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  HOME | Opinion (Click here for more)

Michael Rowan: How to Deal with Populism Before It Kills Us
To understand how Venezuela’s democracy and economy were destroyed, and how a dozen nations may follow suit, including the USA, political guru Michael Rowan has prepared the following primer on populism.

By Michael Rowan

To understand how Venezuela’s democracy and economy were destroyed, and how a dozen nations may follow suit -- including the USA -- the following primer on populism has been prepared.


Fear and resentment of elites and their complex systems of democracy and economy are pounding against the shores of civilization in a global tsunami wave. The wave is furious about the worsening of economic inequality and filled with personal fear of being made redundant, useless and disrespected. The desire for simple solutions to systemic, complex problems has short-circuited politics and economics especially in the democracies, where voters are nominally equal but economically inequal.


Elites control systems that rule democracy, government and the knowledge economy, none of which are prepared for an asymmetric attack rejecting systems and rules outright. Populists believe complex systems are rigged to perpetuate the elites with power and money and therefore must be intervened. They have seized an opportunity through electronic media, which love stories of violence and conflict. Consequently, the anti-elite strong-man has appeared to surf the wave of populist resentment and tweet the base daily instructions on how to get revenge.


Electronic media – radio and TV augmented exponentially by the computer and internet – have totally reorganized how societies exchange information especially about feelings, as people seek instant gratification embracing simple solutions to complex problems, driving the elites batty. Tweets not books rule the day. The brain shift is from print that must be learned to dramatic images and sounds that are instantly consumed and felt. Electronic communications do not have to be learned – they are just sight and sound that an infant understands; and electronic media are biased toward feeling over thinking, fiction over fact, entertainment over information, magic over science, tribalism over multiculturalism, us over them, and disruption over order. Governments have not been nimble in understanding electronic media or brain processing. The global wave of populism attracts surfers who use it to take power.


The first step of the populist in power is to defenestrate the elite system of democracy and its constitutional checks and balances of power, including law, facts, science, norms and precedent, in favor of the whims of a tribal strongman, a fast-talking TV con man, a disruptive narcissist, or all three at once: that is, someone who can do no wrong by never being right and who enjoys being treated like a cult god. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” is not a populist idea; using power to destroy enemies is the idea.


The next step of the populist is to monopolize, confiscate or prosecute independent actors in the economy such as alliances, contracts, treaties, and especially strangers and enemies. Loyalty tests, paranoia, impulsiveness, projection, the blame game and self-piteous victimization are the populist’s signature traits during the economic catastrophe that follows, as systems erode. What re-emerges then is monopoly, secrecy, corruption, the recipe for kleptocracy, which is a lot of fun for the populist ruler and his cronies. System failure is regarded by populists as a major step to perfection much as some religious zealots regard the battle of good and evil at Armageddon. What the system rationalist sees as suicidal loss, the populist sees as an optimistic win.


Populism has infected that half of the global population which has democracy but plans to contaminate everyone impacted by inter-dependence, trade, law, institutions globalism and complex systems. Ironically, populism is an anti-democratic impulse that is tolerated in democracy even as it erodes both democracy and prosperity. This is one of the great strengths and weaknesses of democracy. If the next Great Depression happens with populists ruling many countries, humans could become an endangered species on planet Earth.


Venezuela is proof. Venezuela is the world’s canary in the coal mine since it jumped off the cliff of populism in 1999. The populist Hugo Chavez was elected in 1998. By 2004 the electoral, legislative and judicial systems were shot. By 2012 the economy was collapsing. Chavez died of cancer in 2013 (he believed the CIA gave him cancer). But as Venezuela slipped into chaos, poverty, starvation, homicides, suicides and refugees, the populist kleptocracy remained in power, enjoying the fruits of $300 billion that went missing from oil accounts since 2000. That’s a lot of money in a small country. Even in horrible socio-economic circumstances, the Chavez candidate won a presidential election by 66% in 2018. Venezuelans are complicit in their own genocide. They are like deer frozen in the headlights of an oncoming bullet train, passively waiting for the impact. No internal or external solution appears possible for Venezuela; it’s lost. When a democracy goes populist, it eliminates the systems it needs to recover. This is unprecedented in history and augers badly for all democracies infected by populism today.


The US is in its third year of populism. Democracy, law, facts, and governance have been weakened, distracted and disheveled – but not yet destroyed. The US economy is growing by a little, but confidence is gone and market behavior is wobbly and uncertain, as America creeps through unknown foliage filled with leeches. The U.K. is in its third year of populism – Brexit – and no solution is in sight. Poland, Hungary, Italy and Turkey are in thrall to populism, and every European country is struggling against populist uprisings against immigrants. Putin is just delighted at the self-inflicted harm western civilization has thrust upon itself; he couldn’t be happier. If a Great Depression visits the world in this mental state, the destruction will be inestimable.


Civilization, democracy, peace and prosperity don’t have to surrender to populist chaos. There are ways to unravel populism but one needs to know the enemy before challenging it. Populism looks simple but it’s actually asymmetric. It is not attacking from the outside but from the inside. Its solution is in the heads of the populist base. It is revolting against established systems. This is both a policy and communications crisis for civilization. Inequality has a policy solution. Investment strategy is far more important than taxation strategy if wealth creation in the bottom half of the economic pyramid is to prosper. And there’s proof: Look at Alaska’s poverty and inequality from 1970 to the present – the solution has been right in front of us for half a century. The communications solution to countering inequality is extremely urgent: Don’t react to populism, but act in its basic human interest. Don’t engage the populist in his endless distraction games, at the risk of losing the optimistic message that the base needs to hear. Populists need to realize that there’s a better solution to life than giving up.


If civil society believes that today’s systems have answers that only elitists can understand, we are not going to stem the tide of populism. The cardinal rule of democratic communications is corollary: Never underestimate the intelligence of voters and never overestimate the information available to them. Populists are in internet bubbles and TV echo-chambers for the same reasons cults or terrorist camps are: to control the response of a captured audience. Institutions need to break through those bubbles not by pushing against them (“Deplorables” – Hillary called them) but by pulling them toward useful ideas, by showing them how their lives can improve, by really caring and having respect for the humanity of the populist as we would for any human being who is troubled, or struggling, or too proud to ask for help. They’re hurt, insulted, left behind, disappointed, and angry. Don’t leave them alone with the cult leader. Reach out to help them – and the need for a Chavez or Trump will dissipate.

Michael Rowan is an author and political consultant who has advised presidential candidates throughout Latin America, including Governor Manuel Rosales in Venezuela, President Jaime Paz Zamora of Bolivia and President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica. In the U.S., he has advised winning candidates in 26 states. He has been an award winning columnist for El Universal, The Daily Journal -- predecessor to LAHT -- and the Latin American Herald Tribune since the 1990s. He is the author, with Douglas Schoen, of The Threat Closer to Home - Hugo Chavez and the War Against America.


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