Yuval Noah Harari has become one of the leading thought leaders of today. Wikipedia describes him as a “public intellectual, historian and professor. “I know what an historian and a professor are, but I wasn’t too sure about the “public intellectual” part so I looked it up. Again, according to Wikipedia, “The term public intellectual describes the intellectual participating in the public-affairs discourse of society, in addition to an academic career. Regardless of the academic field or the professional expertise, the public intellectual addresses and responds to the normative problems of society, and, as such, is expected to be an impartial critic who can “rise above the partial preoccupation of one’s own profession—and engage with the global issues of truth, judgment, and taste of the time”. It sounds great except anyone who has listened to or read Mr. Harari knows he is anything but “an impartial critic.”
Impartial critic or otherwise, he has written best sellers, been featured on 60 Minutes and even had his own TED Talk. Wow. Impressive. So, this Mr. Harari must be quite the genius and his words must really make a lot of sense and resonate with deep meaning and significance. At least you would hope. As with so many academic elites, Mr. Harari can spew forth a lot of opinions, often rarely supported by actual facts, in a tone and manner that would fool the world’s best lie detector. Unfortunately, on deeper analysis, as is often the case with academic elites, what he spews forth as if his words were the Sermon the Mount, is not true and illogical.
Recently Mr. Harari was interviewed on Channel 4 News. From the clip I am not sure which Channel 4 News that was, but somewhere in the English-speaking world, someone on Channel 4 News, asked him a question. The question was “So what does history tell us about why we keep populists in positions of power?”
Before we look at Mr. Harari’s answer, we need to answer the question, “What is a populist?” I will go back to my old friend Wikipedia (fully realizing that Wikipedia does have some bias). Wikipedia says, “Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasize the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite” or “the establishment.” Note the salient point is the “people” versus the “establishment.” To put it in a more practical perspective, think the average citizens versus those officials (elected or otherwise) who run the machinery of government.
Mr. Harari answers the question as follows: “It is the oldest trick in the book. Its divide and rule. The way to power for a dictator is to divide society, to create distrust between citizens, because in order to function a democracy needs trust between the citizens. I must trust that the other party, my political rivals, I don’t agree with them, maybe even I think they are stupid, but I don’t think they are evil. I don’t think they want to harm me. That’s the basis for democracy. Then even if I lose an election, I am willing to accept the verdict of the majority of the citizens. But if I think the other party, they are not my rivals, they are my enemies. They want to destroy my way of life. They want to enslave me. Then I will do anything, legal or illegal, to win elections. And if I lose, I will not accept the verdict. So, in this situation you can have a civil war, or you can have a dictator. A dictator doesn’t need trust between citizens. In fact, it’s better for a dictator if people fear and hate each other. Then they can’t unite to force the dictator out. Dictatorship in this sense is like a weed, it can grow anywhere. But democracy is like a delicate flower. It needs pre-conditions to succeed. And on key precondition is trust between the different segments of society. And what populists do, all over the world, is the same trick. They locate pre-existing wounds in the community. Places where people disagree. And instead of trying to heal the wounds they stick their finger into it and try to enlarge it and enflame it as much as possible to destroy trust between the citizens. And then they offer themselves as the leader for one tribe. It’s no longer a community. It’s now warring tribes and they place themselves at the head of one tribe promising to defeat the other.”
For the record, I include Mt. Harari’s entire quote so no reader can accuse me of taking any of his words out of context. Well, if nothing else Mr. Harari seems very long winded and appears to relish the sound of his own voice. Having done hundreds of interviews I will I tell you I wouldn’t want to interview him. Nothing worse than long, run-on responses. They make for boring interviews. However, if we analyze what Mr. Harari says in the response the questions, it will demonstrate some very biased and illogical thinking.
Mt. Harari is asked about populist leaders. The first couple of sentences of his response are: “It is the oldest trick in the book. Its divide and rule. The way to power for a dictator is to divide society, to create distrust between citizens.” He was asked about populist leaders; he responds with comments about dictators. So, Mr. Harari believes the two terms are interchangeable. Populist leaders are dictators and dictators are populist leaders. What is a populist leader? As we have already defined previously, it emphasizes the idea of “the people” and often juxtaposes this group against “the elite” or “the establishment.” Clearly what he is saying is that populists who represent the people are dictators, and as none of us want dictators, the alternative is clearly his favored system, a system where the elite and the establishment run society. Now would you venture to guess which part of society Mr. Harari is a member of? Would it be the common people or the elite? Well, a “public intellectual” certainly doesn’t sound like common folk to me. He clearly thinks he, and his group, are the people who should be running society and God forbid society be run by the ignorant, unknowing masses – you know – the “people.”
