Totalitarianism has, in our history, been derived from a focus on personality rather than policy. Many current politicians, while not necessarily totalitarian, have shown that we could be throwing ourselves on a dangerous road to the destruction of liberal democracy.
The last few years have seen a large growth in what can be described as nothing less than personality politics; in both the USA and the UK, populists have taken upon themselves the image of populism, having smashed traditional party and ideological politics. The politicians benefiting from these personality cults have triumphed over candidates with similar ideological standpoints, even in some cases over candidates who were more logical and electable. These politicians and have gathered large groups of supporters giving their support purely because that politician is who they are. This is vastly dangerous for our democratic process; diminishing focus on policies has, historically, had disastrous consequences.
In the USA, this has taken form within the Republican Party who, in an electorally strange move, put forward Trump as their candidate. There was only one candidate in the Republican primary who did not poll ahead of Hillary Clinton in most major opinion polls, and that is Donald Trump. Notably, there was also a wide range of ideologically similar candidates; in fact, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump had almost identical policies (namely the wall), and Marco Rubio was not far off. Why therefore, did the GOP primary voters opt for the unelectable one, rather than the electable ones with the same policies? The obvious answer is that people didn’t vote for Trump for his policies; instead, Trump’s personality grew into a symbol of populism and anti-establishment rhetoric which effectively secured him a large and growing number of permanent supporters. Trump could have had absolutely any policy, and his vote share would scarcely change. In fact, Trump once famously remarked that he could shoot a man in the street and not lose any voters – in this instance, it is hard to disagree with Donald Trump. Proof of this is the fact that it had to get to the point where Trump admitted to sexual assault for any change in his polling numbers to be seen. This is why such cults of personality are so dangerous to democracy; Trump could have advocated vast neo-Nazi white supremacism as a replacement to the First Amendment, and still been selected as the GOP nominee. Personality politics draws attention away from logical, western democratic values; perhaps in Trump’s case the value most stamped upon is tolerance. It is because of this that personality politics is effectively the root of totalitarianism.
A similar scenario has manifested itself in the United Kingdom, with the recent Labour Party election. Both candidates, Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith pledged remarkably similar tax changes, similar foreign policy proposals, similar social policy proposals, and so forth; the election was, in spite of popular belief, not socialist versus Blairite, but socialist versus socialist. Owen Smith was also the more electable of the two; he was comparatively straightforward, charismatic, and was a better speaker. He showed many more common features of a modern Prime Minister. Yet in spite of this, like with Trump, people elected the unelectable. Why? Because Jeremy Corbyn himself is now symbolic of socialist populism in the UK, and hence he has garnered a large cult of followers within the party. Corbyn could have promised the most unrealistic proposals possible and likely still won the leadership election. This again highlights a danger of personality cults like that of Corbyn; that they can be used to shroud extreme or unrealistic policies that supporters will back purely because of the person saying them.
This danger is not merely limited to the USA and UK. Internationally, many examples of people voting person over policy with disastrous consequences spring to mind. Vladimir Putin in Russia, who has built a personality cult off populist ideas, starting wars, and fighting the press offers a good example. Marine Le Pen in France, promising to end immigration, has offered another good example of where someone has hijacked anti-establishment sentiment for extreme policies.
Examples aside, the real question is how we combat this immediate and growing danger to democratic process and Western liberal democracy in general. Unfortunately, the only solution to this huge problem is a vast cultural shift backwards; people need to be encouraged to look at and examine the policies of those who they are voting for like they used to, and to vote based on policy rather than personality. Maybe then this vast threat to democracy can be confronted. Democracy quite simply needs more access points to combat extremism and populism, and boost political knowledge; election TV debates do a good job of providing a medium for where extremism can be countered, for example. After all, the debates have deeply affected Trump’s popularity. Governments could also encourage political engagement much more actively in younger people; if we start a cultural change when people are young, such an attitude to politics may continue throughout a lifetime.
But perhaps the most important thing we can do is teach our children the historical consequences of personality politics; you don’t have to look back but a few decades to see the dangers of focusing on a politician’s personality and their apparent anti-establishment nature, rather than on their clear and dangerous extremism. After all, as the adage goes: “Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it.”