a base of around 40% of voters who will follow them blindly. This is the way we are being led.

The commentator George Monbiot has now joined O’Toole in using the term, writing in the Guardian recently that, for the world’s right-wing populist leaders –including India’s Narendra Modi and Jair Bolsonaro – stretching constitutions and laws to breaking point “is not a sufficient condition for fascism to take root, but it is a necessary one: the willingness of political leaders not only to break the law but to revel in breaking it is a fatal step towards the replacement of democracy with authoritarian terror”.

Cummings added another test with last week’s selective No 10 Downing Street briefing of journalists – another attempt to see what he could get away with. Meanwhile, Trump and the Senate majority are well on the way to establishing a monarchical executive power after the so-called impeachment ‘trial’.


Distrust of Experts

O’Toole’s analysis that “40% as a base is all you need” has been evident in elections over the past few years – in the US, Australia and the UK. Central power has been handed to cliques with sufficient minority votes under first-past-the-post electoral systems.

How do we get out of this trap? How do we move on and start giving climate change and poverty and the accumulation of corporate power the full attention they deserve? How do we make inroads into that 40% “pre-fascist” base?

Perhaps by asking, not only why the base is attracted to snake-oil salesmen and their techniques, but also by asking the parallel question: why do they agree with Michael Gove and “had enough of experts”?

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Experts were trusted for decades, but today they are blindly dismissed, regardless of the authority of the evidence produced. This issue is crucial to unwrapping the 40% riddle.

Have the scientists, academics and other sources of knowledge, authority and trust grown too far apart from politicians – both progressive and conservative? Have political parties been hollowed out of the capacity for independent thought?


The Death of Political Parties

Since the end of World War Two, we have been watching the waxing and, mainly the waning, of widespread citizen participation in our politics.

Across the Anglosphere democracies, mavericks and intellectuals were driven or frozen out of most political parties, while ‘loyalists’ thrived. Either that, or they left of their own accord – tired and disgusted. Direct participation has often become claustrophobic, shackled by party discipline, and yes, toxic. Party memberships have evaporated to the point where, for decades in the UK, more people have chosen to join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds than all the political parties put together.

But we did little or nothing as the political parties narrowed and narrowed. We simply watched as internal dissent became either an internally punishable offence or the cause of bitter internecine civil strife. Is it any wonder that political parties aren’t really trusted by the 40%? Isn’t it the truth that the other 60% don’t think much of their state of democratic legitimacy either?


Reversing the Process

It is difficult to see any evidence on how best to reverse this process, but there are desperately serious consequences if we fail to change direction.

“Pre-fascism” might lead us on to the more full-blown versions of what the Philippines, Brazil and India seem to be indulging in already.

It is, however, well worth comparing “pre-fascist” experiences in the Anglosphere with those in northern Europe, where the trajectory of democratic development is rather different and the outcomes more promising. The evidence suggests that, for the northern democracies, proportional electoral systems and negotiated, coalition politics have proven reasonably successful at absorbing and riding-out extremist political surges.

Similarly, a close look at what has been happening in those nations culturally in between the Anglosphere and the northern European democratic cultures – such as the Celtic nations and New Zealand – might be well worthwhile. They are each on a journey of fundamental reform of their polities, breaking free of adversarial habits and heading towards proportionate ways of proceeding – and none of them has seen an ‘Alt-Right’ surge of any seriously threatening size or nature.

Is the greatest irony of the age that the really “strong and stable” democracies are proving to be those growing on the European nationalist or liberal branch of the democratic tree?


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