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Brexit, the rise of Trump, Colombia’s rejection of Peace: It’s all related

People the world over are rejecting the legitimacy of liberal democracy, hardening themselves against ‘enemies’, retreating to the security of their tribe, and placing faith in populist leaders

It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of an election, especially when the stakes seem so high. Even the most cynical among us can steal away from ourselves and let some political oratory sway us to hope for a better future. We know we should know better, but we allow ourselves to believe that this time it’s genuine, the cause just, the result historic. That this election would be a pivotal moment in the lives of a country and its people.

Then, a day or two after, when the euphoria has worn off, all of us sooner or later come back to reality. The hope for a better tomorrow is derailed by opposing forces, or worse, that thing we all had pinned our hopes on was never really the plan. Progress stalls, leaders trade insults and the status quo endures.

Colombia’s 2014 presidential election between Juan Manual Santos and centre-right opponent Oscar Ivan Zuluaga had the feel of those elections that really mattered — where the stakes were high and the race too close to call. A Santos re-election, almost one million more voters reasoned, would usher an eventual end to the half-century-long civil conflict, while many agonised over what might happen to the peace process if Alvaro Uribe’s puppet-candidate became the country’s leader.

Now we know what has happened, and Uribe’s man didn’t even have to win the election.

If the job of the pundit is to whip us all up into frenzy of hope and angst, then one must look elsewhere for the calming, sage voice of someone not easy drawn towards the bug-zapper light. For me, that voice came not from a disciple of politics but from a man who sells gum, cigarettes and snacks on the streets of Bogota at night. He did not concern himself with the election not because of apathy, but because he was not as susceptible to propaganda as the so-called politically engaged were. Over a passing conversation, I didn’t find it odd that he did not plan to vote, but what was interesting was that he was well-informed about what candidate said they stood for. The difference is that he didn’t believe what either one of them was saying. “It doesn’t matter who wins. It’s not going to make difference in my life or yours,” he said. “They don’t care about the people … they never have.”

He is right to feel this way, as do others. That feeling that picking one or another member of the ruling elite every few years is a hollow exercise. And it is not just here in Colombia, it seems to be everywhere, even in the so-called first-world liberal democracies. It’s more than just that people have lost faith in those in charge; it’s that they’re losing faith in the political and economic institutions that we are repeatedly reminded are the fairest, freest, and most efficient that have ever existed in human history.

The Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump and a similar rise of right-wing populist movements in Europe, and yes — the rejection of the peace accord here in Colombia — they are all knots along the same line of rope.

In the 1990s, neoliberals told us that global free trade would bring prosperity everywhere that market forces were allowed to dictate the rise of industries. That those with a competitive advantage would have the world to sell to, while inferior businesses would be left behind. The overall result, we were told, would be an equilibrium of efficient, competitive businesses the world over and we all would be better off for it.

We know now, and as many have long suspected, globalization created many losers, people who became worse off when the thing they were producing was suddenly worth a fraction of its value after the local market was flooded with cheap imports of that thing from elsewhere — often compounding poverty, particularly in the developing world. Neoliberalism, like other economic doctrines before it, would come to favour a small class of privileged elites, and few others. But while confidence in globalized trade eroded, faith in the democratic system remained intact. By and large, people still believed that there were viable options left to them, that a portion of the political class still had their best interests at heart. That voting for someone who cared about those left behind in the economic system was still possible.

Now, increasing numbers are losing faith in that too. In Latin America for example, the leftist saviours of the poor masses, voted in with much fanfare in Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina, have all largely failed to deliver on their promise to improve the lot of the poor in any sustainable, lasting way. These countries are now in disarray, the poor worse off than ever before, and entire countries are on the verge of collapse (see Venezuela). Still hungry but more exhausted than ever before, some of these countries have opted to vote back into power centre-right neoliberal governments. The poor learned had a hard lesson: neoliberals may not have their interests in mind, but at least the supermarket shelves are fully stocked and there is something to buy when enough money comes their way.

Protesters lying in the street in Venezuela.
Venezuelans protest against shortages of food and basic goods, hyper-inflation and other economic problems in the capital Caracas, in April, 2013. (Photo: MARQUINAM, Creative Commons)

Elsewhere, a similar sentiment has emerged. The promise of globalization has led to never-before-seen income inequality. It was successful in turning some into billionaires and still others in to millionaires, but it has largely forgotten a majority of people. The solutions touted as the way of the future, both on the left and on the right, have largely failed, and the institutions on which societies are founded are being called into question. The political/economic elite, along with their cohort of analysts and pundits, can no longer be trusted — swelling numbers of us reason — and more than that, they’re the enemy.

