We have no longer any grounds to ask the question: how did a mass murderer like Hitler rise to power? The answer is before us.

Power is a strange thing, as I told incoming Editor-in-Chief Dani Pua during this election season.

Let’s put it into context: had the Soviets won the cold war, would the left have the same appeal to the young Millennials as it does right now? Probably not.

If there is one thing that capitalism got right it is our human nature and our intrinsic desire to obtain power and retain it. If religion is the opium of the masses, then power is the opium of leadership. Whoever wields power is in real danger of becoming obsessed by the need to do over developing in their constituents hearts that continually discern and minds that seek to understand.

Sure, the debate could go on about how the artists and the “intellectuals” tend to become paralyzed in their own thoughts, resulting in no real action that measures to tangible change. But let’s not forget that in every revolution there should be a guiding principle that stokes the fires of rebellion from behind the scenes. There is a driving mental and emotional force from which the main actors draw their inner strength – their wellspring of sincerity.

Power is a strange thing because it can sap meaning from what was once a meaningful action.

Distractions

We live in a day and age where artists and journalists are being silenced by people who are drunk with power. This power comes in the form of a mindless mob, our political climate, and a culture of fear.

We live in a day and age where power is held in the hands of a clenched fist, about to hit someone who said the ‘wrong’ thing – the one with a bloodied nose who dared say no to calls of people who have a misplaced sense of unity.

We live under national leaders who have uttered the worst and oldest lie from behind the podium: I know what you need and I can bring it to you.

Herein lies the problem. In George Orwell’s 1984, the proles (newspeak for the poor) are kept tamed by an endless barrage of mindless distractions: from meaningless music to ‘illegal’ porn. They were made to think that they are “free” by this pale mimicry of liberty.

That is in the context of a totalitarian society.

However, this doesn’t mean that a democratic society – more so a flawed democracy like ours – couldn’t have the same situation. In Paul Mason’s PostCapitalism:  A Guide to our Future, he accurately described how Capitalism is a way of life. It is not simply a free market that keeps the world’s economic engines running. It is seen in our habits, our preferences, our attitudes. It has become part of our subconscious. We’re prone to taking things for granted, even those subconsciously designed to blind our eyes and cover our ears.

We have imbibed in our culture a worship of entertainment and admiration for “winning”. Worse is an abhorrence to discernment. We tend to do a quick-judgment based on what we see, hear, and feel. People who market themselves properly will be the successful ones. Those who entertain will be remembered. Those who dress for success are the ones to follow. Those who advertise will win.

A Vicious Cycle

It is all fine if not for one thing: it makes us forget. It is useless if we have become no different to the poor who believes Tito Sotto legitimately helps them with his Sugod-Bahay Gang, or how some thinks Manny Pacquiao is a legitimate presidential candidate because he gives out free cash while quoting scripture. Our leaders have become so desperate to entertain and paint themselves in the light of “success” in order to please their voting population it has become difficult to distinguish the sincere from the heathen. All the while they impress to us a fake façade of action by sputtering empty acronymic jargon.

“I know what you need and I’m here to bring it to you.” It is the beginnings of a cult of personality. A culture in real danger of spiraling down to a mindless hero-worship that claims itself antithetical to cynicism.

What is remarkable about democracy is that its real essence is still present despite the equally real dangers it poses to a society governed by a flawed social structure that preserves power to the reigning elite. The dangers are an intrinsic characteristic of the journey towards betterment. If we’re not careful, the ideals of a free society can turn against us and, just like how the lofty ideals of communism have been corrupted by human tendency to seize control, become a healthy breeding ground for fascist ideas to gain and seize power.

Democracy is no good if it empowers the ignorant to remain ignorant… If ignorance is tolerated, it is not a democracy but the ill-beginnings of a society about to stagnate in its own private lake of prejudice.

Examples: The close call of Marine Le Pen in France, the ascension of Donald Trump, and, we don’t have to look too far, the rise of our President Rodrigo Duterte. These figures have touched on real problems, basking in an ineloquent rhetoric that spouts the best kinds of lies: those admixed with grains of truth. They are absolutists who are in touch with people’s emotions. They can make people remember them with big statements that hark to what they call as change – a new world being born with their ascension – but ultimately they offer no real solutions and proudly lives in their own contradictions.

Same with less extreme examples. In local government buildings, you will see the faces of Mayors and Congressmen who have made running a city a family business. Their faces plastered in every nook and cranny. Meaningless awards to their fictional successful city flouted in every street. Ugly acronyms peppering walls of schools and barangay halls. Taxpayer’s money is being spent on projects that do very little in making a difference to the real prevailing problems of their nation. The human value of beauty pageants, basketball leagues, and even things like public bingo bonanzas are useless endeavors if fine-tuning policy in education, housing, and health is sacrificed.

Yet people vote for them. People count it as projects. People count it as something that was done.

Why do they do it? Whether conscious or subconscious, whether they are aware or not of their own inability to grasp what should be done, it does keep expectations low. This is how it was done before, hence I will do it the same way. It is the best way to attain and keep power.

Keep on feeding the people political fodder and make them think we’ve done something.

