Democratic societies are increasingly feeling the challenge of a rising wave of civil discontent with many traditional politicians. They are turning to populist politicians who promise an anti-establishment agenda to create a disciplined crime free or immigration free society.
These opportunistic politicians around the world are using the genuine anger of those left behind economically and politically, as a surfing wave to autocratic rule. They make outlandish promises, bully their way to prominence and grab media attention with outrageous comments and threats. They can persuade, with bombastic rhetoric a large portion of the electorate to trust and elect them. They claim to be the Messiah who will wipe away all the tears and hardships of the disadvantaged and the marginalised in society.
They have a valid list of peoples complaints with which to challenge the traditional elite and establish governments of the rich. The social inequality and the ever-widening gap between the few rich and the many poor, is fertile ground to make them populist.
Democracy is losing the trust and support of populations as economic disparities and injustices grow and continue to be unaddressed. Increasingly bureaucratic corruption makes their lives a burden and miserable. They welcome and support any false messiah.
In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump is an indication of the distrust of the establishment by millions of Americans. They despair that a true independent democratic government can be elected without the funding of the billionaires of the business class. They want a government that brings prosperity with fairness. They are desperate and blinded by a false hope and support an uncouth bullying billionaire businessman.
There are other democratically elected leaders who promised a paradise and rule with increasingly autocratic authoritarian rule intolerant of any criticism and opposition. In Hungary, Poland and Turkey, the elected leaders of these countries rule by repressing and controlling the media, judiciary and the civil society that stands for the rule of law and human rights.
More political parties are rising in Austria and Germany that are extreme in their policies, are anti-immigration, nationalist and tend to deny the fundamental freedoms of a democracy based on the freedoms and values that are the bedrock of any true democracy.
We can say they are pseudo-democracies, led by false messiahs where they exclude minorities, refuse to recognise the freedom of religion, equality and dignity of the human person. They are elected by the voter’s anxiety, troubles, and isolation from the political dialogue, being voiceless and disparaged.
The electorate rally behind the demagogy of a rising politician based on the ignorance of his or her true character, intentions and secret agendas once in power. Like all politicians, their promises of change and of a corruption-free society are the stepping-stones to power. They may grip the imaginations and ignite hope in the voters, but the promises are soon ignored when they take office.
When they abuse their power and the population awakens to the reality of the situation, it is sometimes too late to get them out of power. In Africa, many rulers defy or manipulate the democratic process to stay in power for up to thirty or more years.
The election of a left of centre reformist government with a social justice and equality agenda, can indeed partially succeed in bringing success in reducing poverty and creating a stronger economy but the question is, for how long? Eventually, corruption and mismanagement of the economy, as happened in Brazil, opens the door for the entry to power of the corrupt elite business billionaires. They are perhaps the most dangerous to democracy since they legislate to deregulate the banking sector, promote liberal capitalism, and unfettered free trade. They create monopolies and buy out the media, so as to shape the news and establish their political power. These ruling elite allow exploitation and multinational companies to maximise profits without social sharing.
The growth of secular values where society is increasingly a selfish and self-centred society and is becoming addicted to the pleasure principle, the role of the church as a teacher of values and morals principle has been disregarded. Perhaps this is due to the authoritarian and dominating interference that church leaders had in imposing unnecessary burdens and restrictions on the believers. They too were autocratic which is now rejected and secular interests dominate.
Church leaders are failing to promote and live out in a relevant way the values of religion that are based on human dignity, compassion, justice, equality and universal human rights. So we have society striving for a true democracy but they get a pseudo-democracy, which has few of these basic values. By invigorating and committing themselves to these values, an honest capable leader could emerge with a following that can bring a more equal society.
There is hope for a real vigorous model of democracy in a world where everyone’s voice is heard and where openness and trust is based on reflection, reason and knowledge. With these values at the heart of their movement, a society committed to fearless non-violence, social justice and genuine participation could indeed come about.
(Fr. Shay Cullen)