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The Dictator’s Handbook #9: How to make things better

The Dictator’s Handbook is not an easy or uplifting read but it has offered an understanding of politicians’ behaviour and the dynamics of leadership. As we wrap up the series, the question remains: Should we just let corruption and nepotism make their comeback and hope that someone, somewhere will do something about it while we get on with our daily lives?

Reading the chapters alongside daily news coverage makes for truly depressing reading. Who isn’t tired of reading about Brexit, US President Donald Trump, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Hungary’s drift towards authoritarianism, Italy’s far-right Matteo Salvini and the wave of fear and polarisation sweeping across the globe?

With every news cycle, we learn about the election of another far-right demagogue – each one capitalising on fear and harnessing the anger their own rhetoric generates. But this is nothing new in politics, so why is it so successful at this particular point in time?

Logic suggests it is because there is a longing for change. Unfortunately, what started out as a need to change the political status quo has morphed into a string of assaults against democratic ways of living.

“Democracy is dying,” say the disheartened. “Drain the swamp,” say Trump’s supporters,  “we need a new game in town,” argue Vladimir Putin’s populists and Xi Jinping’s neo-authoritarian allies. Of course they would say that.

Now that we have a better understanding about how leaders obtain and maintain their power, those statements need to be questioned. What if, instead, we use this critical moment to improve and expand democracy?

The fact that there are outcries against the problems mentioned above shows that the public does notice and the public does criticise political shortcomings. In short, there is still something about democracy worth fighting for, but it is up to us as individuals to fight for it.

First of all let us stop looking to the powerful for answers. As The Dictator’s Handbook has shown, no political leader (authoritarian or democratic) is losing any sleep thinking up new ways to give more power to citizens.

What we are witnessing instead is arrogant and aggressive attempts by political elites (yes, Joseph Muscat falls into that category) all over the world to appropriate democratic language to expand their own agenda. Take a look at The Shift’s Disinformation Watch for a list of examples.

Despite opposition to their policies, demagogues falsely call on “The People” in order to legitimise undemocratic solutions to real or imagined problems, allowing them to curtail freedoms, centralise control and divide society (the Roman divide et impera is still alive and kicking).

Continuing resistance shows that now is definitely not the time to announce the death of democracy because, for starters, it never belonged to those who seem to be intent on killing it in the first place.

Democracy is fought for and won by ceaseless struggles and popular resistance. Secondly, it is also high time we took citizen education a little more seriously.

We need to foster critical thinking from a young age but again, don’t depend on the Maltese government to do this – it is we as individuals who will have to do it.

The book told us why – educated, free thinking citizens, questioning or even criticising a government’s policies or actions, only spell trouble for that government. Give governments the uneducated masses, so easily manipulated, any day.

We must also remember that the wave of far-right rhetoric and aggressive government responses in the US, Europe and in Malta in reality only appeal to a minority.

President Donald Trump’s core fan base are a minority but they are aggressive in their interactions with critics. The Labour online trolls, dispatched whenever dissent needs to be quashed, are a minority – they are not representative of the Maltese population.

What has happened is that this minority has gained prominence for the simple reason that their violent, authoritarian attitudes are met with fear of retribution (I won’t speak out or I’ll be hounded on social media) and apathy (let others fight this out).

So let us stop once and for all with the cliches that “as long as I get a salary, it’s ok for a politician to have an offshore bank account”, with the “what’s the point, politicians are all the same”, with the “look at what you did when…” (Muscat’s tu quoque).

Politicians are not abstract mythical beings that cannot or should not be held accountable for their action and inaction.

The Dictator’s Handbook was very clear – politicians are nothing more than very ordinary individuals just looking out for their own interests. It is time we as citizens do the same. So, far from saying “democracy is dying”, we need to say that “now is the time for democracy to be lived”.

Read more in the series: The Dictator’s Handbook

Source: ‘The Dictator’s Handbook: Why bad behaviour is Almost Always Good Politics‘ by Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith.

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