The masses have always been susceptible to the magnetism of populists. But when inspired by humanistic ideals, they can move mountains, writes Catalin Florescu.
A person paints the U.S.-Mexico border wall as a symbol of protest against U.S. President Donald Trump's immigration rhetoric and policies
The masses have always influenced politics, be it the crowds that put Hitler into power or those who forced others to endure and even extol Stalin's cruelty. Or the enlightened crowds that demonstrated against the Soviet regime in Prague or Budapest. Masses always become a visible phenomenon in times of change. When the masses reach a critical size, they can cause upheaval in any crisis situation.
In this way, when the masses are inspired by a spirit of constructive criticism and humanistic ideals, they can move mountains. In the 1960s, frequent demonstrations against the war in Vietnam and racism in the United States put pressure on the government through which the war was ended and civil rights prevailed. The student revolts in the West in 1968 (as well as workers' protests in France) marked a point of no return to the silent acceptance of the 1950s. Many of ideals of the late 1960s have gradually permeated society over the decades and they shape our lives today, be it in the acceptance of alternative ways of life, gender equality or ecological awareness. People in the West took another step toward liberating themselves from the constraints of ignorance and immaturity.
In East Germany and Romania – to name just two examples from the Soviet sphere of influence – the masses of citizens streaming into the streets toppled the Communist regimes. Though many suspect - or are certain - that the Romanian Revolution of 1989 was manipulated and the people were deprived of their revolutionary spirit, many still risked their lives for democratic values and access to information.
Flirting with the Führer
Nowadays, people feel that they have seen a shimmer of hope when they witness protests like the pre-inauguration demonstrations against US President Donald Trump and the spirit he stands for. Even though he was democratically elected, he seems to be a threat to democracy. Will the protests be enough to stop him? It doesn't look like it at the moment, as another mass of people has reached a critical size: the portion of the electorate that put the amateurish populist into power.
We must be wary of angry masses pervaded by cynicism and resentment. Populists hijack expressions like "We the people" to speak in the name of the people, yet the masses and the people are not necessarily an identical entity. If they ever merge, then we are lost.
Such angry masses gladly flirt with their "Führer." In Russia, the opposition is intimidated or killed and there is barely any free media, yet Russians are fervent admirers of Putin. Inspired by Orban's and Kaczynski's policies, more and more young people in Hungary and Poland are turning to an absurd form of right-wing nationalism, if not radicalism. They actually do not know what they fear, as they have only seen foreigners outside their countries. Their cultures are more or less homogenous. Even the economy cannot always be blamed for the deterioration of the societal climate, as Poland's economy has been doing well to date.
Freedom cannot be forced
The fact that populism is also appealing to young people in the East has other reasons than in the West. Those between twenty and thirty-five years of age were socialized as Communism was collapsing. The fear, conformism and opportunism of the Communist era were followed by the opportunism and desperate need to secure a livelihood in the vulgar capitalism of the 1990s. People wanted to free themselves from the oppressive dictatorships of the past, but when they were free, they were overwhelmed. In the East, bringing young people up to appreciate freedom is still an ongoing process today.
Romanian-born writer and novelist Catalin Florescu was born under Communism and has lived in Switzerland for over three decades
Responsible freedom cannot be dictated from above; it thrives on education and transparent institutions. No visit to the church and no prayer can replace the process of individual maturation. It happens in families and schools and is fostered by a responsible state. In this respect, many in Eastern Europe must ask themselves where things went wrong.
Were things at least better in the West? By no means, if you see how little facts matter. In the USA, France and England, everyone who feels that they have been overlooked by the economy and neglected by the state feels justified in supporting phonies and jokers who deride humanistic values. In Germany, even some who are in no financial distress support populists. They are not justified because ethics and morals are not negotiable for a mature individual, even one who faces the risk of poverty and lack of perspectives. Nothing justifies unleashing of the inner beast.
Human through and through
When people take up political battle, they must also find an audience to achieve their goals. They must get develop an approach and connect with others to form educated masses. And people must be tolerant - especially the religious – without being contaminated by the seeds of hatred. A person is human through and through. Or one aims to be, at least.
But trying to understand the populist-leaning masses isn't all that helpful. Instead, one must steadily and unwaveringly oppose them with the power of one's own humanism and education. But these characteristics cannot be imposed from above. The ideals must be slowly but constantly be nurtured in order to raise people to be free.
The German-speaking author Catalin Dorian Florescu was born in 1967 in Romania and has lived in Switzerland since 1982. He was awarded the Swiss Book Prize in 2011 for the novel "Jakob Beschließt zu lieben" (Jacob decides to love).