Riveting speeches, catchy slogans, and mob mentality sweep the streets as an encapsulating great man leads the nation to one glorious revival or the other. Contemporary politics is often claimed to be a high tide of public sentiment devoid of any nuanced understanding of the problems they so vehemently rise to address.
The criticism stands true in the light of recent surges of populist frenzy, particularly in Pakistan and India, as one grand narrative or the other seeks to amend generational wrongdoings. Although one can make the claim that political thinking in recent times has anything but transcended camp politics and polarized comebacks, can it ever be any different?
Imran Khan’s Hakeeki Azaadi campaign, beyond the merits of its narrative, errors in one fundamental way as most great men’s narratives do. As the nation rallies behind an ideal, the movement most often than not pivots from the purely rational discourse that it claims to embody to a populist tide that carries public hopes or fears behind the great mission that the party seeks to fulfill.
In Pakistan’s case, the issue remains most pertinently apparent as political parties have become increasingly reductionist in their approach; the masses are presented with an almost caricaturist view of issues which often includes labelling the other side as not mere political adversaries but traitors to the nation’s true cause itself.
The former Prime Minister is rightly critiqued in terms of his party’s political maneuverings which, essentially, limits all kinds of conducive discourse to a ‘one size fits all’ description, but the primary question remains: Is the shallow nature of political discourse a structural flaw or a voluntary endeavor? The contemporary version of democracy not only breeds but incentivizes the version of political chaos that any recent populist wave is blamed to brew.
The state of society in the current era is one that makes populism in politics the most viable model for success, especially in Pakistan. In the age of hyperstimulation, everything from marketing campaigns to online content has become more sensationalized, more extreme, and more radical. Decreasing attention spans, big data marketing, social media misinformation, and all the many plagues of the modern world have aggravated democracy’s very worst.
Cynics have long claimed that democratic ideals are not much beyond pure public posturing and appearances. Such elements have been greatly concerning in terms of social media campaigns as not only the prime ground for misinformation and false narrative building but the increased scandals of data manipulation to launch targeted campaigns that, much like marketing, have hacked into the voter’s ability to make a choice purely on the merits of the argument.
The perceptibility of leaders has remained central to any kind of political system, but the problem becomes radically concerning in the world of social media, where appearance is everything and the informed choice of the supposedly informed voter is reduced to aesthetics and appearances only.
In a world where truth becomes increasingly subjective, critical thinking a rarity, and misinformation rampant, it is not a surprise that political campaigns are ever so effectively tapping into the inherently human fallacy to fall prey to the benevolent savior.
On a more philosophical level, there had been considerable literature that asserts that the twentieth century’s existential upheavals would pave the way for totalitarian regimes that have followed. The reason is that as humanity’s transcendent sense of self to religion and god would serve, the existential vacuum of meaning would be fulfilled by totalitarian waves that would supplement the human yearning by taking up an almost religious form.
The nihilistic socially downtrodden common man finds not only a sense of purpose but rather a potent sense of power in the mob-like surge as he passionately declares support for the party. This tendency towards deeper identification, when combined with efficient propaganda tactics fueled by data algorithms and a narrative that declares moral and intellectual superiority over all other factions, becomes the deadly cocktail for populism.
In such a world, there seems to be a combination of political dystopias portrayed in varying great literary works as truth and rational discourse become irrelevant in bombarded information and social media’s mind-numbing trend after trend as in Huxley’s Brave New World but the populist wave’s moral mission justifies brutal clampdown and suppression as in Orwellian literature.
The point is that the modern world itself perpetuates a tendency towards ‘group think’ that effectively devolves into a rationale cult branding of politics. Nonetheless, such criticism falls short of the fact if is there an underlying consensual truth behind events in the political arena at all. The posturing and almost theatrical stances that occupy the political stage have only become increasingly shallow as the masses demand funnier, simpler, polarized, cooler versions of candidates and discourse.
To make the case that democratic ideals in their very essence have this tendency, to become gamified versions of mob jeering devoid of any foundational discourse wouldn’t be wrong. Politics, hence, appears to be nothing more than perception and aesthetics; this train of thought often gets shunned and it is not absolute truth, but in times of increasing polarization and aggression, it is good to remember that the leader up on the stage is merely on a stage.
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