May 2022

By Gabriel Sánchez Zinny

This is an english translation of an Op-Ed written for the Argentinean publication Diario Jornada. Read the original piece here.


Russia's bloody invasion of Ukraine has brought the debate between democracies and totalitarianism to the forefront, between the ideas of freedom and self-determination of people versus state control and the oppression of citizens. This contrast of ideas and forms of government is not only impacting geopolitical order, but also the future of economic globalization, as we have seen in the impact on commercial integration and global production chains.

 

In this context, Moisés Naim’s latest book, The Revenge of Power, how autocrats are reinventing politics for the 21st century, comes at the right time to attempt to explain many of these phenomena, such as the increased assessments of authoritarianism, the impact of social networks in the spread of populism, and how democracies can fight these abuses.

 

Naim is probably the most successful Latin American nonfiction thinker and writer in the United States. All of his latest books have been bestsellers and have been debated and discussed by the country's leading politicians and academics. The Revenge of Power is an explanation of what has happened since his previous work The End of Power, where he detailed how the institutional power that was consolidated after the Second World War was being diluted and fragmented into thousands of new civil, corporate, and individual institutions making it easy to get, hard to use, and easy to lose.

 

Yet new leaders, using old methods but new technologies, tactics, and organizations, have once again concentrated power, mainly in autocracies, which according to the author have three factors in common. The Three P’s summarize the strategy to consolidate and remain in power: populism, polarization, and post-truth, which mainly target the disappointed, those disillusioned with the system and not so much the most vulnerable. Naim defines new frameworks, structures, and strategies and outlines them clearly using hundreds of examples from national and local governments.

 

These 3 P’s have spread due to the skill and abuse of their leaders, but also due to the silence of those who oppose them, both nationally and internationally. At this point it is also necessary to think of a competitive narrative, one capable of showing respect for the rules and for different opinions; the importance of merit, effort, work, are better formulas for the development of countries, but also for individual well-being and happiness.

 

The populism narrative seeks to exacerbate fear, frustration, and anger. To propose simplistic solutions to developmental challenges, and like any good story, to have clear heroes and villains. For true democrats, it is very difficult to compete with this post-truth and with the promises and gifts. But it also becomes more challenging in a context where there is no longer a citizenship as a whole, rather total individual fragmentation. Where each person with a cell phone is a demand and an interest, where it seems that they are shouting and fighting among themselves from their individual bubbles.

 

To counter this narrative, it is key to stick to the truth, propose ideas and use evidence, but also explain in an effort to persuade. It is common to see a certain disdain to be understood among political leaders opposed to populism, they assume that the fanciful narrative and the unfulfillable promises will end up being recognized as such by the citizens. As we have seen in many countries, this is not enough. It is necessary to explain more, to make greater efforts to communicate better, to return again and again to the truth, to spread the policies that work and denounce falsehoods.

 

Leading by example is also key. Perhaps to defeat populism, political leaders who confront it must be especially consistent with preaching and living truth, austerity, adhering to evidence, tolerance, and respect for others. At the same time, they have to demonstrate when they govern that democracy is not only alternation in power, but also solid state policies that have an impact on the well-being of the population.

 

Naim's resounding conclusion should inspire the work of those of us who believe that freedom and democracy is the best way to continue promoting the development of nations. “Winning the battle against the 3 P’s of autocrats requires revolutionary courage and the creativity that the birth of representative democracy required. It requires greater innovation in public policies, taking more risk and more audacity to transform, and thinking of new methodologies to include citizens in decision-making.”