Trevor Munroe | Developing a vaccine against the populist virus and its insurrectionary variant
Alongside the COVID-19 virus, which has infected over 23 million in the United States and, regrettably, killed almost 400,000, there is another virus that is now infecting at least twice as many than COVID-19 in America. That virus is properly termed populism, defined as resentment among ordinary people that democratic institutions (legislature, executive, judiciary, the media, big business, academia, etc) and their leaders only serve the elite few and disregard the masses of the people.
The populist virus is no more American than COVID-19 was Chinese. Obviously, the virus infects and is spread by populist leaders like Donald Trump. But we should remember that the three most populous democracies in the world of 2020-2021, other than the United States, are led by populists, namely, Narendra Modi of India, Joko Wikodi of Indonesia, and Jair Bolsonare of Brazil. Regrettably, to one extent or another, leaders in other democratic states demonstrate tendencies in the populist direction.
The most dangerous, and often fatal, variant of the virus is “insurrectionary activity against democratic institutions and constitutional rule” such as played out before the very eyes of 100s of millions of people in Washington on January 6. Similar activity is being planned in the 50 mainland states in America. In the United States, this virus and its insurrectionary variant is obviously reflected in and fuelled by white supremacists angry at the “browning” of America and supported by white racists distressed by the apparent erosion of white privilege. However, not only white racists are vulnerable to this virus in the United States – or elsewhere. Clearly, this is not the driving force in India, Indonesia, and Brazil. Nor does this virus infect only uneducated or white malcontents.
President Trump, for example, in the 2020 elections, increased his voter support over 2016 among black males and other minority groups. Indeed, the January 6 insurrection against the United States constitution, the Congress, and the election rulings of the Supreme Court, as well as other authorities was and is supported by a most diverse group. Among them, war veterans who have given patriotic service to the United States such as Ashli Babbit, who served for 14 years in the US Air Force and who her husband described as “very opinionated but caring, sweet, thoughtful”. She was shot and killed by a police officer while breaking into the Senate offices. As well, the insurrection was fomented and supported by blacks like the social media personality Alli Alexander. Most interestingly, it was provided with leadership by outstanding Princeton and Harvard graduates like Ted Cruz. Senator Cruz, along with seven other Republican senators and 139 Republican Congressional representatives, voted on the night of January 6 to overturn the election results even after having to flee for their lives and being escorted back to the chamber by heavily armed security personnel following the attack on the Congress by the insurrectionary mob.
DEMOCRACY IN CRISIS
The truth is that democracy is in crisis, not only in the United States, but in counties around the world. A 2020 Cambridge University study found the highest level of democratic dissatisfaction and the lowest expression of satisfaction with democracy since 1995 in countries worldwide. The average satisfaction level was 42.5 per cent. In the Western Hemisphere, Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) of 2017 found similarly low levels of satisfaction with democracy. Among 18 countries, Jamaica was among the lowest, at 32.2 per cent. Only the people of Colombia, Panama, and Peru recorded lower levels of satisfaction.
The crisis reflects itself in declining percentages of electorates who turn out to vote in all regions of the world. Jamaica’s turnout of 37.8 per cent in 2020 was the lowest in the region with the exception of Haiti. Low electoral support in elections for governments and oppositions is one manifestation of distrust in a wide range of democratic institutions (political parties, police, elections). Most worrisome, the other side of that coin, is growing numbers who have the “crazy idea” that only military authoritarian and undemocratic solutions can deal with crime and corruption. This sentiment, according to the 2017 LAPOP study, is now held by a majority of the Jamaican people.
Why is there this growing dissatisfaction and turn to authoritarianism among people across the world? The highly respected Edelman Trust Barometer of 2020, examining the major market economies, including the United States, puts it, and I agree, this way: “Distrust is being driven by a growing sense of inequity and unfairness in the system. The perception is that institutions increasingly serve the interest of the few over everyone. Government, more than any institution, is seen as least fair, 57 per cent of the general population say government serves the interests of only the few ... .”
This is an increase over the Global Corruption Barometer findings. At that time, surveys of 114,000 people in 107 countries in 2014 found that 54 per cent believed that government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Only in the Scandinavian countries did a majority feel otherwise. This perception is borne out by the reality revealed in the 2020 Commitment to Reduce Inequality study of taxation policy, social protection, and labour rights in over 150 countries. This study disclosed that these policies fuelled inequity revealed dramatically in the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
PROTOCOLS TO MITIGATE CONDITIONS
As with the pandemic, there are protocols that can mitigate the conditions that give rise to the populist virus.
First, regular sanitisation. This requires systemic review and reform of the rules and behaviour of all democratic institutions to discern and rectify outcomes that produce inequity and unfairness. This regular cleansing must apply to governmental bodies and (Parliament, Cabinet, judiciary) and functionaries as well as to economic and social policy, the application of codes of conduct, media coverage, and unethical business behaviour.
Second, public-awareness building and assertiveness must be strengthened to detect, expose, and resist words and deeds, particularly of political leaders, hostile to constitutional democratic principles of transparency and accountability.
Third, “donation distancing”. Big contributors who fund political parties and leaders must be especially alert to the early signs of authoritarianism even as they might well be short-run beneficiaries of corruption and cronyism from politicians and high public officials. In the long run, a major contributor to the populist virus and its insurrectionary variant in the US was continued support before the 11th-hour withdrawal of financial support from “Trumpists” by big manufacturers and financial institutions such as Goldman Sachs, Citi Group, Morgan Stanley, JP Morgan Chase & Co.
Fourth, those on the front line of resistance to authoritarianism are the judges, independent institutions such as parliamentary commissions (Integrity Commission, Electoral Commission, public defenders, Auditor General’s Department, etc), permanent secretaries, law-enforcement officials, media owners and managers. They have to be constantly nourished on an integrity diet composed primarily of regular training and sensitisation in the components of ethical conduct. Front-line officials resisting wrong and “doing the right thing” are among the first line of defence against the populist virus.
- Professor Trevor Munroe CD, DPhil (Oxford), is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to info.niajamaica.org or email@example.com.