OP-ED

The politics of the base and the contestation for global dominance threaten democracy

By Camaren Peter 2 December 2020

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shakes hands with US President Donald Trump. (EPA-EFE/ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN / POOL)

The key threat to democracy today is not ideological, in the sense that opposing or alternative ideologies threaten to replace democracy. Rather, it is how the politics of the base can be exploited to undermine democratic processes and institutions, and skew democratic outcomes.

As the world lurches from crisis to crisis, many of our own making, it is not unreasonable to suspect that we are approaching a tipping point. What exactly lies beyond that may be difficult to predict, but there is a sense that the movement of affairs in the world right now is irreversible. Everything is changing. Flux, polarisation and uncertainty characterise the moment we are in and there is a sense that it must ultimately culminate in something significant, a broad sweeping change that will prove to be irreversible. What shape and form it takes remains to be seen, but the scent of change is palpable; something’s got to give. 

And nowhere is this sense of a wave about to break more imminent than in the United States. Decidedly dis-united, fractured and polarised, it is a nation limping from one low point to the next, while the world stares on in disbelief. Even though the US is problematic in many ways and has engaged in duplicitous and destructive foreign and domestic politics throughout its history, it is with incredulity that we’ve witnessed the developments that may spell the end of US democracy as a global symbol of liberty and democratic freedoms.

The US’s decline may appear sudden and unpredictable, but this is by no means the case. The seeds of the collapse of US democracy were sown long ago. This is perhaps what Malcolm X would have described as “chickens coming home to roost”. The rise of the Tea Party, which emerged as an alternative brand of conservatism within the Republican Party, should have set off alarm bells early on, but it didn’t. In retrospect, it has proven to be a veritable turning point in conservative US politics. 

While there are very many internal factors that have contributed to the US arriving at the precipice, this is not the whole story. The key to understanding what is transpiring requires reflecting deeply on how the terrain of political contestation has changed, and why. Never before has there existed the vast swathes of personal data, predictive analytics and behavioural psychology insights to understand exactly what kind of messaging will appeal to that sense of identity and place in the world that we hold so dear. This has rendered societies all over the world vulnerable to manipulation by a range of domestic and foreign actors, who have vested interests in which way the winds of political change blow. You have to look at who has the most to gain from this crisis to fully understand what is transpiring. 

Nevertheless, if we put manipulation and propaganda aside, there is a deeper analysis to make; one that reveals why we are so vulnerable to manipulation as societies. At its heart, this vulnerability is all about what we socially construct as truth in order to broker socio-cultural convergence around our values and identities. We rely on these mutually constructed “truths” to envision what kind of world we want to live in and to reinforce our sense of identity and place in the world. 

Yet, internal contradictions and cognitive dissonance are par for the course in how these “truths” are constructed. We are paradoxical creatures; we can simultaneously hold completely opposite value positions, depending on the context in which those values are being invoked. This means that realities based on different ideas of what constitutes the truth can reside simultaneously in a society. Simply put, what we construe as truth becomes our reality. We participate in creating and reproducing the reality we live in, and how we consume information is fundamental to this process.

Trump and the destabilisation of US democracy

In the case of the US, the domestic actors who are undermining US democracy are relying on how deep the fears and anxieties of ordinary Americans run. And they run deep, cultivated and stoked by years of bipolar democracy, where power is routinely transferred from one centre of power to another, yet where real transformative change remains a mirage. Moreover, working- and middle-class Americans are materially worse off than they were half a century ago, while elite plutocrats are better off. This has resulted in profound alienation from establishment politics, and so the citizenry has retreated into bases that are easily manipulated by those who play on those fears and anxieties. 

Republicans in particular have been deeply affected by the base that originated within the Tea Party, but has since evolved into a populist alt-right/religious conservative base. This base now holds so much sway over the Republican Party that veteran politicians are performing hitherto unseen political gymnastics to avoid having to confront the reality of Donald Trump’s electoral defeat. The emperor has no clothes, but his subjects have neither the courage, nor the integrity, to tell him so. They are held hostage by the base.

