Numbskull Narcissists

“Of course, we are not the only nation to be conducting an interesting social experiment to determine what happens if you elect a clinical narcissist to run a country which later turns out to be facing grave danger. At this stage, the US’s experiment appears to be going rather worse, and you certainly wouldn’t rule out Donald Trump judging November’s elections to be something that had better be suspended under the circumstances.”

Marina Hyde, The Guardian

Well, that pretty much nails it. Both the US and the UK elected entitled, unqualified, self-absorbed celebrities to lead their countries and now they’re paying the price. A potential civilization-crippling emergency is in progress and the likelihood of them (and us) emerging from it without serious consequences — or at all — is very much in doubt. The danger of this crisis being turned into an opportunity for corrupt, incompetent leaders to enlarge and consolidate their power is frightening, but of course that’s only one of many possible dire outcomes.

You could see the dangers long before Covid-19. A world so complex and interconnected as the one we inhabit is going to be vulnerable to major calamities with just the slightest perturbation. The butterfly effect isn’t just about the flutter of insect wings generating hurricanes on the far side of the planet. It’s about Gavrilo Princip firing a pistol and starting WW1, about a gaggle of airborne Saudis with x-acto knives upending the international order or about a small financial scam called Collateralized Debt Obligations triggering a financial meltdown. Tiny things, microscopic viruses in the present case, can have enormous consequences.

When you think of all the possible disaster scenarios, from nuclear war, to asteroid collisions, to fish stock collapse (and with global warming waiting ominously in the wings) you can only conclude that we’ve been very lucky so far. It certainly hasn’t been because we’ve foreseen the dangers and prepared for them. Instead, with a few exceptions, we’ve elected political parties and leaders who have catered to our fantasies and wilfully ignored the complex problems that come with an overcrowded, unequal, resource-depleting planet.

That there has been a worldwide crisis of leadership has been a problem for a while, particularly in the countries with the largest populations and the most international influence. The US, UK, Russia, China and India, comprising 3 1/2 billion people, half the world’s population, all now have leaders who are, to a lesser or greater degree, megalomaniacs. All have a strong aversion to representative democracy.

Countries with smaller more homogeneous populations seem to fare better. Scandinavia has been relatively immune but they too have populist demagogues waiting for an opportunity. But at least their democracies are bottom-up, gender-balanced, well-informed polities.

The two countries, the UK and the US, with long democratic pedigrees that you would think would immunize them from the slide towards autocracy have now been hijacked by the ultra-wealthy. Both are reflections of their respective country’s oligarchic systems. In the UK it’s more obvious, since virtually every senior politician or civil servant is the product of the Oxbridge public (meaning private) school system. Tax breaks for private schools seem to be unassailable. And without changes to the gilded, old boy-ism of British politics, nothing will ever change.

The US, though their class system is less visible, has similar problems, notably in their electoral system whose dysfunction seems to grow with every passing year. The most obvious problem of course is electoral funding — the Citizens United decision, super-PACS, weathy donors. And the absence of an arms-length, non-partisan electoral commission to oversee elections and electoral boundaries means the entire electoral process is cockeyed from the get-go.

If and when this crisis abates, we should seriously consider how electoral systems can be changed to make them more representative and make it easier for intelligent, qualified and caring candidates to run for office. (More women would certainly help). Because if this crisis ends and the system gets worse, then we are well and truly fucked.

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