Leaders’ dreams are becoming our nightmares

When our challenges are crying out for social cohesion, division is the order of the day.

Brazil’s new strongman, Jair Bolsonaro. PHOTO Leo Correa/AP

AA Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, a bear of very little brain though a source of much wisdom for me, always liked to chat, but his neighbour Rabbit thought it wasted time.

Pooh always got a good chat out of his friend Piglet. One day, after Rabbit had left in his usual hurry, the pair agreed that Rabbit had Brain. After a bit Pooh said, “I suppose that’s why he never understands anything.”

There is an observation for the ages – or at least, for the age we live in now. Our 7.6 billion human brains deliver more information, more analysis, more knowledge than we’ve ever had.

And yet we’re making a dreadful mess of things. Institutional authority is being steadily eroded, political processes are being corrupted, public policy is being trivialised and society is being reduced to tribes.

History tells us that none of this is new, that things have been bad many times before. But it also says that stable, functioning democracy is less common than we think, and that it’s been known to vanish when least expected.

In the West we used to cherish the belief that things always got better. This seems to have emerged from a vague sense that our race or religion was superior, as Europeans assumed when they took possession of new lands in Africa, the Americas and Australia.

The dominant narrative of every election campaign draws on those disreputable notions. Our improving cleverness, it says, will always deliver better health and education, a roof over the head, secure jobs and a food supply while shielding us from nature’s ravages.

That narrative never held water, but it is now in tatters. Technology is looking impotent in the face of nature. Education and medical services are costing more, housing is out of reach for many and secure jobs are rare. Affordable food and potable water look like being the next dominos to fall.

People faced with uncertainty are drawn to “strong” leaders who initially pose as champions of democracy and the rule of law before turning out to be careless with the truth and averse to legal restraint. And they are now popping up all over the place.

Brazil is a recent arrival on this scene. The hostility of its new president, Jair Bolsonaro, towards people who are not like him – women, homosexuals, black people, environmentalists and others – makes Donald Trump look almost civilised. He is taking his country to a very nasty place.

Besides containing a tenth of all animal and plant species, Brazil’s Amazon rainforest helps to stabilise global climate by removing carbon from the air. Bolsonaro has abandoned land clearing restrictions and allowed agribusinesses to clear nearly 1500 square km of Amazon forest a month.

Bolsonaro can claim that Brazil’s emerging economy deserves a break, but Trump has no such excuse in relaxing US climate and biodiversity controls, including vehicle emission standards and oil and gas extraction in wilderness areas.

Such vandalism is a direct threat to the capacity of nations to meet global challenges, but that would appear to be one of its key aims. Like democracy, international cooperation is anathema to these leaders, all of them willing captives of their own nationalist narrative.

Once in office, their pattern of behaviour is profoundly undemocratic. In order to retain power they stir up fear and insecurity, scapegoating minorities and critics and branding them “enemies of the people” – a phrase which the Nazis exploited to great effect in Germany in the 1930s.

Scott Morrison’s government and its predecessors have played down Australia’s importance on the world stage, especially when attacked about carbon emissions. They’re wrong about that, but they’re even more wrong in the context of failing democratic institutions.

Australia shares with a relatively small number of countries a long history of stable democracy nurtured by a frank, open public discourse and strong institutions, in which regimes can change with little rancour and no bloodshed. In these troubled times, that capability is to be treasured.

Our global importance is further enhanced by the parlous state of the country now widely derided as the Disunited Kingdom, once considered the wellspring of stable democracy. Boris Johnson’s rise to the prime ministership will do nothing to ease doubts about the kingdom’s future viability.

Democracy thrives on disagreement, which is fine so long as everyone understands that and works within the rules. But as ideology becomes dogma and party divisions harden into more permanent forms, those time-honoured rules are being broken in country after country.

Instead of encouraging positive discourse and harnessing social intelligence, leaders are exploiting division for narrow political ends. If they cannot draw on our collective brainpower to deal with the huge issues confronting us, all their dreams will become our nightmares.

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