You know the usual story: a political community is sundered by ethnic or sectarian conflict, things fall apart; after a hot season or two of killings and mayhem peace is negotiated, and the domestic political process resumes. The international community insists on elections. They are held in a rough and ready manner, a faction wins and forms a government. Then what happens? The winners start using the powers of the state to smash opponents anew and entrench themselves in power. Very often, the winners do this just because they can. I call them the new authoritarians. They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
What they forget is that public opinion is the basis of legitimacy. As David Hume teaches in is seminal essay Of the first principles of government (1741) legitimacy flows when the preponderance of citizens in a state have three opinions:
- This government has a right to rule over me [depending on how they see the right to rule]
- This government and the state act in my interest [including, we should add, the interest of my identity group]; and
- My property rights are secure.
Creating this opinion in the minds of most citizens is a substantive challenge as well as a communication challenge. Substantively, in the words of John Stuart Mill, the state must be 'a fountain of justice', both in terms of distributive justice and inter-group justice. Second, citizens must see and believe that the state is a fountain of justice, and that requires pro-active public engagement and communication designed to shape public opinion. The call is for an inclusive politics, especially one respectful of citizen voice. For without voice exit is tempting; the suppression of voice is the surest way to provoke a return to conflict.
What the new authoritarians in many of today's post-conflict or fragile states forget is that widespread efforts to suppress voice, muzzle the press, and impose information hegemony are doomed to fail. First, no territory can be hermetically sealed. If deep divisions persist, ethno-sectarian media will find a way to flourish both within and outside the borders of the specific country. Wars of the airwaves will be conducted, including the use of digital media tools. Grievances will be stoked, and "We" versus "They" narratives entrenched, instead of 'One Nation" narratives. Second, the new authoritarians forget the power of "everyday talk" by citizens and its role in shaping public opinion. Just as you cannot stop citizens from meeting, you cannot stop them from talking: mosques, churches, temples, social clubs, workplaces, dinner tables - citizens will meet up and talk about the issues affecting their lives. If they are unhappy, they will share and elaborate grievances. In other words, the new authoritarians are provoking exit not loyalty. They are planting and watering seeds of conflict.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Spyros_Demetriou