Projects that are out of touch with realities keep constituents cynical and apathetic to a government that never delivered and will never deliver. To some, it keeps people blind on their real needs – content and thankful for what was given to them while keeping them unaware of a possibility of something so much better, the gift a rebellious mind nurtured by knowledge and sustained by hope grants to some individuals.

And because they can mask their inaction with a façade of action, they keep on winning elections. They keep on using the same methods. The populace is either numbed by it or continuously fooled because well, it’s just the way it is and hence it should be. Ladies and gentlemen, a vicious cycle is born. Until something more sinister breaks out of it.

Duterte, Le Pen, and Trump… don’t have the capacity for discernment required to mobilize true change… They inflame culture wars and our own prejudices against the marginalized because it has been our way of life to blame poverty on the poor and not the system. Capitalism is our way of life.

Democracy and Power

Democracy is no good if it empowers the ignorant to remain ignorant. Democracy is not about the self. It is about the journey of a society in giving the self a chance to grow in its own terms in order to better the lives of its members. If ignorance is tolerated, it is not a democracy but the ill-beginnings of a society about to stagnate in its own private lake of prejudice.

Any man who has claimed that he has found the truth and uses it to silence discussion, or creates a sacred “non-debatable” ground where such a truth functions in a different, untouchable world is not to be trusted. Maybe God has foreseen such a thing from happening because the second commandment appears to be the favorite sin of many these days.

And any man who claims that he is open to discussion and yet resorts to intellectual masturbation for the sake of an illusion of discussion ­– in ancient Greece they call this sophistry – is no different to one who simply wants to silence those who speak.

Democracy empowers you to have an opinion, but it is not about mere ownership of opinions. It is about opinions that are continually subject to scrutiny. It is about the roles each and everyone has to take in the journey of mankind to find meaning in this world and pursue its truth, whether it is a universal truth or our own truths. Democracy is not simply about you, him or her. It is not even simply about us. It is about individual and collective growth.

To stop at mere empowerment as the essence of democracy is to become vulnerable to believing in lies, historical revisionism, and refusal to explore new ways of thinking. It is antithetical to democracy itself.

First, do our leaders know what we really need? Second, do they have the capacity to provide our real needs?

Duterte, Le Pen, and Trump are somehow in touch with the first question, but they don’t have the capacity for discernment required to mobilize true change. They are motivated by oppressive ideals that emerged from the initial successful forays of neoliberalism and the American Dream. They arose with misplaced reverence to those who successfully attained power through and despite the top-heavy economics of our times. They inflame culture wars and our own prejudices against the marginalized because it has been our way of life to blame poverty on the poor and not the system. Capitalism is our way of life. They are the direct outgrowths of neoliberalist insensitivity to the needs of those disenfranchised by globalization. They idolize and relish power more than they use it to bring about progress.

In liberal democracy, on the other hand, the second question is the political chorus. The traditional liberal politicians don’t want us to know that we can actually ask the first question. Whether conscious or subconscious, they flirt with the elite while keep the poor entertained. They are the qualified ones, educated in pristine Universities, with stellar track records in management and politics. Intelligent, to say the least. Yet they exhibit their empathy through meager projects that barely touch on the systemic nature of socioeconomic inequality. They are afraid of touching the deeply ingrained system that keeps power within themselves and the elite. The result is further detachment and a tendency to live in their own echo chambers where they hear only what they want to hear: that at least they have done something. Whether it addresses the real problem or not is a question they consciously or subconsciously avoid. The post-EDSA revolution governments, including the Aquino administration, are the best examples of this.

This is where things get confusing. Who do we call for? The oppressive politicians who can rile up the passion of the disillusioned masses, or those who have preserved status quo for the sake of top-heavy economic progress? Who do we choose between the devil and the deep blue sea?

Power is a strange thing because it inundates the idealism of those who were granted the keys to wield it.

Corruption from within

We’re now failing to discriminate leaders who are only distracting us from the journey and those who can discern, think, and act for us. And the consequences are now seen in the world’s choices of leaders. We have no longer any grounds to ask the question: how did a mass murderer like Hitler rise to power? The answer is before us.

We need to look at every election, no matter what the scale, as a chance to make a difference. Our candidates need to transcend the traditional values of being a politician in order to envision a better world. Leaders must not accuse anybody of apathy unless he has grasped that maybe they are failing to know the real needs of their constituents. Maybe they have resorted to traditional ways of winning people’s hearts: marketing, recall, entertainment, and appeal. It’s all okay if only real problems are being addressed.

What comes with that power, if one is not careful, is an intoxication that destroys memory with a sense of self-assurance that for as long as we do something, relevancy aside, it is okay.

Such prevailing political frivolity will not work in a progressive society. It will be destroyed by grounded reason and genuine moral discernment.

Power is a strange thing because it inundates the idealism of those who were granted the keys to wield it.

Once again 1) I know what you need and 2) I can give it to you.

We – those born under liberal democracy – focus too much on the second question that we forget that in order to establish impact, one must understand first. Understanding takes time and a lot of mental effort. It is difficult. It is slow. It is unpopular. It is what we need.

Otherwise, our politics – from the school to the bigger scale of national governance – is just another form of entertainment: our lofty institutions reduced to factories of frivolous projects and distractions, prone to be corrupted by people whose twisted world-views arose from this propensity to shallowness – you just have to look at the news and social media to see what it has brought us.