There is no good way to address populist fearmongering. The good news is that you shouldn’t do it anyway.
Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.
There has been a lot of discussion proving that learned helplessness is a more potent but less understood aspect of authoritarian thinking than fear is. It has very practical consequences when it comes to trying to address it.
The first lesson is that the solution to authoritarian thinking is empowerment, not a fear-less world. You can’t soothe all fears and make all threats (real or imagined) go away so that the scared little authoritarians would stop being afraid – and get on with their lives. Not least because they (and you) don’t know what they are supposed to get on with.
If you want to do something about the so-called populist uprising today, you should stay away from the topics the populists are peddling because 1) you simply cannot win and also 2) because you can’t convince a frightened mind that there is nothing to be afraid of.
I will call their topics The Dragon.
By the year 2019, both political identity camps have found their own Dragons
The world is losing its little mind.
It has economic causes, but no politician wants you to think about that. The cause is the ever-growing sense of helplessness of individuals regarding their own lives. Helplessness comes in many shapes, it attacks from many directions. (Economic, regulatory, legal, political and social.)
Sure, there is also fear. There is chronic anxiety about the future, the economy, their security. But fear wouldn’t soften minds if it weren’t for feeling helpless against the perceived threats.
And yet, politicians want you focus on the fearsome things – not the possible solutions. In fact, they are competing to come up with ever bigger monsters to fear and blame.
Both political camps have been furiously pivoting to find their own perfect monster-distraction. The thing that keeps them in power, and something that is more in their control than the economy. Never mind the damage they do and the opportunities we miss by digging trenches along the wrong lines and turning threats into quasi-religious identity systems. Just scare the public and get into power!
Unscrupulous, power-grabbing politicians need something that makes people vote for them, give them more power, rely on them, depend on them, make their dismissal unthinkable. And in the absence of an economic solution (not that a perfect economy would keep voters happy forever) they have turned to something a politician can actually control: fear.
Enter The Dragon,
the perfect threat/enemy/scapegoat/them
The perfect fear-tool, the perfect enemy/scapegoat/threat/them has to possess a few necessary characteristics:
- It must command fear (obvs)
- It must serve as a distraction (from the things that should bother you)
- It must serve as a scapegoat (It stinks in here? It is because the dragon has bad breath!)
- It must be invisible. Non-visible, non-tangible threats have a solid track record of making even the bravest minds buckle, the ones who would just punch or fight a tangible threat. An invisible threat creates the sense of helplessness that is the trigger to submission (political or otherwise), a basic human survival tool.
I will call this threat The Dragon. The Dragon that checks all the above boxes.
- The Dragon commands fear
- The Dragon distracts. Talking about a big, scary dragon is irresistible. Who has any time left to also discuss corruption, the economy, insane tax rules and regulations strangling the economy, politicians tweaking the rule of law? THERE’S A DRAGON OUT THERE!!! Is it black? Is it scaly? Does it smell? How does it look like when it spits fire? Is it true that its fart is lethal?
- If it stinks in here, it is because The Dragon has bad breath. If we are bankrupt, it’s because we spent the money on dragon-defense. The sea is getting warm? It’s because The Dragon is boiling it with its stinking breath.
- Who has time to count pennies when a Dragon is attacking the wall? Can you hear that banging on the wall? That’s not my hand banging, that’s The Dragon and I heard it said he wants to eat babies!
- What do you mean you want to see that dragon for yourself? You should thank me for keeping it away so far!
- +1: The Dragon has allies among us! Fools who want us all to perish in dragon-fire! If you see something, say something! Don’t trust anyone, only your politicians for some reason…
The Dragon may be real, partially true, or completely non-existent. The best dragons have a seed in reality – but then they are quickly twisted out of proportion and into a completely irrelevant narrative that does many things, but doesn’t serve the problem. Not even the problem it claims we have – let alone the real one.
