Democratic rallies for change to the political consensus often beget a political vacuum, which emerges in the transition from the consensus to something new and different, which addresses one’s concerns and interests. Such vacuums are generally a buffet for ambitious political operators who pick up on changes in the wind and use them to acquire a political foothold for themselves and their interests. In such moments, democratic rallies can turn into reactionary political movements.
Reactionary political movements are characterized by their lack a unifying vision: they are only against something, rather than for something. Even those among them who are for something lack this vision; they entertain an overbearing shame with respect to what they believe in, which renders them reactive and resentful towards their opponent. They divide people. They do not bring them into a common, coherent whole. Many are insidious in their divisions: their utilise to the extreme concepts that divide along irreconcilable lines, i.e., race, ethnicity, biological makeup, birth and so on. They conflate matters of chance with matters of choice — they demonise the objective. The best, most effective among them are masters of the art of psychological projection: they accuse their opponents of dividing people to conceal their own divisiveness.
In a democracy, such movements do not grow in a vacuum. There are plenty of means to deter them by incorporating the fundamental concerns people have into representative bodies.* The ballot, freedom of the press, the independent judiciary, the right to petition and the freedom of assembly are fundamental democratic means by which people or groups can acquire representation.
It would seem, then, that reactive movements grow from political decisions taken by established powers and institutions.** Behind such movements you will always sense a discontent with one or another of those powers and institutions, but also the failures of the previous means to make possible a representation. In short, the seeds of reactionary movements are sown by the established powers and institutions who occupy the executive position and who wield sovereignty, even though that sovereignty is borrowed and subject to regular review, as it is in a democracy.
A common feature of reactionary movements is a fundamental concern that has not been addressed, which is usually a combination of economic, health, life or moral/religious. This fundamental concern combines with either of the following responses by established institutions and powers:
- The denial of a platform to express publicly and debate that concern such that an avenue for political representation in enabled, or;
- The irrational rejection of the legitimacy (moral or otherwise) of that concern once it is expressed and debated.
In short, there emerges a difference in political judgment between the established powers and institutions and the people on behalf of whom they are bound by duty to exercise their power. This difference reaches such a degree that a disconnect emerges wherein we find the vacuum. The established powers then experience a detachment and indifference in respect to the wider public. Whereas the wider public no longer recognizes the legitimacy or the ability of the established powers to wield it in their interest, which is determined by the fundamental concern(s) driving their reaction.
We have to take care not to demonize the established powers, however. A natural political law undoubtedly unfolds here, which we moralize and thereby manage poorly. An equally important factor explaining why people’s fundamental concerns are not incorporated into a political debate is that political debates are not without their heuristics. Some values can grow to become so entrenched in public opinion that people no longer experience an incentive to rationalize or to defend them: habit hardens an opinion into a belief and that belief turns into a worldview after it has seemingly worked, thus-far. Habit turns values into orthodoxies.
Once the orthodoxy has set into a debate, anyone who does not agree or who does not act in accordance with its values is unreasonable. Habit turns our values into a yardstick for measuring other values and completely ignores that the other values stem from people within a particular circumstance in search of a particular outcome. In short, orthodoxies become impediments to the empathy required for understanding — and allow me to preemptively retort that the paradoxical orthodoxy of compassion is no exception to this rule.
Orthodoxies perceive their opponents as irrational, because they believe themselves as wielding the only maxim that enables or ascribes the property of reasonable, humane, moral, right, just and so on. In short, they dehumanize, demoralize and derationalize their opponents. They can become so broad in their hold over public opinion that they will even choose oppression as a means of ‘taking on’ their opponents and they will feel justified in doing so — because they have dehumanized them. How easy is it to reject a debate, before you’ve even had it, when you have resolved to construe your opponent as fundamentally unreasonable, inhumane, immoral and so on? No orthodoxy is exempt from the previous, including the most liberal of orthodoxies, which stand before us as paradoxes and which have disappointed their most avid proponents by becoming orthodoxies, in the first place.
