The year 2019 saw the consolidation of a phenomenon we have witnessed over the last few years. The rise of Donald Trump in America symbolised the spectre of strongmen consolidating power through democratic elections, where majoritarian sentiment and a feeling of alienation of the middle classes propelled them to power.
In 2019 alone, Narendra Modi won a re-election, Gotabaya Rajapaksa won an election in Sri Lanka, and very likely, the British are going to re-elect Boris Johnson as Prime Minister and conclude BREXIT to leave the European Union. So, what explains the rise of these strongmen – basically populists who promise the moon, tap into a certain majoritarian sentiment, but ultimately fail to deliver because they over promised and under-delivered?
To be sure, strongmen have always been an object of fascination across the world, even before Trump. Vladimir Putin has reigned supreme in Russia since the turn of the century. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been in power for almost the same length of time in Turkey. However, Russia and Turkey are not democracies. They are autocracies – or at best, modern day oligarchies. Why do democratic politics throw up oddball politicians like Trump, Modi and Rajapaksa? What is this majoritarian sentiment, this feeling of collective victimhood that they tap into which has propelled their rise?
This single biggest change the world has seen since the late 1970s and early eighties is the rise of globalisation. Western countries started shipping jobs, both manufacturing and services, to countries like China and the South East Asian tigers – Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea, and Taiwan. By the nineties, India too, joined this bandwagon. It made economic sense. American and European companies didn’t need to worry about high labour costs in the western markets, they could just tap into cheap Asian labour and become a part of the global supply chain. So, BMW which is an European car manufacturer can produce its parts in Thailand, assemble cars in China, and sell to American consumers. The entire world was a manufacturing destination and the entire world was also a market. The folks who benefited immensely from this system were global corporations and Asian labour.
Unfortunately, that left the middle classes in the western world stagnant. Median incomes in the US have not risen much since the 1980s. The middle class felt left out in the cold by this new globalised order. This anger has been capitalised in multiple forms by different people. Sometimes it is against low-end Latino workers or against IT professionals from India or even against Muslim immigrants. People like Trump and Johnson have taken advantage of this anger.
To a lesser extent, people like Modi and Rajapaksa have taken advantage of a perceived majoritarian anger against Muslim minorities to consolidate majoritarian sentiment into votes. Imran Khan has also used this majoritarian sentiment against corruption to come to power and now to consolidate it.
The rise of these strongmen has also been aided immensely by social media. Now it is possible to disseminate your version of the truth to your followers and nudge them to distrust traditional media. So, the media becomes the enemy of the state. When journalists ask questions, if at all they can, then they are branded as traitors and anti-nationals. However, in most places leaders can engage in one-way communication on social media and get away with shouting in their own echo chambers, which their loyal voter base is only eager to listen and heed to.
Zakka Jacob is the Executive Editor – Output at CNN-News18. Views expressed are the author’s own.