Once you are made to ask the wrong questions and acknowledge that seed truth The Dragon is based on, you are intellectually disarmed. You cannot shout complex questions and redefine problems while a politician (with a budget) is shouting imminent threat of death to babies and puppies.
The War on Dragon can never be won
The gravest problem with the War on Dragon is, however, not its falseness, nor its misdefinition of the problem, or the distraction from reality, or the populist power grab. It is that it cannot be won – by definition.
Is the War on Dragon even winnable? What would be your criteria for winning?
If you can’t answer that question, or you have a list of people (corporations, ethnicities, religions, etc) to be eliminated to feel safe again, you have a dragon problem at hand. That means that you don’t have a defined problem, but a poorly defined one to whip you into a frenzy and to point out enemies to hate – but you are ultimately just distracted by a calculating shithead of a politician.
Those who are afraid of The Dragon cannot imagine their leaders ever declaring that the War on Dragon is ever won. The wars of migration and climate will be never-ending, just like the wars on terrorism, poverty and drugs have been. They all have been lost, they all cost more lives and caused more misery than the things they supposedly attacked, but they still haven’t ended.
Things NOT to do when the hysterical masses demand the War on Dragon
- Don’t give a charity concert in support of the dragon.
Nor one dedicated to the dragon war.
Going against the dragon-hysteria and trying to tackle it head-on only makes it bigger. You will become proof that The Dragon is real and it hypnotized people like you to take its side.
Siding with the hysteria doesn’t work either. Scared and helpless people won’t suddenly sober up and start listening to you, just because you share their fear of the dragon.
Besides, either way, you are TALKING ABOUT THE DRAGON.
- Don’t commission studies about the positive effect of The Dragon on the GDP
Using aggregate statistics is intellectually dishonest at the best of times. The GDP doesn’t say anything about individual quality of life, freedom or even how good it is to be alive in that place at that time.
And even though people don’t usually grasp the fundamental distinction between their own wellbeing vs the growth of the GDP, they will suddenly grow a surprisingly laser-sharp understanding of individualism and dismiss your economic arguments on the basis of it.
“What good is the GDP for me if the dragon rapes me?”
Then they quickly lapse back into mental collectivism and accept and GDP-based arguments from others. It wasn’t because they suddenly became individualists, but because they refused to accept that dragons can be a force of good.
- No counter-arguments. Period.
Firstly, you are STILL TALKING ABOUT THE DRAGON, even when you try to argue against dragon-hysteria.
Secondly, critical thinking is not dead. It is just not applied to things that people want to believe.
If you ever try to bring evidence to discredit the dragon-threat hypothesis, people will uncharacteristically start seeing methodical problems with your research, they will question its funding, they will find the sample size too small, the correlation too weak, the statistical methods shaky, and your hypothesis biased. Even people who never conducted a single research will become eager students of the scientific method to prove that your evidence is lacking.
- Apply statistical/anecdotal evidence of dragons that integrated well into society. Some of them are doctors!!!
It is thoroughly uncharacteristic for the authoritarian mind to dwell too much in his own point of view. Not only is it painful to occupy a helpless point of view – it is highly discouraged politically. But in this case, the dragon-fretter will make an exception and see very clearly that aggregate statistics tell nothing about his own, individual situation. Neither does anecdotal evidence and personal stories of dragon assimilation.
The sudden clarity doesn’t stem from any particular illumination – it merely serves the purpose of the authoritarian mind: to stay on the side of the strongman.
If they don’t want it to be true, evidence won’t work – yet you spend your energy on STILL TALKING ABOUT THE DRAGON.
- Don’t run information campaigns that baby dragons spit cotton candy, that dragons are really nice, all of them, or appeal to empathy with a “Dragons are people, too” campaign
Besides, YOU ARE STILL TALKING ABOUT THE DRAGON.
- Don’t waste your life arguing that The Dragon doesn’t even exist.
