Politics today have become yet another form of entertainment. Campaigns are not run by defending a particular notion of happiness, but by transforming politicians into celebrities. Debates are not about political knowledge, but likeability. Representatives across the aisle are more than our adversaries, and building bridges is rarely an option. Attempts to understand different points of view require looking through inverted lenses – something neither easy nor comfortable – and most politicians do not have an appetite for low-key politics in the age of spectacle and social media.
Donald Trump is a byproduct of the times we are living. An incompetent President for a system that was unable to adapt to economic disruption and inequality. Most of his leadership has been done on Twitter, and all that Mr. Trump has to offer outside the digital world are thoughtless foreign policy decisions and a disturbing fondness for authoritarian regimes. Few presidents have been able to inflict such damage in such a period of time. Even fewer political parties have willingly committed their future to a President that has no respect for neither democratic institutions nor the rule of law.
Mr. Trump will not rise to the challenges ahead. The question is if politicians and journalists will descend to his level. Many representatives care too much about impeachment and too little about the consequences of polarisation and partisanship. As for journalists, we seem unable to take our eyes off the President and have overlooked everything that should have been learned during the last presidential campaign. The result is a poisonous information ecosystem that encourages a superficial and affective approach to politics and that undermines institutions and public trust in our democratic systems.
Three years after Donald Trump´s election, the world is not a better place. Syria is in ruins. Latin America is in turmoil. Hong Kong is struggling for freedom. And in Europe, populist far-right parties are gaining momentum. In Spain, Vox has become a force to be reckoned with in just three years. In France, Marine Le Pen threatens to unseat Emmanuel Macron, while in Italy, Matteo Salvini is plotting his return to power. In the East, Hungary is completing its transformation into an illiberal democracy under Viktor Orban, while the Polish government attempts to undermine judicial independence and bully journalists into submission.
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Far-right populists are not a danger just because of the ideas they impart, but because they further polarisation and undermine democratic legitimacy. Before their entrée, the formula to win elections used to be straightforward: come up with solutions that are acceptable for the majority of citizens and do it without ruining the administration. However, since the nineties, the math does not add up.
Far-right populists are not a danger just because of the ideas they impart, but because they further polarisation and undermine democratic legitimacy.
When economic anxiety and socio-cultural issues intertwine, such as immigration and the loss of sovereignty, populist leaders outperform mainstream politicians. They are able to translate the experiences and problems of the voters into an understandable language of us versus them. Overwhelmed and desperate to remain in office, most governments and candidates end up normalising their extremist adversaries.
These are dangerous waters. Interests are malleable and the right message, framing and promises can shape what people perceive as fundamental. News can quickly transform into television shows, with their heroes, villains and never-ending narratives. Public order and security can, over time, become more important than human rights and the freedom of the press. Democracy can slowly descend into authoritarianism. And there is little we can do about it if we keep playing a game that we do not know how to win.
The rules of the game dictate neither silence nor apathy. Reclaiming citizen’s trust calls for seizing the initiative. Mainstream parties must stop reacting to the solutions presented by far-right parties and start challenging their premises. Distrust builds on economic inequality, and it must be addressed by developing a realistic and innovative agenda to lower unemployment, protect the environment and curb tax avoidance schemes. As for journalists, they must report about populists with responsibility, accuracy and fairness, helping citizens to understand the societies they live in order to make the correct choices. Echoing Camus, the public does not want to know what Donald Trump eats for breakfast and how many times he tweets, but it has been taught for three years to want it. And that is not the same thing.
Defeating far-right politicians is a global struggle. And the next chance to provide a different answer is materialising in a small country across the Atlantic. Portugal was, until October, one of the few countries in Europe where far-right parties were not a foreseeable threat. Notwithstanding, this once exemplary country elected its first far-right representative two months ago. And André Ventura, its leader, is already omnipresent in public discourse. As it happened in Spain and the United States, magnified media coverage has created a larger-than-life character that has, not the votes to shape politics, but wields the influence to monopolise headlines and build a support base. Politicians have not done a better job. Instead of exposing his contradictions and opportunism, they opted for singling him out and strengthened the perception that the establishment is ought to get him. The result is not surprising – the support for the far-right has already doubled according to voting intention polls.
Politicians and journalists should think twice about their approach. There is an opportunity to adjust our diagnosis and come up with a different solution. A chance to revive civic debate, advance social justice and address people´s grievances. Democracy is not a one-time event – it needs to keep moving forward and get better with time. If we elude our responsibility when it comes to breathing new life into the values that sustain it, our democracies will eventually collapse.