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The power of heckling

I had another post in mind for this week, but I think it’s important to say something about last night’s debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden. My twitter feed and mainstream media outlets reached the same conclusion: that this debate was the worst ever, mired by interruptions and insults. It was lacking in substance. This is the view of the intelligentsia, of people who believe in the best of liberal democracy and who’s business it is to be or sound intelligent about politics. If we belong to the group of viewers who expect a debate to be a gentlemanly fencing challenge, instead of a street brawl, we are in the minority and always have been. But more important, we are still not understanding what is happening politically in the US and in many other countries around the world.

But first a few words on the debate. For starters we forget that debates have always been a performance, an opportunity for candidates to strike the right pose and throw the smart zinger to appear strong and attractive to their constituency, nothing more.

But more so than in the past, this debate and the ones that will follow are not meant for people who read the New York Times. They are meant for that one half of the country – roughly 44% if you take the average of polls tracked by the politics outlet FiveThirtyEight – that still supports Trump. These voters back him not despite, but because of his bully approach. They want a strongman and his tactics make him look strong. They want a heckler, a brawler, someone who will defend their interests because they are seen by the other half – and see themselves – as the fringe of society. The fact that nearly half the country appreciates these antics after four years of dysfunctional politics tells us that regardless of who wins in November the taste for populism is not going away.

And this is by no means relegated only to the right. The far left represented by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders is just getting warmed up. This suggests that the future emergence of a Trumpian equivalent in the left is likely just a matter of time. So, what’s the silver lining here? What can we learn? This brings me to a phrase by Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World, who in one of his political essays in 1958 wrote:

“Freedom is menaced, and education for freedom is urgently needed.”

Huxley did not go deep into what that education looks like, but his overall message was the importance of awareness. Aside from voting, most of us have a limited ability to do anything about the current political dynamics. But what we can do is delve deeper into the frustration that drives the extremes that have taken politics hostage, understand their grievances and think of ways to best address them. Awareness makes us savvier citizens and prompts us to demand better, more inclusive policies, from our political representatives. Yes, racism is an issue, but so is the feeling of disenfranchisement of the white working class. Yes, police brutality exists, but undermining the security forces comes at a cost. Yes, protecting people from Covid is paramount, but shutting down the economy will hurt people too. Living under an illiberal government also means doing your best to stay grounded, be courageous and defend language and institutions.

Dismissing the Trumps and Ocasios of politics as cranks is hot helpful. History shows that once polarization takes hold it is very difficult to stop it. Polarization is a symptom of a malady that the body politic needs to overcome, gradually. Like Covid or a bad flu, there is no outright cure, you just need your rest, and plenty of patience, to allow the body to overcome it.

What I’m (Re)Reading 

There are of course many lessons we can take away from populist and autocratic governments. And for that purpose, the book that best captures the current mood is “On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century”, by Timothy Snyder.

This charming book – just 126 pages long – was published in 2017 just as the fear of Trump was reaching its highest pitch. And some of its lessons remain all important. My personal favorite being lesson one: “Do not obey in advance”. It warns that when a populist or autocrat takes control many people become extremely solicitous to the leader and think of ways to please him and his collaborators without them even asking.

Another key lesson is “Defend institutions”. Under Trump, and under the rule of other populist leaders around the world, institutions have been the first to suffer because they are not designed to satisfy the political desires of one person. Understanding these lessons before the populist bug bites our societies is ideal, but it is never too late to embrace them.

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