“They don’t care about the people … they never have.”

In the run-up to the Brexit vote, elites in Britain were so smug as to state publically that enough people would come to their senses and vote to stay in the EU once they reached the ballot box. But the ‘Leave’ voters didn’t change their minds; if anything, these pronouncements made them more resolute. The elites warned that Brexit would hit housing prices hard and send shockwaves of uncertainty through the stock market. To a majority of British voters, the idea that the elites, the people who owned the property and the shares, would take a long-overdue turn suffering, sounded just about right.

The fear, loathing, and disillusionment after decades of exclusion from economic progress and political decision-making has made people everywhere angrily reject what they’re told is best for them, and it has left those at the top reeling. The once rock-solid pyramid looks increasingly wobbly. Once cohesive societies are fracturing under the strain, and people are turning on their leaders, on their institutions, and seeking the safety of their own race, economic strata, or clan. And in places like the United States, Britain and a growing number of European countries, this inward-looking tribalism has morphed into a kind of racially-charged nationalism.

Once the Fringe, Now the Mainstream

Radicals thrive when governments can no longer meet the standard-of-living expectations of their citizens, Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, told The Globe and Mail newspaper on July, 2016. Once kept to the margins with logic and reason and the enduring faith in a society’s institutions to weather wild ideas, the politics of bigotry have been breathed new life, and no longer are populist demagogues like Donald Trump, Marie Le Pen, and Geert Wilders seen as fringe candidates; they’re seen as a welcome outlet for the fear and anger of the underclass, who up until recently were content to do as they were told.

The ideas of these and other leaders can no longer be laughed away by pundits and pollsters. There is a very real possibility that an electorate fearful of refugees, foreigners and repeated terrorist attacks could carry the likes of Marie Le Pen to the presidency in France, and help the rise of the far-right Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders in the Netherlands. Will the wave that Trump rode into office be strong enough for them? What happens (or doesn’t happen) in Europe in the next three to four months will be a good indicator.

Trump supporters protesting in Pennsylvania.
A Trump supporter holds a banner that reads “President Trump Build The Wall” in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 5, 2015. (Photo: Paul Weaver, Creative Commons)

On the surface, one can understand the appeal of a tough-talking leader who wags their finger at the entrenched political elite. Many followers of populist demagogues like Donald Trump yearn for easy answers so they can make sense of a chaotic and violent world previously too complex to understand. They are given easily identifiable enemies, people who are the source of theirs and the nation’s problems — Muslims or Mexicans or Syrian refugees — but are assured that their countries can be restored to some mythical former glory.

What we are seeing is what journalist and political philosopher Chris Hedges sees as a re-emergence of fascism — a political ideology that places faith in a strong and charismatic leader who promises a moral renewal, new greatness and revenge. It substitutes rational discourse with an emotional experience. “Fascism is aided and advanced by the apathy of those who are tired of being conned and lied to by a bankrupt liberal establishment, whose only reason to vote for a politician or support a political party is to elect the least worst,” he said of the US presidential election. Where neoliberal economics and liberal democracy have failed, charismatic populists are a light in a dark world, the faith placed in them, the refusal to accept the they might be wrong, or the refusal to accept that their power should be checked by other institutions, is what makes this resurgence of populism so dangerous — and eerily reminiscent of Germany or Italy of the 1930s.

Peace More than the Absence of War

Similar conditions and sentiment are seen in Colombia, too. It goes without saying that a popular pessimism exists here towards the country’s leaders and institutions, and have for a long time. But add the peace accord with the FARC that was defeated in October, 2016 into this noxious mix — in a country as disillusioned and angry and fearful as any on Earth — and you get something nasty brewing. There was a genuine hope that the country might come out differently, that Colombians might shake off their decades-long slumber of cruelty and horror, and all the opinion polls confirmed this. When polling began to ratify the peace deal, many thought it was a foregone conclusion. But a number of factors came into play for the ‘No’ camp in just the right way, not least of which was the flooding caused by Hurricane Matthew along coastal areas, denying at least a million people from participating in the plebiscite, maybe the most important vote in the country’s history (a country with its shit together would have withheld the final result and allowed these people to vote once the flooding had subsided).