Again, he starts off with: “It is the oldest trick in the book. Its divide and rule. The way to power for a dictator is to divide society.” I am not sure which dictators he is talking about. Maybe the dictator of some obscure country in Africa hundreds of years ago. But it is worth looking at the three most famous dictators in recent history – Stalin, Hitler, and Mao.
Let’s take Mao first. When Mao took power, China was already in a civil war. The country was already divided between communists and nationalists. He didn’t find “pre-existing wounds” in the community. He did persecute landowners, but that was the one group that could potentially challenge his grab for power. It wasn’t the landowners vs the non-landowners, it was the government against the landowners, and he used the apparatus of government to hunt down, punish and even murder anyone who challenged him so could consolidate his power over the people.
Hitler as we know was elected before taking over as a dictator. Did he get elected because he found “pre-existing wounds in the community? No. He was elected on a socialist platform of free education, free medical care, nationalization of businesses, equal rights, and providing pensions for senior citizens. Once in power, much like Mao, he used the apparatus of the government to hunt down, punish and even murder anyone who challenged him so he could consolidate his power over the people. Then he blamed the Jews for society’s problems.
How about Stalin? Well Stalin was a staunch supporter and right-hand man of Lenin. Lenin had led the Bolsheviks to victory in Russia in 1919. Lenin died in 1924 and as one of the most senior men in the Lenin government, Stalin took over. He then used the apparatus of the government to hunt down, punish and even murder anyone who challenged him so he could consolidate his power over the people. He then maintained power by blaming various groups of people for the policy failures of his government.
In deeper analysis, the three most famous dictators in modern history, Stalin, Hitler, and Mao, who collectively are responsible for the deaths of between 100 and 200 million people, did not do what Mr. Harari claims dictators do. None of them got into power by implementing “divide and rule and creating distrust between citizens.” All of them used the existing governing apparatus to gain power, either through election, appointment, or a combination of both, by the establishment of the time, and then used the power of government to pursue and murder their opponents. All of them spent many years working their way up through the ranks of their respective government systems until through devious means they reach the top.
The next part of his response makes even less sense. The next part of his response is “because in order to function a democracy needs trust between the citizens.” America is one of the leading democracies in the world. So, do the people trust each other? Or a better question would be, did they ever trust each other? Perhaps Mr. Harari should (as an historian) read the Federalist Papers. The framers of our constitution (Hamilton, Madison, Jay et al.) didn’t trust anyone. They set up a political system (you know, the three branches of government) because they did not trust any politician or government official. They wanted a system of checks and balances for the very reason they did not trust their fellow citizens once elected to a position of power. Our entire system of government is set up on the premise that you cannot trust your fellow citizens and you need a government system that protects us from our fellow citizens as well as those citizens who are running the government. Democracy exists because we trust the system (at least most of us used to), not our fellow citizens.
Now let’s go back to the question the interviewer asked of Mr. Harari, “So what does history tell us about why we keep populists in positions of power?” Forget about the history part, let’s pare the question down to “Why we keep populists in positions of power?” This question surmises that we do keep populists in positions of power. But do we?
A list of the top ten populist leaders includes Preston Manning of Canada, Woodrow Wilson & Theodore Roosevelt of the United States, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of Mexico, and Margaret Thatcher of Great Britain. Their track records as political leaders vary, and they served varying terms in their respective governments. But none of them were kept in positions of power much beyond what would be considered a reasonable political career and none of them were dictators. Mr. Harari in his response clearly attempted to connect populism with dictators but the facts suggest that populists don’t become dictators under normal circumstances, and people who do become dictators certainly don’t use Mr. Harari’s “oldest trick in the book.” They used the existing political systems in place in their respective countries and came up through the ranks of the establishment. They were not populists.
A better question might be why do we keep incompetent and corrupt politicians in power? Since the founding of the United States 25 senators have served more than 35 years and 31 congressmen served over 40 years. Our current president was first elected to congress in 1972. None of them are on the list of the top ten populists. Seems the populists come and go, but elites and members of the establishment stick around for a very long time. I am sure Mr. Harari would approve.
My conclusion is one of two things. Either Mr. Harari really is just a bag of hot air who strings together authoritarian sounding opinions with little evidence or support, or Mr. Harari really has a hidden agenda and is not an “impartial critic.” Somehow, I think it’s a little of both. But I guess it sells books.