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– by Hans Dembowski
© Brynn Anderson/picture alliance/AP Photo
Trump supporters in Florida.
Donald Trump’s foreign policy proposals obviously do not make sense. For example, the presidential candidate of the Republican party promises to build a wall along the USA’s southern border and “make Mexico pay”. Though the idea is clearly absurd, some xenophobic US citizens appreciate it.
Depressingly, many of Trump’s other proposals are no better, and growing right-wing agitation in Europe tends to be just as incoherent. Germany’s AfD, for example, wants the country to leave the euro zone, but does not assess what a fast appreciating new Deutsche Mark would mean for exports. The economy would suffer due to the higher exchange rate. The AfD proposal is self-destructive.
Flawed reasoning is typical of authoritarian politics. The fewer people understand the underlying issues, the more dangerous populist rhetoric becomes. That is why authoritarian leaders tend to limit the freedom of expression when and where they can, as many people in developing countries know all too well.
Stanley Feldman, a social scientist from the USA, has found a way to find out who appreciates authoritarian leaders and who does not. The four questions he uses are not about politics, but about parenting. What is more important for a child to have: respect for elders or independence? Obedience or self-reliance? Good manners or curiosity? Do they want children to be well-behaved or considerate?
Those who opt for the former terms have authoritarian leanings. They appreciate hierarchy, conformity and order. It is worth pointing out, moreover, that Feldman’s questions do not imply in any way that good behaviour or respect are not desirable. The point is that being considerate and independent matters even more.
Feldman’s approach suggests that rich democracies are probably a bit better insulated against authoritarianism than developing countries, where respect for elders and hierarchies tend to be emphasised more. According to management consultants, young employees in Germany increasingly want to be treated as autonomous, intelligent individuals and will leave if they feel they are mere underlings. Similar trends have been noticed in other advanced economies. Of course, people who do not show much regard for formal hierarchy at work are unlikely to obey authoritarian demands anywhere else. It is worth pointing out that the young people are neither lazily shying away from challenges nor rudely upsetting bosses. They want to be taken seriously.
It is worrisome, on the other hand, that some people know perfectly well that populist slogans are nonsense, but accept them anyway. Hierarchy and conformity gives them a comforting sense of order. That is why authoritarian politicians sometimes gain more than just a foothold even in advanced economies. It is scary, for example, that Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing FPÖ, came so close to being elected Austria’s president in May.
Experience tells us, on the other hand, that authoritarians sometimes fail in developing countries. Sri Lankans recently elected Maithripala Sirisena instead of confirming Mahinda Rajapaksa as president, who had become ever more dictator-like in office. In the Philippines, where populist leader Rodrigo Duterte has just been elected president, people’s power movements twice swept strongmen from office. In Burkina Faso, a popular uprising toppled despotic Blaise Compaoré. The movement was driven by young people who were tired of being told what to think.