The Age of Political Faith Healers I: How the Romanian Situation Helps Us See the Bigger Patterns

I usually don’t write about politics. But we are not in a usual situation.

My focus is on patterns of change in businesses and industries. Some of the most dangerous patterns of change however are currently happening in the political landscape. We find ourselves on rapidly shifting sands. And while there is no shortage of high quality analysis and opinion on these, we can see a tendency to rush from one headline to another. What’s needed in any crisis situation, and that’s what I believe we are in, is to identify the big problems first. From there, people can work on going into each of those in depth, without being distracted by the next presidential tweet.

This article jumps in to shed a light on some of the bigger patterns happening. I do not pretend to offer a solution. Plenty of people out there have better insights than I do. Yet it’s about time to level up the discussion away from the daily tweet madness to a conceptual level. So regard this as a draft concept paper to get the brain juices flowing.

Let’s close the door to the buzz from the newsroom for a second and put on our thinking caps.

First, who are the faith healers? We often call the populists, but populism is just the tool. A tool that they play like a champion. They are the faith healers of politics. Some of them may even be worth the label authoritarian or dictator, but I’d like to focus on their most important feature. They suck everything that has been built over decades out of a country to serve their own purposes, which mostly are the enrichment of their bank accounts or egos. As a result, parasites of politics, might be another way to describe them. Why bother? Once the dust has settled, those nations that can successfully resist parasitism will be the ones to maintain and build an economy that can compete on an international level and adjust for the changing requirements of the future.

There have always been faith healers in one form or another. But recently the business of healing has been booming, enabled by new tools which help them leverage their efforts.

One tool is related to their messages. This is the frustration of millions of people suffering from the vanishing of a financially stable situation. We are coming out of an unprecedented era of wealth and stability. Following World War II, our economies saw more or less constant growth. The formula of getting an education, then a safe and steady job and a monthly paycheck worked very well. As we know, times have changed. Stability has been replaced by change, most importantly due to technological advances. This is hard to accept for many people. As a result, these people are literally starving for simple messages, for perceived solutions to the complex challenges they are facing. Anything that enables them to leave the rose-colored glasses on is welcome. If we fear the loss of our jobs and threat of terrorist attacks, then isn’t it nice to hear that the solution is already there? We don’t need to bother that these immigrants are the ones who helped create the economic and cultural wealth that we now benefit from in this status quo that we so urgently want to preserve. The simple message sounds so much easier. As a result, we more and more have a conflict between those voters who are ready to embrace change, with all of its complexities, and those who want to preserve the past.

This fear of change is the one tool. The other tool enables the faith healers to amplify their messages. Through social media as well as through an economically challenged legacy media landscape, hungry for eyeballs, the healers can reach millions of frustrated people who are starving for these simple messages. That is not to say that the media does a bad job. But these are fast times in media. One can gain the impression that even the most credible media businesses are understandably challenged by this constant flow of headlines that is not driven by relevance but by attractiveness to eyeballs. In other words, these con artists are able to take over the driver seat, they can determine the editorial calendar if they play their cards well. And we have seen that they know how to play.

These tools amongst others have increased the reach of these faith healers of politics. Let’s think of this increase in terms of two levels. Team Brexit, fortunately, has only reached Level One. In the coming weeks, it remains to be seen whether Team Trump has been entering Level Two. The same goes for the Romanian Team Dragnea.

Let’s briefly summarize their playbook for Level 1 and Level 2:

Level 1: Persuade the public

  • Target the frustrated part of the population. Find their fears, such as change and globalization, or create their fears.
  • Provide simple enough, convincing messages to make them ignorant of any facts. For this I recommend reading Neil Postman’s “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, which will answer any question you may have, or watch this TED Talk.
  • Provide the right media channels with the headlines that drive eyeballs, to spread the word.
  • Ideally, lack of political leadership or popularity from other parties helps boost this effect. By this I do not mean that these people need to be bad politicians. They just may lack the skill-set to stand up to the faith healers. Sometimes even the best brains may be the ones having problems standing up to windbags.

Level 2: bend the constitutional balances

  • Test the scope of their power
  • Test the extent to which they can exclude other branches of the constitution through strategic games. Then eliminate the media as fourth constitutional power by diverting the attention of the public.
  • Let’s call this “dictatorship light”

Which brings us to Romania.

First, looking at Romania helps us lift the fog and see the bigger patterns. I feel that the situation there is a bit more clearer with less distractions, less media buzz, compared to for example the US situation. Here we find the old school, plain vanilla faith healers.

Here is a summary of the story: over the past fourteen years, the Romanian justice system has done a remarkable job fighting corruption, mostly thanks to their Anti Corruption Agency (”DNA”). They have been investigating a large number of offenses made by politicians. In one year, 1,250 public officials have been indicted for corruption. One of the most prominent clients of the agency is, Liviu Dragnea, the leader of the PSD party who has just won the elections. He was “convicted in a case involving electoral fraud, for which he received a two-year suspended sentence in April 2016”. DNA’s successes have the power to scare the Halliburtons of this world and they have been a role model in particular for many European countries.

Enter the faith healers. In recent elections, the PSD party won the elections.

They used playbook Level 1 like a champ. Their political campaign was centered around the fear that their opponents were allegedly associated with George Soros. Mr Soros would buy the country away from Romanians. This of course ignoring that a) they themselves had been working with George Soros, and b) that the Romanian economy has been benefiting from foreign investment. Oh, and in case you were wondering, yes this was the party whose leader, Dragnea was convicted. He indeed manages to make Silvio Berlusconi look like a rookie.

