Donald Trump did not do anything apart from making a habit of offending ‘liberals’ through hundreds of outrageous tweets. At least this is the general perception about Trump’s presidency. However, he did deliver on some of his promises. But they failed to prevent the hit that the American economy took because of the Covid-19 pandemic. They also failed to address the violent manifestations of the many social tensions brewing in the US.

Susan Milligan writes in the February 23, 2018 issue of US News that it was the ‘angry vote’ that had helped push Trump past his opponent during the 2016 presidential elections. Most American political scientists now believe these votes were cast as an expression of anger towards mainstream politicians. These were votes for the so-called ‘outsider’ Trump. Angry votes are often the result of unresolved social conflicts in society.

Established democratic systems have built-in safety valves for this very purpose. But sometimes the intensity of the tensions is such that even the immune system of an established democracy fails to resolve them. The resultant anger thus turns towards the democratic system itself, sending it spiralling into an existentialist crisis.

In the minds of angry voters, they are punishing what they believe has become a ‘corrupt’ system. So the sight of an ‘uncouth’ man such as Trump sitting in the White House was enough to appease the anger of those who felt alienated by the outcomes of social and economic shifts in the US.

Those who manage to reach a position of power through angry votes really don’t need to do anything. Since their appeal lies in not being like ‘typical politicians’, there is no need for them to satisfy voters through ‘good policies.’ Instead, they are pressed simply to retain their ‘anti-politician’ posture. They don’t come in with any well thought-out plans. Their fiery rhetoric is the plan that either remains just that or, more worryingly, is manifested through narrow racial, religious or chauvinistic manoeuvres.

Those who reach a position of power through angry votes often don’t need to do anything. Their appeal lies simply in not being like ‘typical politicians’

We can see this playing out in another established democracy. A shaky economy in Modi’s India has taken a back seat and certain awkward religious and cultural issues have come to the fore, because Modi’s core appeal lay in him posing as an unabashed Hindu nationalist who would ‘crush’ Pakistan and Indian secularism that had ‘corrupted’ India’s national body.

Again, this was never really about resolving India’s social tensions, but rather, exacerbating them for cynical political purposes. Modi promised a masculine, militant Hindu India, or the antithesis of the supposedly effeminate India peddled by its secular founders.

According to a study made available in June 2017 on the academic website Research Gate, there are two main stages of how social tensions play out. At the initial stage, among certain groups, dissatisfaction with the situation in important areas of life is formed and pessimism starts to spread. At the second stage, attempts are made to find someone to blame. The level of trust in the authorities decreases and discontent begins to take on a more acute form. The prevalence of social unrest may then cause ‘a violation of self-regulation mechanisms’ and the deterioration of the basic subsystems of society.

The last half a dozen years have been rather peculiar as far as electoral politics are concerned. It is as if caricatures of one-dimensional firebrands have been propelled into power in various countries. Social tensions had continued to simmer and, apparently, could not be checked by mainstream politicians. Many segments even accused politicians of becoming tools of oppression.

This was when one also saw the culture of conspiracy theories jump from the edges of society and into the mainstream. The complexities of politics and modern everyday living were understood as being chaos unleashed upon a troubled polity by a ‘corrupt’ and amoral bunch of politicians to keep people entangled and subjugated. This was at the heart of Pakistani PM Imran Khan’s elections campaigns as well.

Such a slimmed-down understanding of the outcomes of complex and unresolved social tensions results in anger and anxiety among people who crave to see uncomplicated men with similar views in power. These men feed into this anxiety; they are in no mood to resolve it. This anxiety is the raison d’etre of their political existence.

Another interesting example of this is the unexpected electoral performance in Pakistan of the far-right Sunni Barelvi party, the Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). It received the sixth largest number of votes across the country during the 2018 elections. During my research of the 2018 elections for my book Soul Rivals, I discovered that, even though contestants of established mainstream parties were constantly asked by potential voters how they planned to address various economic and social issues of their constituencies, TLP contestants hardly ever faced such inquiries.

What TLP received were angry votes from those who had lost trust in the established parties. TLP ate into the PML-N’s votes and the already dwindling PPP votes in the Punjab. In Karachi, it usurped the once immovable MQM votes and also PPP votes in Lyari.

Most analysts were of the view that this aided Imran Khan’s PTI. But my findings suggest that TLP also attracted many voters who had voted for the PTI in 2013, especially in the Punjab. PTI narrowly won the 2018 polls and, in some constituencies in Punjab, narrowly lost to PML-N candidates, because TLP ended up usurping votes from both the parties.

Late last year, a researcher from Karachi University, who had aided me in my research, told me that the two TLP members who won provincial seats in Karachi were still not being pressed to do any developmental work in their constituencies. What TLP had received were votes cast to punish mainstream parties, thanks to the frustrating outcomes of tussles between some mainstream parties and the establishment, and their inability to resolve social tensions impacting the polity.

TLP is still a one-agenda outfit. It presents itself as being the gatekeeper of the country’s contentious blasphemy laws. But angry votes are mostly fleeting. Their staying power is unpredictable because democracies (even when flawed) have a way of self-correcting themselves. Once that happens, the angry votes shrink.

Anyway, in TLP’s case, the party’s strand of Barelvi Islam has no traction in Deobandi-majority KP and Balochistan. And, even though Sindh outside Karachi too is largely Barelvi, TLP’s performance there was weak because, comparatively speaking, social tensions in the rest of Sindh were managed in a better manner than they were in Karachi and the Punjab.

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 28th, 2021

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