Trump is the manipulator-in-chief of this base, and seasoned Republican politicians – who at first opposed and later played catchup with the Trump phenomenon – have quickly become adepts at “post-truth” politics, courting his base at every opportunity. They know that they are the very same establishment that this base sought to do away with, so they pander and ingratiate themselves shamelessly because they are convinced that this base will determine their political futures. So, when Trump yells foul about supposed electoral fraud, they all follow suit and feel compelled to throw their lot in. 

This kind of populist politics fundamentally erodes the key reason that democracy exists, ie, that state rule is by the people and of the people, based on rational public discourse. Rational discourse cannot be based on lies. 

Yet, even more worrying is that once these kinds of political bases are established – and become influential in respect of brokering power – they become practically near-impossible to undo. Loyal bases, whether impelled by fact or fiction, primarily express profound belief in their own virtue and sensibility. The key to understanding the loyalty to political bases that operate in parallel to more formal political establishments like political parties is relatively simple. It comes down to trust.

Trump is a bully, not a strongman. He is nothing like Putin, for example, who exerts near absolute control over government, state and society alike in Russia. Trump simply does not possess that kind of power, even though he might desire it. The democratic order that he has to contend with is real and his incalcitrant posturing and bullying is simply his way of testing how much he can get away with. Give him a slight gap, and he’ll move in. This is how he gets his way, not by exerting absolute control. Trump gives expression to the real fears, biases and prejudices that reside within US society and his base trusts him precisely because of his fearless political incorrectness, despite the instability that comes with it. In contrast, Putin’s followers trust him to provide a steady hand at the helm.

As the global political order has been shaken up by protectionist, anti-globalist, anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric within nation states (think, the US, UK, India, Brazil, Philippines, Hungary), a new phase of contestation for global dominance has ensued. With Russia and China as key players in this new terrain, it should be no surprise that propaganda wars have ensued on all sides. 

In democratic politics, the social reality that leaders co-construct with their base is based on trust. Thus, the key threat to democracy today is not ideological, in the sense that opposing or alternative ideologies threaten to replace democracy. Rather it is how the politics of the base can be exploited to undermine democratic processes and institutions and skew democratic outcomes. That is, the threat to democracy arises from within. 

Here, the creation of parallel realities plays a fundamental role. With trust in key establishment democratic institutions – government, media, business and academia – at an all-time low, it has become easier to sow alternative narratives and amplify them. Democratic institutions lose ground to forces that operate outside formal arrangements, but within their own societies nonetheless.

When a base coalesces and strengthens around these parallel, alternative narratives, politicians then become beholden to the base. Instead of providing leadership, they engage in a game of following the base and its prerogatives. And where such a base is led by a political leader like Trump a large-scale Pied Piper effect takes root, with everyone – the base and other political leaders – in tow.  This explains why political leaders who know better, continue to espouse dangerous, divisive narratives and follow the Pied Piper and his base, with no clear idea of what ends are in sight.

The politics of the base is not new. It has manifested throughout history, often with devastating effects for societies that host it. In current times there are myriad examples to draw on. In South Africa, what we have learnt from the Zuma era is that even when the Pied Piper no longer holds political power, the base – and the political leadership that consolidated around that leader – still retains momentum and cohesion. It does not magically go away or recede, as long as political power can still be garnered through it. 

South African politics is still suffering the after-effects of Zuma’s leadership, and his metastasised base continues to hamstring South African politics. The factions that consolidated in the Zuma era are at the heart of the political instability that plagues South African politics today.

In the US, with Trump refusing to concede and Republican politicians pandering to both his ego and his base, it is entirely foreseeable that US politics is set for a period of intense discord and disunity. As long as the base is maintained – and this base has grown from its Tea Party origins into a veritable force that has to be reckoned with by any Republican politician – it will play a key and influential role in the future of US conservatism. Only a disruption of some kind, a wholly new movement in the political discourse that upends the shared realities of today, stands a chance of breaking this deadlock.

