Leader Worship and Populism: A Humanist Nightmare

Leader Worship and Populism: A Humanist Nightmare June 9, 2018

Photo Credit: John Hain, Pixabay.com, CC0 licensing

If you believe that human beings are responsible for fixing the world’s problems, populism can be a nightmare.

This week in Canada, Doug Ford, a populist leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, won a majority provincial government on the back of an unfinished campaign platform (and absentee candidates in local debates), voter-bait like one-dollar beer and the promise to fire a person the premier has no authority to fire, and a host of well-channelled private-business-fortune ire against career politicians. As a Canadian in Colombia, I watched with a distinct brand of helplessness; back in Ontario, friends and family watched with a helplessness all their own.

We in the West live most of our days under the illusion of discrete consciousnesses and independent moral agencies. Personally, I do not believe in free will (favouring, instead, the notion that our biological schema shapes probability-clouds of supposedly conscious response, as brilliantly outlined in works like Dr. Robert Sapolsky’s Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst). However, the fact that my probability-cloud is informed by Western culture’s distinct-self hypothesis means that I still waste time fretting over why I did something, or why I feel a certain way. I “know” better, but my deep-seated habits of critical thinking do not.

Similarly, after an election like this last, even informed students of human nature find themselves struggling with why so many voters embraced populism, and why so many felt so angry they would choose someone like Ford, despite the cost of his leadership for so many vulnerable populations. We “know” better than to think humans ever act as perfect coherent, distinct agents in the universe–and yet, simultaneously, we do not.

Worse, though, we are all susceptible, in the aftermath of such an election, to consoling ourselves by railing against the figurehead, and not the problem itself. This social venting, which can include the dissemination of silly and scathing memes, news articles, and related public discourse, will certainly feel therapeutic. However, in the process we inadvertently reify the figurehead just as much as the people who support it.

And yet, this is a difficult habit to break, as our news media makes perfectly clear. After Donald Trump was elected in the United States, I asserted on Facebook that I would not be posting anything expressly about him in the ensuing presidency, because I did not want to add to the infotainment nightmare that Michelle Wolf skewered when she said, in this year’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner:

You guys are obsessed with Trump. Did you used to date him? Because you pretend like you hate him, but I think you love him. I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks or vodka or water or college or ties or Eric, but he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster, and now you’re profiting off of him.

But even my small choice not to post anything about him did not significantly change his dominance even in my news feed. This was discouraging, because I retain a strong, if fanciful, belief in the power of selective attention. Do you remember  Merlin (1998)? In this film, Merlin’s nemesis, Queen Mab, is defeated not by direct confrontation, but by everyone choosing to ignore the sinister fairy queen, and so diminish her powers.

Likewise, if George W. Bush had been left to ranch-life, he might have generated a local reputation as a neighbour prone to raucous conduct… but he could not have launched an unjustified war on Iraq. His supporters, his financiers, and his voters constructed the figurehead. The people, and not intrinsically “W”, were the threat. And so it is with Trump, and Ford, and all other populist strongmen in the world today.

We all love a good central target for our horror, don’t we?

Far harder to acknowledge, let alone to address, is how the communal nature of our species means that social change–for better and for worse–comes in populist tides. If we scratch the surface of major changes, say, in queer rights, we find that the changes in attitude, from “gay sex is perverse” to “all people deserve the dignity to be with [the consenting people] whom they love”, are so swift as to make the initial revulsion-stage seem baffling upon reflection. Similarly, the increasingly “self-evident” moral outrage of sexually predatory workplaces was not nearly as self-evident even a few years back. Now, though, a tremendous body of once-beloved movies are difficult to watch without noting the dated nature of past sexual norms. What happened? If we are truly coherent selves, with distinct moral fibres, how do our tolerances change so swiftly?

The answer, of course, lies in human behaviour writ large. Decades of behavioural studies uphold our propensity to defer to perceived authority figures–whether a person in a white coat (or a game show host) tells you to keep pushing a button that you know will cause harm to someone else, or you’re just following the overriding norms established in a group setting. From Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power to Timothy Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom, we have been charting how illusions of inevitability inculcate the passive acceptance of even brutally untenable social orthodoxies. If something is the law or custom of the land, many of us tacitly accept that there must be good reason for it. And if someone is dominanting the airwaves–if his angry messages about the sociopolitical status quo are given so much air time–well, there must be good cause. We should probably to hear what he has to say, if others are listening to him, too.

This lean towards leader-worship is by no means the provenance solely of theists, either. As a secular humanist growing into the 21st century, I have witnessed quite a few “born-again” atheists make the novice mistake of switching out one godhead for others while adjusting to life outside their faith communities. I do enjoy some of Richard Dawkins’ writings, most of all The Extended Phenotype , but all too often in my young adulthood I saw fellow atheists–and theists–elevate Dawkins and the rest of the Four Horsemen to uncomfortably high stations for any human being. The fact that atheists did this while railing at others for believing in their own higher authority marked a significant cognitive dissonance, and further, dangerously attested to a diminished capacity to think critically about our beliefs when tribalist fervour of any stripe is on offer.

In the wake of yet another populist leader’s rise, I thus find myself wondering what all of us–we fragile Western human beings, with our silly notions of coherent selves and underlying deference to broader social moods–might do to mitigate populism’s impact. How can we be better humanists in the current formation of our hurting world?

I have no perfect answers, but here are a few nudges for all you other probability-clouds of human consciousness and social action:

  1. Let’s diminish the spread of stories that fixate on singular persons and expand the reach of stories, instead, that frame major social issues in terms of the systems and groups affecting implementation of various government policies.
  2. Let’s do more to question any assumptions about other demographics that are drawn from small sample sets, in part by actively seeking out more samples to flesh out our understanding of (the emotions underlying) other points of view.
  3.  Let’s try to keep the spectrum of possibilities for the maintenance of our democracy from looking too binary, and from appealing too much to us-vs.-them tribalism.
  4. Let’s actively remember that all of us have rather brief windows of agency in this world–whatever we might believe comes after it–and as such, are only ever privy to so much experience and insight, and even then, with boundless opportunities to be proven wrong in time.


It won’t be easy, I imagine, but the less we treat each other as absolute authorities–even and especially the people we place in positions of authority–the more likely we are to feel as though we have agency in our communities. Nor does it matter if that agency is genuine or not: when our probability-clouds develop a routine of decision-making in line with the notion of personal agency, we should find ourselves more optimistically motivated to face even what might seem like populism’s indomitable rise.

And just think how gratifying it will feel in a few years’ time, after the social tide turns again in favour of greater compassion and human decency, to feel baffled–genuinely baffled!–that it had ever seemed so hard a change at all.

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