How a small country has (so far) avoided the global descent into mindless populism
For anyone who’s been paying attention to global affairs, the years since 2015 have been deeply discouraging. Commencing with Brexit and then continuing with Trump, nation after nation has fallen into the trap of pandering to humanity’s worst instincts. The roll-call of populist/nationalist nations is now terrifying: UK, USA, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Hungary, Turkey, Russia, China, Brazil, Poland, and multiple nations across Africa. Standing in the wings waiting to join are France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Austria, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Mexico, and several other African nations.
The collapse of civilization is always the same: one or more cynical demagogues claims that the nation faces an existential threat from some group; that group is then demonized; the populace is urged to back the “strong leader” who will save the nation from this fabricated threat; lies replace facts and absurd promises gull the simple-minded. An us-versus-them mentality is established and reason is turned into treason.
Most people, meanwhile, continue with their lives blithely unaware of the fact civilization is coming to an end. No doubt ordinary Roman citizens also went about their lives as the Empire collapsed around them. After all, the daily chores and responsibilities don’t go away just because we’re tearing ourselves apart! So we focus on the quotidian and persuade ourselves that “it will all turn out all right in the end because it always does.”
This is in the same category of self-soothing nonsense as “thoughts and prayers” and “everything happens for a reason” and “the universe gives us what we need.” In other words, most people avoid difficult thinking in favor of parroting platitudes, sound-bites, and Internet memes because it’s the easiest thing to do and anyway, how can any of us individually do anything to prevent the tsunami of mindlessness that’s overwhelming our fragile civilization?
Since mid-February 2019 I’ve been living in Switzerland and traveling around Europe, making the most of my UK passport before the mindless stupidity of Brexit makes it utterly worthless. I consume European news media (US and UK media is now essentially just empty sensation for the purpose of fleetingly capturing eyeballs) and I talk to people around me. I see how close France and Italy are to their own version of Trump (Le Pen and Salvini) and how it’s always the same sort of people who support the “strong leader” everywhere: the ignorant, the uneducated, the unintelligent, the superstitious.
Yet all societies have their less able members. All societies see IQ distributed across a Gaussian curve. All societies have their old, ignorant, and simple-minded citizens. So why has Switzerland (so far, at least) managed to avoid the ravages of drooling populism that are destroying so many nations around the world?
I’ve come to believe that Switzerland possesses a unique characteristic absent in most other nations: fundamental diversity.
For those unfamiliar with Switzerland, it’s a landlocked nation located in the center of Western Europe. Historically it’s been relatively immune to foreign invasion courtesy of the fact it’s primarily mountainous and the Alps provide a natural barrier that until recently was a significant encumbrance to any would-be invader. It has a relatively small population of just over eight and a half million people.
None of these factors, however, are relevant when it comes to the problem of populism, because populism is internally generated so it cares nothing about mountains or population size.
What is unique about Switzerland is the fact it is an assembly of 26 separate districts called Cantons, and these Cantons are highly differentiated. There are seven Cantons in which French is the primary or joint-equal language, twenty-two Cantons in which Swiss German is the primary or joint-equal language, and two Cantons in which Italian and Romansh are also spoken. As you might expect, along with different languages are cultural differences as well. Swiss people are often proud of the Canton in which they live, and each Canton enjoys significant local authority.
What this means is that Swiss people have a deep sense of the importance of collaborating with people who are like, and yet also unlike, themselves. Swiss people recognize that separately they would all be far weaker, so working together is seen as essential to maintain their nation and the way of life they value.
This makes it far more difficult for the inherently conflict-oriented scourge of populism to take hold. When you live in a country in which collaboration between different languages and cultures is taken as a fundamental part of life, it’s not so easy for would-be demagogues to create fear and division. The Swiss held an election in 2019 in which right-wing fearmongers attempted to use the Trump Playbook in order to gain power; these politicians were soundly defeated by more reasonable and rational candidates.
Of course Switzerland isn’t perfect; no nation is without its flaws and irritations. But I’m struck by how much happier and relaxed the Swiss are compared to their neighbors these days. It’s definitely not because the Swiss are unfamiliar with having a large immigrant population: twenty-nine percent are immigrants and in some places such as Lausanne the figure is closer to forty percent. This is a far, far higher percentage of immigrants than we see in nations that have succumbed to mindless populism: the USA has 14.3% of its population as immigrants, the UK has 13.2%, India has only 0.4%, and Brazil has only 0.9%.
In addition to its default assumption of cooperation and multi-cultural collaboration, Switzerland does not permit the repellent and highly toxic entertainments so beloved in the USA and increasingly elsewhere. There are no shock-jocks on the radio, no television stations spewing out lies and propaganda like Fox News, and even the newspapers are not permitted to terrify the less intelligent with outrageous nonsense (take a bow The Sun, the Daily Mirror, etc.). This robs populists of a fundamental path to success.
By remaining fact-based and by avoiding the worst of the sensationalism that is so profitable yet so fundamentally poisonous to society, Switzerland has retained a peacefulness and quality of life that is rapidly vanishing around the globe.
It would be lovely to imagine that other nations would look at Switzerland and copy its example. Sadly this will never happen. What populist leader would wish to undermine the basis of their success? What media magnate would wish to diminish their own wealth by ceasing to manipulate the ignorant, the unintelligent, and the credulous?
If we look at the UK we see that the Brexit-oriented English lower classes are basically saying “fuck the Scots and the Irish.” If we look at the USA we see Trump’s drooling howling mob is basically saying “fuck the West Coast and Massachusetts and anywhere else they don’t want White Supremacy.” In India we see Modi demonizing everyone who’s not a Hindu fundamentalist, as per the standard Trump Playbook of intolerance and religious division. As noted earlier, everywhere we see reason being reframed as treason.
Populism reframes grotesque stupidity and ignorance as “patriotism.” We all know where this leads but apparently we’ve all forgotten the lessons of the 1920s and 1930s so we’re doomed to replay a much more destructive version (thanks to huge advances in modern weapons systems) in the years to come.
Thus the world will descend into a new Dark Ages and billions of lives will be irrevocably harmed.
For me the only question is: in such a world, how much longer can the Swiss Exception be maintained?