Level 2 was entered last Tuesday evening, Jan 31st. In a secret meeting, the new government decided on a new bill. This bill would in effect pardon corrupt politicians. This was done by issuing an emergency ordinance, which they are allowed if the urgent nature of the cause calls for it. Last time I checked, a convicted party leader waiting for prison time is not such an emergency.

However, now we are getting to the second lesson, that Romania can teach us. As we just saw, the bill was passed in a secret meeting at 10pm. The same evening, already more than 15.000 people were peacefully protesting in front of the government building, effectively having locked the government.

Image via Oana Tereza Oancea

The people have responded with a unity and speed which we have rarely seen. The next day, 150.000 people peacefully hit the streets of Bucharest, 300.000 across the whole country. Romania has a population of close to 20 million. This is a conversion rate that would put any civil rights activist into the all star league.

image via Ioana Milea

Unfortunately there were organized violences of around forty people who intentionally disrupted the otherwise peaceful demonstrations. There were suspicions, that authorities were aware of these instigators, while not doing anything against them, but using them as a means to shut the demonstration down. While it is not confirmed, media is assuming that these instigators seemed to have been fans of the football club. After all, the violence discouraged peaceful protesters, causing them to return home.

As of the time of writing it is not clear how the situation continues. Without doubt this not only provides a serious threat to the democracy of Romania, but also to the stability of the European Union, eroding its democratic values and opening the door to other faith healers who are readily waiting in line. Imagine, any country reversing the effort of a long fight against corruption. Then add a government who has unique views on the political decision making process. Not the best basis for foreign investment, which basically would exclude the country from the common market of the EU. For the EU this would once more signal a failure to act on its challenges.

What is the right medicine against these faith healers of politics?

The best cure for Level 2 clearly clearly relies on the legal and constitutional system. For Level 1, the situation however is too complex for a simple cure. But then, what we can do is wipe away the fog and look at the patterns. We have three contributors to this mess. Us, the voters, the politicians and the media. Changing the incentives of these parties to the game will be key in one way or another. Let’s go through it. I will put down my thoughts, but feel free to take your own notes:

Politicians

Address the economic challenges

  • It will become necessary to openly address the economic challenges that voters face, such as technology taking jobs. Pretending to offer stability is no solution when change is obvious. There is no easy way to do this, and the solution may still take years to find. At the end it might be a mixture of creating an environment where people can quickly relearn new skills as well as rethinking the economics of social security.

Address the educational challenges

  • For any democracy, critical thinking skills and education of voters are essential. Reading some Facebook comments one may get the impression that we still have a lot of homework to do. Improved high school education across countries will be key.

Media

  • A large number of smart, high quality and responsible media businesses are doing excellent work. Whether it is The Economist, Guardian, New York Times or the likes, they are a key foundation of our democratic systems. In general, Social Media ads to this, enabling people to report from events of relevance.
  • But then there are those media outlets that follow a different economic model. Let’s call this the eyeballs first model, which is willingly able to help spread populism in return for advertiser’s money. Jon Stewart has provided better analysis on their political impact than I would ever be able to do. The problem is, that their economic model is in conflict with a rational political decision making model, that is necessary for a working democracy. And plenty of people are willing to listen in to their messages, which has been identified earliest by Neil Postman. What is the solution? Can we make the media accountable for a reasonable political discourse? Enforcing accountability while not limiting freedom of press may be a thin and dangerous line. May be the smarter way is to align the interest between the economic concerns of a newspaper and the political concerns of voters and consumers. How could that work? One solution could be transparency. Why not lay open which media outlets a brand uses for its advertising? A consumer can then decide whether the content and values of those channels aligns with his or her needs. If not he will opt for another brand, taking away advertising money from those channels. These media outlets depend on advertisers. And these advertisers depend on consumers, yes, on voters. Showing the flow of media content advertising money, may have the power to take away the fuel that feeds the engines.

Voters

Transparency and accountability of politicians

  • We need to find ways to better follow up on politician’s promises. Accountability of politicians will gain in importance. Imagine a CEO lying to shareholders. Most people get nervous when they build their careers on lies, but a faith healer is apparently not one of them.

Bundle voices

  • And of course, we can take it to the streets, like Romania has successfully demonstrated us. Protest signs will be a top seller in the coming future. Any format that enables us to bundle our voices provides a form of influence.

This is about it, for the options that I see. May be you see more. Whether you agree with the above described patterns or not, it’s time to look for the bigger patterns and focus on what can be done. We don’t have time for distractions now.

And, of course, stand up for Romania in the next days! You may never have been there, which is likely since it’s a small country. In this case I can tell you, they are very kind and welcoming people who deserve better. That’s one reason. The other reason is that other con artists are already waiting in line, and we may find some household names from upcoming European elections among the contenders for the top spot. It’s time to break the chain and Romania is a chance to do so.

We are in a critical situation. Faith healing is in fashion this season, and we have plenty of suppliers who made it from the suburbs on to high street. Whether the patient is the UK, the US or any country in Europe, if we have our leaders inform us with the breath of context of used car dealerships, and if we lower the level of the political decision making process to the content of Sesame Street, we are doomed to fail as economies and democracies.


Photo Credits from Bucharest: thank you for the photos of the protests to Oana Tereza Oancea and Ioana Milea


Part II, “How a Little Nation Developed a Blueprint for Fighting Populism” you will find here