Return of the Strong Man History in Reverse

by Glen Pearson

Read this post on National Newswatch here

The return of the Strong Man is upon us and our tired democracies seem defenseless in consequence. It was a term the Western world frequently used to categorize thugs and dictators of troubled nations ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. We watched developments in such lands with a kind of detached alarm, secure in our belief that complex democracies successfully inoculated us from such threats.

Now we’re not so sure. Phrases like “post-democracy” or “post-truth” are now used to describe the troubles in affluent nations, as government systems slowly lose their capacity to steer events in favour of the average citizen. The belief that political leaders merely managed the rewarding of the already wealthy over the average worker, or the millionaire over the masses, is broad enough as to be almost universal. This failure to tend to the more main street form of politics has resulted in the re-emergence of the strong man or woman who threatens to use veiled extremism to “drain the swamp.”

All of this is happening so quickly that voters can be forgiven for thinking that history is moving backward into a more troubled time. Any ridding of the shackles of authoritarianism in the past century was due to the dreams of average citizens appearing to have more priority over the collective interests of both the state and the wealthy. Citizens entertained the assumption that those who governed them protected such dreams. It is becoming increasingly apparent that they now believe their leaders run the danger of abusing that trust, and voters are responding accordingly.

What it all means is that democracy can no longer be counted upon to usher in generation after generation of progress. Signs of the challenge to the democratic order emerged in Europe as nation after nation encountered turbulence because of policies regarding immigration and economics. Then came Brexit and Trump, leaving democracy itself in disarray.

Citizens in many affluent nations began throwing increasing support behind those leaders who railed strongest against the prevailing order. Their very extremism was what made them attractive to many. Racism, nationalism, gender bias, bigotry, hatred, violence – all these, which had supposedly been under control, suddenly flooded the streets, social media, and the airwaves. Perhaps predictably, citizens who worried that they were losing any future security became more willing to trade their tolerance and compliance for the kind of populist disruption that has now sent us into an uncertain future. History’s Strong Man is back, his way paved by the insecurity of citizens themselves. Their reasoning was simple: if our political system and economics have become too complicated and detached from the average voter, then what is needed is a strong leader, man or woman, who claims he or she can take the system in hand and break it.

Increasingly, citizens will vote for neither Left, Centre, or Right, but for change – in whatever ideology it comes. Hofer in Austria, Le Pen in France, and others like them in the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden, Russia, China, Turkey, Croatia, even Germany - many such individuals were marginalized figures only a year ago, but now have gained remarkable support. And with Trump’s victory, it is no longer certain that the political centre can hold.

The new tyranny

Notably aggressive personalities like these have always been with us but, whereas over the centuries they had to yield to more enlightened progressive practices based upon human rights, today’s extremist leaders are promising to reverse that progress and head back into the darker alleys of history. As citizens cast about for a more muscular form of leadership in their angst, they run the danger of throwing out the personal and collective advancement that had been entrenched over the decades. In throwing themselves at the new wave of extremist leaders, voters have ripped apart the seams of what once used to hold civilization together. Claiming to love your country while hating its government, if continually maintained, will usher in the very tyranny we trusted we had escaped.

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Glen Pearson
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