Nevertheless, large segments of the population was utterly gob-smacked when the ‘No’ campaign scraped out at narrow victory of less than 60,000 votes nationally, just over one-third of the number of votes that were rendered invalid nationally — 170,000 — and even some in the ‘No’ campaigners were visibly surprised at having won out. Though ostensibly the purest manifestation of democracy, some analysts have come out and said that the referendum is a kind of 21st century populism. In Colombia’s vote on Oct. 2 and a handful of others around the globe, one things rings true: Voters must make their decisions with relatively little information (or reams of it, in Colombia’s case — 297 pages to be exact), and instead relying on political messaging — which puts power in the hands of political elites rather than the voters.

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe greets the public while flanked by bodyguards
Then-Colombian President Alvaro Uribe greets the public while flanked by bodyguards in Cali, in July 2010. (Photo: Neil Palmer, Creative Commons)


In the lead-up to the October vote, the Colombian right, led by former president and now senator Alvaro Uribe, abandoned any attempt at rational discourse and instead opted for an overt deception and fear-mongering campaign which was more-less successful in convincing enough naïve Colombians into believing in boogeymen. Enough were convinced that a ‘Yes’ vote meant that the country would be tantamount to “delivering the country to the FARC” and become a communist state like Venezuela, that Satan-worshippers and atheists were behind the deal, and that peace with the rebels would mean that their children would be taught homosexual “gender ideology” in high school.

Proponents of the peace accord disseminated their fair share of misleading propaganda, but nothing on the industrial scale as Uribe’s so-called Democratic Centre party (which is neither centrist, nor democratic). Of course, there were legitimate reasons to vote either way in the plebiscite, but neither side really engaged in intelligent discourse. Both sides drowned each other out with cries of “peace with the guerrillas” versus “no to impunity for war crimes.” Voters were receptive to and voted based on pre-existing prejudices. And what emerged on voting day was that peace itself as a concept, as an ideal, was a political ploy by an unpopular president. Its value as an ideal was diminished as untrustworthy as the political establishment miscalculated in the notion that screaming “Peace! Peace! Peace!” would be enough to carry the deal to victory.

Peace is not merely the absence of war, but a state, however fragile, of social cohesion founded on some basic level of trust. But there was little trust in the “peace” that was sold by President Santos and the side he represented. It sounded too much like a buzzword to fire up his base. As Colombia approached Oct. 2, Santos’ “peace” looked more and more like a commodity, yet another tool of manipulation by the establishment and the same commodity that carried him to re-election in 2014. Instead of addressing very reasonable concerns, skeptics of the peace agreement were branded as “enemies of peace,” further sending Alvaro Uribe and his followers — the uribistas — into an even greater fervour of extremist views and conspiracy theories. Dialogue and debate sputtered and stalled, people turned inward to the safety of their camp, their tribe, and hardened themselves against “the enemy.”

After his failed referendum, President Santos sat down with both the guerrillas and the opposition, reworked some minor points of the peace deal and put it to Congress to ratify it, which easily passed after the right-wing bloc lead by Uribe boycotted the vote.

The whole chain of events reminds me of ‘The Solution’, a poem written by German filmmaker and communist Bertolt Brecht: “… the people / Had forfeited the confidence of the government / And could win it back only / By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier / In that case for the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”

In late August, just a few weeks before the referendum, three explosive devices were detonated outside two health insurance companies in Bogota in the dead of night. The devices were low-grade, and there were no injuries and very little damage to the offices. A leaflet was found outside one of the bomb sites that read: “Neither Santos nor Uribe are an option for the people. Peace for the rich is not peace for the population.” The leaflet said that was signed by a group calling itself the ‘Revolutionary Movement of the People’.

It is easy to dismiss this as a desperate act of attention-seeking extremists or crazies. What is not easy to dismiss anymore is the sentiment — that peace is nothing more than the product of an ineffectual and self-serving president. That it is not a real peace for a nation and its people. In Britain, the US, France, the Netherlands, Turkey, Colombia and elsewhere, the extremist fringe and their ideas are coming to the fore. In more places than we would like to admit, the extremists and crazies are winning the day.

This originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.