Opinion | Austrian Idol?

Amid the erosion of the political center, little Austria may be the unlikely champion to stem the surge of the far right

If there is anything worse than the deluge of daily disaster stories, it is the torrent of op-eds bemoaning the rise of the toxic “isms” – variously populism, nativism, exceptionalism, chauvinism, radicalism, nationalism – generally right-wing isms, largely covered by last year’s “un-word,” Trumpism. But there is a much older word that will long outlive the Tweeter-in-Chief’s tenure in the White House.

This word is ochlocracy – the rule of the mob.  Learn to fear it.

Christian Goldstern in the Vienna daily Der Standard wrote a troublingly thoughtful piece citing the philosophical (and historical) inevitability of Democracy’s descent into mob rule. He outlines civil societies’ positive progression of governance from monarchy through oligarchy to democracy, the apparently unavoidable abuse of each prompting a broader and broader participation of the people – a seemingly virtuous spiral.

The catch is that as even democracy disappoints, the spiral reverses itself, government by the people reverts to mob rule – ochlocracy. And then comes the hour of the Strongman: the shadows of Napoleon and Hitler march across the history books, Putin and Erdogan activate billions of fresh pixels daily.

Daring to be different

For those of us sitting in London or Vienna, mob rule seems unlikely. But distant it is no longer – Viktor Orban is successfully unravelling democracy in Hungary less than an hour’s drive from Café Mozart. And a short while ago, an EU without Britain also seemed unlikely.

As the political pundits try to explain why they all got it wrong, two images crystallize: the media echo chamber and die Wutbürger, the angry citizens – two phenomena of 2016 which interacted with a fatal synergy. The algorithm-driven fragmentation of social media polarized the opposing political viewpoints.

Perhaps it is arrogant to think that we – our journalist colleagues, our readers and people like us – can produce a solution.  But we are certainly part of the problem. We are the “well fed, privileged and perplexed,” as Vienna’s liberal conscience Armin Thurnher of Falter put it recently.

The perception of the widening gap between top earners and the stagnating real earnings of most normal people compacted the rift between the liberal urban elite and the quietly glowering mid-country mainstream. While liberals massaged their consciences with concern for human rights, small-town grumblers worried about maintaining their mortgage payments. Reasonable voices were drowned out by the howl of the blogging mobs – digital ochlocracy.  Perfect conditions for the Brexit and Trump upsets. Why were we surprised?

Here in Austria we seem to have bucked the trend; the liberal Professor Alexander Van der Bellen beat out the populist from the right-wing FPÖ (54-46%) in the recent presidential race. But with Austrian parliamentary elections possible as early as May of this year, followed by those in both France and Germany, there’s still everything to play for.

Betting on the center

Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern understands this. In a recent keynote speech intended to re-position his Social Democratic Party (SPÖ)and counter its faltering standing as the traditional party of government, he spoke directly to the Wutbürger: “It’s not you who have left the path, it is us. I want to apologize for these disappointments. From today we are going to change our course.” (Der Standard, Jan 12, 2017).

He was apologizing for not listening.

Chancellor Kern’s speech was a courageous gambler’s throw aimed at regaining the political center, which is steadily eroding to the rightist FPÖ. If it works and his centrist Social Democrats take back the middle ground, Austria could be the first in Europe to roll back the hard right, at present surging in France and Germany, even in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, usually sturdy bulwarks of liberal democracy.  It would be charmingly ironic if our comfortable little Austria, the modest remainder of the Continent’s only great multicultural empire and tainted survivor of the Third Reich, were to become the new beacon for liberal democracy in Europe.

Simon Ballam
English, studied in NY and worked in London, Düsseldorf, NY, Fankfurt, Prague and Vienna. This covered stints in market research and the film industry, international advertising coordination and strategic planning. Currently business school lecturer and journalist.

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