If there is one thing that recent global politics has shown us, it is that fear can rally votes.
We have seen it in the case of Donald Trump, who manipulates his supporters’ xenophobia biases with ludicrous promises to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border in order to keep out “drug lords and rapists” and to prevent terrorism by banning all Muslims from entering the United States.
We have also witnessed it on both sides in the United Kingdom’s Brexit debate over that country’s continued membership in the European Union, with Remainers warning that an out vote could lead to job losses and shrink the British economy by six percent by 2030 and Leavers cautioning that the European bloc participation is eroding the very core of the nation’s identity and sovereignty and creating a hotbed of local terrorist cells.
Both Trump and the Brexit saber-rattlers are counting on people’s gut reactions to their unsubstantiated Chicken Little admonitions rather than solid facts to sway voters in their favor.
Now, once again, scaremongering tactics and jingoism have played a crucial role in a crucial election, this time in Austria.
Over the weekend, that country’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) won an unexpected victory in the first round of a presidential election on an unabashed anti-immigrant platform.
And while there is still the hope that saner minds will prevail during a runoff to determine the final winner on May 22, Austria’s two mainstream parties, which had dominated the country’s political landscape since World War II, are essentially out of the running, leaving only two other viable candidates, a tree-hugging radical environmentalist by the name of Alexander Van der Bellen and independent candidate and former head of the Austrian Supreme Court Irmgard Griss.
The FPÖ’s gun-toting Norbert Hofer (who literally carried his Glock revolver around on the campaign trail as he brandished his NRA-style pro-gun manifesto) encouraged his disciples to take up arms to defend themselves from the increasing flood of Middle Eastern and African immigrants.
In addition to wanting to turn officially neutral Austria into a European version of the Wild, Wild West, Hofer has promised that, if elected, he will impose strict limits on immigration.
Using the convoluted logic of “if most recent terrorist acts in Europe have been by Muslims and most recent immigrants to the continent are Muslims, than most recent immigrants must be potential terrorists,” Hofer raced to victory by exploiting nervous populist fears and misinformation.
There is a lesson to be learned from the Austrian election, and it is that responsible statesmanship requires a responsible electorate.
Dramatic personality cults and rabble-rousing Casandraisms may inflame voters and drive elections.
But this type of politics is not just ugly and manipulative. It is also cynical, divisive and potentially dangerous, and goes against the very core of democratic principles.