Reactionary movements, if left unattended and even if they are suppressed in an efficient manner, can bubble up to the point of civil unrest and, finally, rebellion. There is another way of perceiving them, however, which is harder, because it bypasses the heuristics that characterise any orthodoxy. It is also more rewarding, because it enables one to address effectively and with equanimity the reasons for the movement. If one focuses on the fundamental concerns, rather than how they are expressed or even the actions they imply, which ‘trigger’ one because they express contrary values, then one can offer an alternative expression and a creative set of actions that incorporates the movement into the wider whole. In short, one can show leadership. One can genuinely empathize with the people fueling the movement and bypass the opportunistic political operators that are driving divisions. One can incorporate people’s fundamental concerns into a wider whole by expressing their concerns in a new, unifying manner and offer a set of actions addressing them effectively.
This new way of perceiving requires the suspension of the orthodoxy that birthed it. In fact, it requires the uncanny ability to suspend any orthodoxy, which every genuine leader demonstrates. The most effective resolution to a reactionary movement is a vision that properly addresses the fundamental concerns underpinning it without alienating the so-called apparent losers in that vision: this is the hallmark of leadership. The ability to secure such leadership and thereby permit a peaceful transition out of a dying orthodoxy is poised to demonstrate why a democracy is the best, most peaceful form of government we have devised hitherto. It has the necessary means that permit this peaceful transition into a new vision and direction, but only provided that those means are not impeded by the established powers and the orthodoxy which dominates their reasons and which, in turn, guides their actions
The greatest danger emerging from reactionary movements in a democracy is when the public begins to conflate the reactionary with the visionary, the mouthpiece or the head of a movement for the leadership that is required to effectively and peacefully address the fundamental concerns underpinning it. In short, sometimes we fail to distinguish the reactionary from the visionary, the pied piper and mouthpiece from the leader. The previous conflation is motivated by the decidedly human response and urge to ameliorate a pain we have lived with for so long and have long given up hope that it can be cured by distracting ourselves from it. We are proficient in devising such distractions and we even prefer them to the cure. We are better at ameliorating pain than addressing its underlying causes or reasons. We do so for heuristic and motivational reasons: it is easier and more pleasurable to ameliorate a pain, than to find the causes or reasons for it before devising a proper response to them.
What prompts us to assume the posture of amelioration, i.e., of venting frustration and of seeking pleasure amid pain, rather than that posture needed to effectively deal with our plight? Sometimes, we suffer something for so long that we start to seek blame outside of ourselves. Blaming someone feels better than blaming ourselves. Furthermore, blaming another is easier than taking responsibility for doing something about our own plight. However, sometimes, our plight might be in such a dire state that assuming responsibility for it is impossible without further harm to ourselves. Sometimes, we are prevented from assuming this responsibility by our circumstances and-or by other people, which is what commonly happens right before a democratic rally turns reactionary and welcomes the political operators. In such moments, more important than finding a solution for our plight is to (at least first) ameliorate the pain we experience because of it. This bodily states, this posture among the people underpins the conflation of reactionaries for visionaries, i.e., of mouthpieces for leaders. Sometimes, people will resist or reject the leader, because, like a doctor, he might prescribe a hard, painful medicine or procedure as a cure.
Reactionaries offer an outlet for the frustrations underpinning a democratic rally: they are pied pipers. They do so by winning over trust though persistently being the mouth piece and sometimes even the ‘seeming’ martyr of that movement at a time when others dare not speak out. The outlet they offer is distinct from a solution to the problem that caused the frustration in the first place, however. A democratic rally can be wooed by the prospect of discharging frustration, of a little pleasure among the pain, more than by the long-term solution to one’s plights.
Alas, the greatest tragedies of all rallies (whether they are democratic or not) is that they can quickly turn into political movements promising great change, even a change to the human condition. In so doing, they pay lip service to our vanity and thereby ignore the fundamental concern that drove the rally, in the first place. They romanticise a desire for change when, in fact, the less great and less seductive it appears, the better, more effective and longer-lasting will such a change become, because it is premised on something real and which makes a difference: dealing with our fundamental concerns.
Democratic rallies, beware the devil bearing gifts… The devil who makes you feel good, but has no vision and not what you need to cement the change you seek. Beware most of all of the devil who sounds delightfully like an angel…
Do not let your suffering get the better of you such that it seduces you to false prophets or leads you to invest in pyrite.
* Note that no political party survives long in a democracy without addressing these fundamental concerns or refusing them outright. Where one party dies leaving behind a vacuum, another emerges in its place to fill it.
** It would be difficult to point to one or two or three decisions, because a state is like a body: things are always happening underneath, but something every now and then sends a signal, which we can ignore, attempt to cover or attend to.