A fleeting look crossed Hillary Clinton’s face. A sagging of expression when she stepped out of her car in off-white into the damp of the Trump inaugural. Then she braced as always for the questions that would come flying. A second before the figurative veil fell there it was, a weary pain damped down quickly in the face of the public. She is not the easiest person to like, a nerd and a woman in a world where butch populism has devoured ethics, family values and democracy.
Singled out as an entitled woman, people find it hard to identify with her loss. Although, if she were an entitled man the situation might be reversed. It should be strange that it is more difficult for women to attract sympathy if they don’t keep their heads bowed or covered. But in patriarchal realms east and west, the more a woman is perceived as stepping out of her veil both literal and figurative to assume a leadership position or simply to stand out in some way, the less empathy she gets from men and even other women. Often, as in the feudally inflected democracy practised in India, when they do come out it is to defend patriarchy or to stand proxy for a jailed or deceased patriarch.
What has taken the world by storm is simply a version of patriarchy, popularly referred to as populism. All the markers are there: a personality cult involving a male father-figure, whose rules are final no questions asked; usually teflon individuals who have the ability to throw off damaging scandals, which could have ruined the careers of lesser made-up cult heroes. Rarely, as in the case of ancient Egyptian queen Hatshepsut, a woman here and there has taken over all the markers of the patriarchal cult.
Such personages are defended vigorously, often violently, by adoring men and women from their community, called trolls when online. They sustain themselves through popular sentiment whipped up by maligning formerly suppressed out-groups. This leads to depriving the rights of said out-groups like rights-seeking women, minorities, discriminated-against races or castes.
Whether they are right or left wing, and because they rule through sentiment, they cannot abide by logic-based ideas. These tend to expose a lot of what passes for populist sentiment as being founded in antiquated notions often downright offensive, racist and misogynist. The opinions of journalists, intellectuals and experts are therefore unwelcome. Members of the last three tribes are then recast as cold-hearted enemies of the people often through the bizarre deployment of an annoying children’s repeating game. Whatever charges are levelled against the populists, they throw it back at the people who reported the accusations. Look what happened to the phenomenon of fake news. Genuine reportage is now being called fake by the people who propagated fake news.
To counter civilisational checks, perceived as elitist roadblocks, more and more people are starting to emulate the leaders of the modern world by surfing the waves of macho populism, and the intoxicating adrenaline rush of bullying powerful, networked elites like Clinton, or simply people resented for their seemingly easy path to success shorn of obstacles. Anyone the populist doesn’t agree with can come under the classification of powerful elite, even the nation’s highest courts. When this happens, a democracy is in danger of devolving into warring tribes. This prospect isn’t so frightening to a vast majority of people who feel secure living within the boundaries of muscle-flexing castes or tribes. Security and unquestioned certainty breeds assertiveness and to the populist this is more desirable compared to the alienation and loneliness that come with dissent and doubt.
Populist leaders have figured out that for ultimate gain being the bigger person won’t do. As in the example of the childish repeating game or calling real news fake, absurdly but crucially, being the smaller person guarantees easy, momentary victory. When they are ungenerous, untruthful and churlish their voters _ the aggrieved, aggressive majority _ seem to lap it up.
Michelle Obama said: “When they go low, we go high”. This doesn’t work with people who do not believe in the sanctity of truth, but instead behave as if truth is sanctimonious. It doesn’t work with people who refuse to work with ethics, the ones who have learned to present ‘alternative facts’, manipulate ever-present resentments to achieve their singular goal of triumphing. The desire for an easy win is an irresistible temptation. Contrast this to the exacting work needed to maintain equipoise in society.
Reversion to tribalism is proportional to increasing poverty and joblessness, but also how much the networked elite influence and exploit state agencies. Ironically, populist leaders are usually networked elites of some kind or another, rich men, tribal leaders or powerful ideologue politicians, who have mastered the art of manipulating mass perceptions and sentiments. This is why populism doesn’t actually target networked elites, but experts and intellectuals who point these things out.
In the dawn of a barbarian age we will no longer believe in the sanctity of truth based in evidence. Between the populist and the barbarian there are only a few steps to lazy destruction. We assume that civilisation began with the invention of writing or when societies organised themselves into towns then kingdoms and free states, or when religious movements swept around the globe. In these modern times, we also believe that democracy is equivalent to civilisation. And that ideally, it too should spread around the world as if it were a religious movement. But we have all seen by now that true democracy is almost impossible in societies around the world east and west still struggling with deep-seated, religious and feudal, patriarchal bindings.
When people vote in crowded feudal democracies they elect oligarchs, vested interests, caste or religious leaders. Duly elected these representatives go on to legislatures to take precious time arguing for easier rules for their own oligarch-run industries, ‘religionising’ education, erecting religious structures, or increasing caste quotas for majoritarian caste groups, sometimes even calling for the disenfranchisement of some. Versions of these are in the works around the world. What should be default self-evident truths enshrined in the constitution gradually transform into unattainable ideals.
Equality for all, for example, sticks in the craw of race and caste based societies. Trying to better lives through affirmative action or reservations in government jobs and educational institutions has caused heart burn in privileged sections who feel their children have lost opportunities to quotas. In this scenario, some truths are sometimes even sought to be amended as they stand in the way of majoritarian politics. Oligarchs, left/right wing supremos and extrajudicial religious organisations will cast doubt on the very nature of truth for short-term personal gain losing sight of how in the long run this undermines civilisation itself. But here’s the kicker, when we hear phrases like ‘such and such’ is against family values, or here in India ‘such and such’ are western concepts unsuitable to our ethos, it is as if the idea of civilisation is alien and upsetting to their worldview. Ultimately, populists might even prefer today’s reversion to a pre-civilised world.