The puppet masters

One has to wonder, who gains the most out of prominent democracies being deadlocked into divisive, polarised political realities that erode their very basis? That is, who benefits from eroding democracy’s critical dependence on a functioning polis and civics characterised by social cohesion and reasoned discourse? 

As the global political order has been shaken up by protectionist, anti-globalist, anti-immigration and nationalist rhetoric within nation states (think, the US, UK, India, Brazil, Philippines, Hungary), a new phase of contestation for global dominance has ensued. With Russia and China as key players in this new terrain, it should be no surprise that propaganda wars have ensued on all sides. 

Yet, in my view, China is the least likely to be flexing its muscle in this propaganda space on the international stage. China’s rise to global prominence is self-evident and based on substantive rises in savings, income, production and innovation. China has, through its efforts, become a veritable global force to reckon with, with material benefits to offer those it collaborates with. It does not have to pitch its battle for global dominance on this dubious propaganda terrain. So, Trump’s repeated attacks on China – characterised by invocations of all manner of racist “yellow peril” invective, even going so far as to call Covid-19 the “Kung Flu” – are likely to be a mere diversion tactic.

Russia, on the other hand, has not achieved the same level of economic success and stability as China. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has lost a lot of power and stands to gain a lot from the destabilisation of its democratic competitors on the global stage, such as the EU, UK and US. 

Ultimately, raising US society’s understanding of what is transpiring in their country necessitates sending clear signals that elevate society above the noise. It is the role of leaders to bring perspective to crisis, and to help society navigate its way out of it. The question is, what will it take for leaders in the US to recognise that? 

First, the failure of Western democracies enables Russia to validate its own political system, which masquerades as democratic, but is far from it. It is essentially a democratic dictatorship without any real options for power to change hands. Opposition is actively repressed in Russia. 

Second, it enables Russia to manipulate political bases within global competitor nations in order to gain currency and influence decision-making within these nations – ie, with the political elites that depend on these bases – so that the decisions that political elites make ultimately benefit Russia. 

Third, when global cooperation between democratic alliances is fractured, it enables Russia to conduct bilateral relations with nations and play them off against each other. 

Fourth, and related to the previous point, Russia’s access to global markets is increased through the breakdown of global alliances and agreements.

This is not to suggest that other global state and non-state actors aren’t actively engaged in these activities, it is merely to suggest that it is Russia that has the most to gain through the exertion of asymmetric disinformation warfare tactics – and, it might be said, already has a long history of conducting sophisticated disinformation campaigns in this vein. Indeed, some would argue that Russia essentially wrote the playbook. Yet Trump has avoided taking on Russia in the same way as he has China, even going so far as to ask for its support instead.  

One only has to spend an hour watching Russian state media to understand how invested it is in promoting conservative right-wing views, sentiments and disinformation. In the Cold War era, it would have been unthinkable that the US right would be in an unholy alliance with Russian state media, and unwittingly acting as a vehicle for the exertion of Russian influence within the US. It would have been regarded as complete anathema, an impossibility. It beggars belief because the very same right-wing groups that are out in the streets armed to the teeth think that they are fighting the prospect of “socialism” taking root in the US. But that is precisely the world we live in now, and the ground that has been gained by right-wing nationalists and Russian agitators is unlikely to be yielded voluntarily or anytime soon. 

What happens next?

If we ponder the question, “Where to from here?”, it should be evident that this situation cannot be reversed. It is a wave that has been building for a long time and has intensified since the 2008 global financial collapse. The world has been searching for a new way forward, and the Covid-19 crisis has exposed our national and global institutions and systems as ill-equipped to navigate the pressing challenges of the 21st century. How will we cope with the prospects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, climate change, the loss of life-supporting global ecosystems, resource scarcity, migration, rapid urbanisation, and significant socio-cultural and political change?

