Democracy in the West is besieged! A horror cabinet of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Norbert Hofer, H.C. Strache, Geert Wilders, Frauke Petry, Kristian Thulesen Dahl seeks to alter the democratic equation and eliminate its humanistic and minority protection components. Nigel Farage succeeded in England, and in retirement is now seeking to export his success to the US by way of Donald Trump, a kindred spirit.
Well-meaning people are disgusted, but mainstream politicians seem at a loss how to counter the endless stream of invective. This is partly because we understand demagoguery as a rhetorical phenomenon only. For fact-free Donald Trump this is also correct, but seeking to counter populism with populism is doomed to failure as demonstrated by Marco Rubio. Don’t play your opponent’s favourite playing field!
The horror cabinet shares Donald Trump’s disdain for the veracity of facts, but the others all use ’facts’ to great effect. Most Volksverführer are armed to the teeth with ’facts’ purportedly supporting their cause – always ready to substantiate their claims. In contrast, mainstream politicians normally appear unprepared or unwilling to engage in a substantive debate on the claims of the demagogue. The rhetorical tool of the mainstream is normally to just paint the demagogue into the extremist corner; a strategy that for centuries has proven unsuccesful. The population might be responsive to abuse from extremists towards the mainstream, because the supporters of the extremes normally are the disenfranchised, but you do not get the votes of the disenfranchised by fat cats heaping abuse in the opposite direction.
It seems to me that the most effective tool to counteract the demagogue is to take his or her arguments seriously, and to put him or her in the normal democratic position of having to defend his or her claims in a substantive fashion. The trick of the demagogue is to use facts destructively: we cannot welcome refugees because the economic burden is too big, and anyway they are disproportionally criminal. Deflating these arguments are sometimes not too hard, there is substantial and convincing economic data showing that immigrants do not withdraw more from state coffers than they pay in, for instance. The crime argument is more difficult, but also this argument should be faced head-on rather than ignored. Sadly, you do not often hear substantive arguments explaining how crime rates relativise if you normalise for gender, age and economic circumstances. And how often do you hear explanations of crime rates of refugees relative to their overall numbers, how often do you hear discusssions of perception of crime and types of crime versus the reality of crime?
Yet, even more important than this, how often are the nay-sayers asked to put forward and defend alternative policies? How often are they moved out of the comfort zone of the destructive ? No is not a policy, as the UK found to its apparent surprise after voting for Brexit. But how was it possible, after years of debate, to find out only after the results were in that there was no plan for life after no – that there was only a plan for getting to no? Why is Frauke Petry not asked more about her plans for dealing with the refugee crisis if an attempt was made to close hermetically all external borders of Europe? Frauke Petry has suggested that authorities should be ready to shoot refugees trying to enter. Do the 21 percent voting for her party in recent elections in Mecklenburg Vorpommern really support shooting refugees, or the sinking or letting sink the boats bringing refugees across the Mediterranian? In the absence of replenishment by refugees, what is Frauke Petry’s plan for solving the demographic collapse threatening Germany because of the German lack of population replacement rates? Will she force Germans to reproductive sex at gunpoint? Where is the substantive debate of values, given that, now as then, the extreme right is presenting itself as the saviour of the vulnerable existing citizens of their countries. Why is nobody explaining that there is no trade-off to be made between the welfare state and welcoming refugees: quite to the contrary, particularly in the long run! In the final analysis Frauke Petry’s no’s would lead to the collapse of the European Union, and we thus end in the cul-de-sac of the Brexit referendum. What is Frauke Petry’s plan for a Europe without solidarity? A welcome to a new edition of the Thirty Years’ War?
Fact is the true playing field of democrats, and it is astounding that this playing field has been ceded to the demagogues. Bill Clinton was superb in marrying charisma and mastery of fact, as can be seen best in his splendid speech at the Democratic Party Convention in 2012. We need more like him, or like Hillary, who masters the facts without, sadly, the charisma. Yet, better this than the other way round. George Washington was by all accounts not a barrel of laughs either!
There are so many emperors without clothes around, and it is high time that we start to dislodge them and their false rhetoric. However, this will only be a success if we start to take their arguments seriously and counter them with facts!