Modern democracy's Achilles heel: Ultra-nationalism in the form of mobocracy

The discourse of “othering” has been gaining traction in national and global politics.

The re-insurrection of ultra-nationalism in the form of mobocracy, the rule of the masses, and votocracy, where social media is omnipotent, presents a triple Achilles’ heel to democracy as anti-democratic elements tap into it to advance positions incompatible with democracy.

The recent triumphs of Brexit and US President-elect Donald Trump marks the increasing re-insurrection of ultra-nationalism within the Western world and at the same time poses challenges to the advancement of democracy.

In Africa, ultra-nationalism has seen leaders like President Mugabe and Julius Malema gaining a significant following and prominence within their countries and the continent. Of late, the vote or elections as an integral instrument of democracy has been producing results not tenable with the principles of democracy. This has created a political chimaera as elements espousing anti-democratic elements rise on the wave of “the people have spoken” (mobocracy), yet their agenda is to advance nativist politics incompatible with democratic societies.

Whilst, Brexit, Trump, Mugabe and Malema may be in different geographic locations and political systems, one discernible common trait amongst them is that their rise has been built on autochthonous and primitive nationalistic politics that sees the “Other” as the problem. Mugabe and Malema have tapped into aspects of indigeneity and nationalism informed by inflammatory racial politics that sees Whites as enemies rather than potential partners.

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On the other hand, Brexit and Trump built their victories on the bedrock of nostalgia for restoring the past economic glory days of America and Britain. These were fed by slavery, warmongering and unilateralism that perpetually saw Blacks and people of colour as expendables, if not half-human. Interestingly Mugabe, Trump, Malema and Brexit are outcomes of democratic processes, where they have been voted for within their parties and countries ‘warts and all’.

This poses challenges to democracy in the 21st century as anti-democratic elements are beginning to tap into democracy to advance a politics that is at a tangent to democracy. The question that begs is: How do we create and reconceptualise democracy beyond votocracy or mobocracy?

The discourse of “othering” has been gaining traction in national and global politics. Outsiders or aliens (foreigners) have always been seen as a major problem responsible for the socio-economic misfortunes of perceived natives or indigenes. Agent provocateurs have tapped into this discourse and inflamed hatred as they pursued power for the sake of it. The politics have more been informed by realpolitik and jingoism, thus reinforcing the old cliché that politics is a dirty game.

It is argued that the end justifies the means, even under circumstances where many souls and lives are endangered. Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany based on anti-Semitism. Hitler’s simple answer to the Germans was ‘kill the Jews’ and our economic problems will go away’. The result was the killing of more than 6 million people. In South Africa, Julius Malema has re-thrust the song Dubula Ibhunu’ (Kill the Boer) flaunting his freedom of speech and liberation heritage or history rights, as a panacea to solving the historical marginalisation of Blacks.

READ MORE: Is excellence in African leadership an alien concept?

In 1994 Rwanda, the Hutus saw the Tutsi’s as the cause of their economic difficulties and they decreed ”Kill the Inyezis” (cockroaches). The results were the killing of over 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the Rwandan genocide. King Goodwill Zwelithini’s remarks of ‘putting the lice in the sun at a regeneration meeting in Pongola, KwaZulu-Natal when he blamed foreigners for the economic problems facing South Africans, resulted in a massive wave of xenophobia that displaced and affected many African immigrants irrespective of status.

Interestingly, the South African Human Rights Commission felt the King was not responsible for inflaming xenophobia but that he was well within the confines of exercising his rights of free speech. Similarly, when Robert Mugabe instituted the Fast Track Land Reform programme, violating the human rights of both Blacks and Whites, some argued that those complaining were the polluted urban based class and intelligentsia who were pursuing civil and economic liberties at the expense of socio-economic rights.

A clear thread runs through all the cited examples, as the primary goal was to advance a political environment incompatible with the democracy based on the tyranny of the majority (mobocracy). Hitler, the Hutu government, Trump, Brexit, Mugabe and Malema have been the outcome of elections or the vote. Donald Trump has risen to power by inciting anxiety and fears in white Americans towards Mexicans and Muslims. Trump even, though he may not have been well meaning, tactfully drew the race and xenophobia political card fully knowing well that the Democrats would dare not delve into that territory because of their politics, yet his rants resonated with the sentiments of a significant segment of white America. Interestingly Trump is not a native of America but is of German descent and a third generation American.

Michael Mann’s book, The Dark Side of Democracy, outlines how people like Trump benefitted from the near extinction of Native Americans. Similarly, Britain’s so-called glory days were not built based on economic ingenuity but on colonial expansion and exploitation of the Third World. It is this nostalgia for colonial and slave economics that some Brexiters and supporters of Trump think this sort of economy should return. Foreigners or aliens become a convenient problem yet the problems are much deeper and more complex than assumed.

The rise of the far-right movements in Europe such as the French National Front and the Dutch Freedom Party, and the alliances they are striking with political demagogues, poses challenges for democracy. Montserrat Guibarneau warns against merely dismissing these groups as fanatics for they have managed, “to combine strong anti-establishment rhetoric with potent demands for democratic reform and identity politics. The radical right is managing to overcome the traditional split between left and right, with potentially serious consequences for the future of our body politic”.

This is the quandary that democratic theorists and activists throughout the world need to begin to ponder- how to reclaim and remove the dirty out of the politics and yet at the same time manage to deal with the issues of inequality. The current frameworks have proved inadequate to the task to deal with questions of inequality and marginalisation which are now being seized by anti-democratic elements to further their self-seeking causes in the name of democracy.

While Donald Trump spoke about his desire to see the hardworking ‘authentic American’ prosper, which will help start “making America great again”, Mugabe told former British Prime Minister Tony Blair to “keep his England and he would keep his Zimbabwe”. King Zwelithini spoke about putting “lice in the sun” and Malema sang Dubula Ibhunu. It is a sign of the rising turbulence and a call to action. There is a need to envision a new economic world order and a democracy based on the principles of social justice and equality.

It is a call for democratic theorists and activists to reconceptualise democracy from domination, but at the same time broaden it to what Moore says would be more social groups winning more power. Such an approach may help in empowering society and hedge itself against authoritarian tendencies.

This opinion piece first appeared on Democracy Works. To read the original article, click here.

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