STILL TALKING ABOUT THE BLOODY DRAGON…
- Don’t take the bait and become the counter-demagogue, promising that you will save them from The Dragon, not the other populist.
This is already too late. As I said above, both sides have found their own dragons and dug up the trenches.
- Don’t attack their populist strongman.
This is the hardest. But as long as the victim is still mortally afraid of The Dragon, taking away his White Knight and Protector will just send him into intellectual tailspin and emotional meltdown. Not that you can easily take away his strongman.
I know strongmen deserve all the criticism. But trying to yell at someone “Don’t you see? He is only making up threats to make you support him?” has never worked in the history of politics.
If you somehow still manage to convince a hysterically frightened authoritarian mind that his strongman is not a solution, that he is corrupt, incompetent, and only wants power, all the little authoritarian is left with is The Dragon and no strongman to protect him from it.
More power to The Savior!
But in practice it is unlikely that an authoritarian mind would allow you to take away his trust in The Protector while still under the spell of Dragon-scaremongering. It is more likely that he doubles down on supporting the strongman, he will throw more power at him, gives up more liberties, demands the elimination of privacy, the transparency of bank accounts just to find out who finances dragonism, and unlimited strip-search powers to police at every corner, including anal cavity search to find the dragonists among us.
The authoritarian mind would demand to throw more tax money on politicians and insist that this time it wouldn’t be stolen but dragon-fighting alternative energy infrastructure would be built. Totally. And an authoritarian mind would support complete and absolute central planning above all. Nothing to be left to pesky humans to decide because of the Higher Purpose and the War on Dragon.
The building rocks of disempowerment have been laid down on both sides and the battle of the 21st century will be between populist power grabs on both sides and increasing authoritarianism.
But, but… There is truth in The Dragon!
Even if there’s truth in both dragons, the way they are presented is not designed to facilitate a solution. Not least because the solution isn’t defined either.
Populists can build castles and cathedrals on people’s lust to revenge and punish – but a single, temporary little tent couldn’t be built for seeking solutions.
I know, I can hear you telling me that finding who is to blame is important… But is there a second procedure after the blame-finding that is meant to find solutions? Is there a procedure to analyze the problem, face reality, determine what is the best we can achieve from her, and how to get there? How boring is that? It certainly doesn’t inspire fanatical following – and fanatical following somehow became the certificate a politician needs these days to qualify to rule. (Majoritarianism was a faulty idea from the beginning, it was bound to come back to haunt us. These emerging assholes of politicians are just the logical conclusions of a system built on a bug in its very core.)
We don’t have a desire to seek and implement solutions. As a consequence, we don’t have solution-seeking procedures. After a murder, who does the blame-finding and the punishment? Everyone knows. And who does the solution? What is a solution anyway? Taking in the new reality, deciding what is the best that can be achieved – rather than yelling that the murder was unjust and the perpetrator must be punished. Who takes the new reality, decides what can be done – and does it? The little ants of lesser-funded bureaucracies and the victims themselves – at best. But as a society, we simply don’t care.
So no, solutions are never the motivation – only revenge and punishment. And when even the problem-definitions are bad (The Dragon), there can be no solution. (What about the dragon is the problem? What would you like to happen? What is feasible in the actual reality?) For the problem to stop existing is not an option – and it is childish to even wish that. Stomping angrily for a scapegoat to be punished is even worse than childish. Can you even tell what the solution would be. If not, how would you tell it was reached?
In the end, the dragon-mongers only want more power to themselves and less rights to the peasants. Both sides have proven to rather be kings of the ashes than commoners in a peaceful, prosperous world. And that is why addressing their dragon-mongering will never solve the hysteria they created (let alone the dragon-problem). Time to stop talking about the dragon and do something else instead.
To be continued….
Please note that if you only see authoritarianism on the other side, or if you think that only others can make these authoritarian thinking mistakes – you are probably affected yourself.