If you live in a stable country with strong institutions, without the threat of war, with peaceful transition of power after each elections, you may be tempted to think civil wars, political violence and wild populism are something, that cannot happen to you. You are wrong, if you do.
I listened to an old speech by Turkish writter Elif Shafak in which she described the rise of populist politics, embodied in the current president Erdogan and his AKP party. Populism is nothing new neither in Europe, nor in Turkey and the ascent of US president Trump is something, that can be seen with bewilderment only by Americans. It was bound to happen sooner or latter. As Slovenian star philosopher Slavoj Žižek puts it, Americans should ask themselves, how on earth did Trump gain so much support, if the rulling order is so good? It isn’t, that’s the point and because there are many deep fractures in the American society, political outsiders can come to power.
The same applies for the rise of populist right wing parties in Europe.
If the rise of nationalism and civil war could come to Yugoslavia, the same can happen to Spain, if an autocratic leader could take power in Turkey, the same could happen in United Kingdom. People in France or the Netherlands are not better or that much different from people in Ukraine or Honduras. Danger lurks everywhere and the price of freedom is vigilance. Democracy can be subverted from the inside, old ideologies can rise again and before you know it, black clad men are marching through the streets, beating into submission anyone, who would oppose them. It doesn’t matter, if they are fascists, communists or from some other violent ideology, bent on domination.
Sometimes negative influences can come from the outside. Some Americans are obsessed with Russian medling into their political process, while blind for all the interference their country is guilty accross the world. Steve Bannon, the former advisor to Trump, was busy supporting fellow right wing forces in Europe before the elections for European parliament, certainly acting without US government support, on his own, which shows us, you don’t even need government sponsored interference for such activity.
Even if the political, economic, media and other elites in your country lack the answers to dire problems facing you, supporting extremist alternatives comes with a huge risk. Extremists usualy offer a break with the old, which in the end can mean not only minor changes to the way countries are run, but an assault on democracy and freedom of cizizens, all in the name of fighting ones political opponents. Before you know it, ‘fascists’ or ‘cultural marxists’ are beeing put into jail and opposition destroyed and at the same time the media is proclaimed as the enemy of the people and broken down into a more submissive state.
I know it can be hard, to abstain from at least a protest vote, when you see the direction of the country you live in is wrong and there doesn’t seem voting for any of the old parties will change anything. But I would caution against it. I would caution against support for politicians, that offer simple solutions to complex problems and who speak a lot about internal and foreign enemies, who are out to get you, imperil your safety and take away your job. You know them, those who live on fear, who use that fear, turn it into hatred and create armies of loyal followers. Politicians, who know very well, where the deep cracks in society are, be it religious, class, race, and the use one group against the other.
That is something that happened in Yugoslavia, which fell apart in a bloody civil war. The demons of nationalism came with the faltering economy and with lack of strong central leadership. All that, after decades of preaching brotherhood and unity among different nations that made up that country. I know, it was a communist state, but a state, that nevertheless tried to keep nationalism under the lid. At some point it didn’t work anymore. The same danger is very real in democracies as well, even if they are equipped with free press and have free elections.
Anyone can learn a whole deal from experience of others and I would advise the study of civil unrest, political violence, rise of extremists and even civil wars in far away lands. Ignorance and arrogance are often the greates foes. If it can happen there, it can happen to your country as well, so don’t close your eyes and learn.
In the end, the greatest responsibility always lies in the hands of rulling political elites. Leave your ivory towers, stop looking down on the problems of people and make the necessary changes, even if they sometimes go against your interests. The alternative can be terrible.