Archive for Saturday, April 8, 2017

Opinion: Surrendering ourselves to ‘strongmen’

April 8, 2017

Advertisement

Two high-profile elected executives, President Donald Trump and Gov. Sam Brownback, have stimulated a long dormant itch I need to scratch. I first felt this sensation nearly 50 years ago as a graduate student. At that time international politics interested me. We were in the midst of both the Cold War and the Vietnam War. Fidel Castro had overthrown Cuba less than a decade earlier and then turned the island into a Soviet client state. Guerrilla war was common, especially in restive European colonies around the world. Movements and governments led by “strongmen” were quite the thing to study, prompting me to take up the topic of charismatic leaders in developing nations for my thesis.

Disappointingly, my graduate education was delayed for another two decades, but I never really forgot my interest in demagogues. Now, in allergy season, that itch is back. Trump and Brownback cause me to ponder what has gone so terribly wrong with the premises and conventional wisdom of American democracy that these two very odd ducks — perhaps not so odd, if we scan the whole of the contemporary American political landscape — could be holding power at this time. Have the American people decided to succumb to strongman rule?

One universal characteristic of those earlier demagogues was their ability to persuade a sufficient portion of the people that their problems came from oppression by internal elites or external “masters” whose power came from corruption and deceit. In each case the “people’s hero” delivered the message: Revolution would free the people of their oppressors, and acceptance of the Great Man’s vision would lead to a new golden age — often recalling an earlier time of national or cultural glory before the era of oppression.

We now confront conditions that have become eerie and alarming. What has happened to American society that can account for this new yearning for political tyrants? Whole segments of our society classified by demography, employment, race, social status or a number of other characteristics seem to have lost faith and tolerance for everybody else. Of what have they forgotten or become fearful? In Kansas, the external master is the federal government, and for the billionaire in the White House it’s the bureaucracy, foreign governments, “fake news” and liberal elites.

Perhaps of equal importance, how have so many, including the main players — Trump and Brownback — come to the belief that a strongman autocrat could be legitimate? Consider how little of substance has come of the nearly innumerable orders and tweets of the president. For our smilingly uncooperative governor, all the real power he appears to retain is his constitutional veto.

Why have we come to rely on the trivialities of social media and the inaccuracies of 140 characters to define our social, cultural and political differences? Critical thinking and reasoned conclusions on life values and choices are practically extinct in our society. Instead, many accept baseless claims of deterioration and generalized badness without any objective evidence to support the view. Many of these same citizens then embrace irrational, unsustainable and thoroughly improbable solutions and promises that supposedly will make America or Kansas great again, typically without any verifiable proof.

Over this past year a positive change seems to have occurred in Kansas. New polling shows a super-majority of Kansans have rejected mental confusion and reapplied their wits and their reason — 66 percent in a recent poll dislike the governor’s policies and leadership. Nationally, for the president the poll numbers continue a steady downward path. Yet ardent minorities for both men continue to provide intense, vitriolic support. What surprises me 50 years on, is that America’s democracy has been an ineffective deterrent, even if only temporarily, to the collective will falling for the fantastic claims of the supremely egotistical.

— Mark Peterson teaches political science at the college level in Topeka.

Comments

Scott Burkhart 8 months, 1 week ago

"Why have we come to rely on the trivialities of social media and the inaccuracies of 140 characters to define our social, cultural and political differences? Critical thinking and reasoned conclusions on life values and choices are practically extinct in our society. Instead, many accept baseless claims of deterioration and generalized badness without any objective evidence to support the view. Many of these same citizens then embrace irrational, unsustainable and thoroughly improbable solutions and promises that supposedly will make America or Kansas great again, typically without any verifiable proof."

Very good questions, Mr. Mark Peterson who teaches political science at the college level in Topeka. I am one of the masses who seems to have lost the ability of critical thinking, as you imply, but I'll give it a shot.

Could it be that us non-critical thinkers didn't like being told we had to vote pass a bill to read what was in it? Maybe we didn't like being told that health insurance and healthcare were the same things and those that had it had to pay for those that didn't? Could it be that we liked the health plan that we had but didn't get to keep it as promised? Could it have anything to do with not being able to keep the doctor of our choice when we were told we could? How about an administration weaponizing different agencies within the government where regulations, enforced as law, were written by non elected officials to pick winners and losers in what is supposed to be a free market economy? Could it have anything to do with a President whose administration lied about Benghazi, Fast and Furious, corruption within the IRS, knowledge of a private and illegal server being used by the SoS during her tenure, and then later to find out that possibly surveillance was used against congress people and political opponents? Might it have anything to do with allowing illegal immigrants, yes, illegal as in the first act of entering the country is breaking a federal law, to pour across our southern border and then disperse them within the communities of our country blithely unaware of any danger they might pose?

You are so quick to speak of the "orders" signed by an "autocrat" but you ignore the fact that these orders are to reverse orders signed by the previous "autocrat." You also ignore the world as it is and live in the same idealogical world that the previous administration lived in that told us the world is as we wish it would be. Currently, it is more chaotic than I ever remember, Vietnam included. So, be careful at whom you point your "critical thinking" finger because one is pointing at someone else while the other three on that hand are pointing back at you.

Bob Smith 8 months, 1 week ago

"...One universal characteristic of those earlier demagogues was their ability to persuade a sufficient portion of the people that their problems came from oppression by internal elites or external “masters” whose power came from corruption and deceit..." Sounds like you are describing the grievance mongers who prey on disappointed progressives.

Cait McKnelly 8 months, 1 week ago

There are two things I think you are not mentioning in this piece; the role of money and the "dumbing down" of the US educational system. I graduated from a Kansas high school in 1971. At that time, it was required by the state that every person who graduated from a Kansas high school had to take a class called "American Government". It had a standardized syllabus and was taught in every Kansas high school. You couldn't get a diploma without passing it. It was a year long class and it taught every student the entire structure of how American government worked; at the the Federal level, at the state level and at the local level. It studied the US Constitution IN DETAIL. it explained the three branches, the system of checks and balances. In short, it explained HOW GOVERNMENT WORKS in this country and our role as citizens in that government. That class hasn't been required in at least 20 years. In fact, it's no longer being offered as an ELECTIVE. In 2012, the GOP added a plank to their party platform that opposed the teaching of "critical thinking skills" in all Texas classrooms. This is pervasive in the Republican party throughout the country. As for the role of money, I'm not sure I even need to address that. Citizens United, Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute and a whole lot more are just the tip of the iceberg. It says a great deal when well over half of Congress are millionaires and less than 10% of the US population has that kind of money. So what's the conclusion? This was a set up. Keep 'em dumb and poor and disaffected. It's a gold mine.

Bob Smith 8 months, 1 week ago

"...In 2012, the GOP added a plank to their party platform that opposed the teaching of "critical thinking skills" in all Texas classrooms..." Citation, please?

Dorothy Hoyt-Reed 8 months, 1 week ago

And I have to say, as much as I have been against the draft in the past, I think when we ended it, we created a group of people who could care less about their country, except to wave a flag and put a "Support our Troops" bumper sticker on their cars. Of course, the draft was never a place for the rich and powerful. They could get out of it. Maybe if all young people needed to serve the country somehow, either militarily or otherwise, they would learn to pay attention to the government and realize they are a part of it.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.

loading...