The first scenario is that things continue on their current path. This would suit Russia the most. As a relatively small player in the global scheme of things, Russia’s strategy – it would seem to me – is similar to that of how Israel maintains its foothold and influence in the Middle East. That is, through a sustained destabilisation of any sense of normalcy. The more confusion, conflict and disarray that prevails, the better off Russia is; it can continue to surf the waves of turbulence, exploiting opportunities to advance its own prerogatives where they emerge. It’s akin to “shaking things up to see what comes out of it”and depending on one’s own ability and agility to seize upon the situations that emerge. It’s not a strategy that is good for anybody else, but it is a strategy that advances Russia’s interests on the global stage. Simply put, if there is instability, then Russia has far more chess moves to play on the board. 

In this scenario, democracy remains hijacked and plagued by the politics of the base, and the world becomes increasingly helpless in the face of new crises. Strong global alliances and international cooperation are crucial to facing down the grand threats of the 21st century. Under these conditions it is entirely foreseeable that democracies increasingly become hijacked by populists who purport to have simplistic solutions at the ready.

The second scenario is that the US is headed towards a moment of disruptive, transformative change. As professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, Dan Ariely, relayed in a recent CNN interview, the point the US has arrived at is irreversible:

“The problem is we don’t get back to the truth. Once you have a political system where people are not honest, it’s very hard to change the values base. So, in my view, Republicans voted for other values. It’s not that they have no ethics, they voted for things that they cared about, at the sacrifice of the truth, but now we’re stuck with the truth being very low as a value in the political system. And it’s very hard to recover from that.”

In Ariely’s view, what is needed is a disruption, one that provides a catharsis to this moment, and the history that has brought it about. Even if imperfect, he argues that a process similar to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that South Africa underwent in its transition from apartheid to a democratic dispensation may be required. 

Yet, it must be understood that this great “reckoning with past and future” in South Africa emerged from a willingness to compromise that was brokered through a long period of socioeconomic strife and decline that resulted in deadlock, economic stagnation and societal unrest. It’s difficult to tell whether the US has arrived at that point of catharsis or still has a way to go, however, and the situation is further complicated by foreign and domestic actors who are actively engaged in further polarising it through disinformation campaigns that show little sign of let-up. 

Leadership has a key role to play in navigating this transition. And this leadership responsibility cannot simply be Joe Biden’s to bear alone. It will take leaders on both sides of the aisle to acknowledge the severity of the situation and muster up the courage to reach across. Demonstrable, meaningful acts of reconciliation will be necessary, not the cynical, distrustful politicking that currently prevails in the US. South Africa was fortunate to have a leader like Nelson Mandela at the helm navigating society from crisis to transition, as well as the cooperation of all political parties who were previously at loggerheads with each other. This is clearly not the case in the US right now. 

Ultimately, raising US society’s understanding of what is transpiring in their country necessitates sending clear signals that elevate society above the noise. It is the role of leaders to bring perspective to crisis, and to help society navigate its way out of it. The question is, what will it take for leaders in the US to recognise that? 

Should the US fail to navigate its way out of this crisis, it may well be that the leaders who have brought about this crisis will find themselves subject to a societal backlash that ultimately closes the chapter on them. DM

Professor Camaren Peter is an Associate Professor at UCT’s Graduate School of Business and is Director and Executive Head of the Centre for Analytics and Behavioural Change. Opinions expressed here are his own.

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  • Insightful, thank you Camaren, and based on your deep understanding of complexity! Thought you might have given a bit of thought also to the role of social media in this formation of a strong base, along the lines of the neuro-science phrase ‘what fires together wires together’? In that line, I did think that the emergence of social media self-regulation (in the form of labels on contentious posts) may well have been shaping system dynamics in the past few months, into a slightly new direction and possibly even impacting the outcome?

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