What Johnson understood was that in the digital age, voters were behaving more like an audience consuming entertainment than a civically engaged electorate.Matthew d’Ancona, Guardian columnist
In the early 1930s, the German people were trying to come back from the cost and emotional loss of the war to end all wars. Naturally, they were struggling.
The Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 and the subsequent London Schedule of Payments from 1921 required Germany to pay 132 billion gold marks (US$33 billion) to cover civilian damage caused during the war. That is a lot of money today, let alone 100 years ago when a US dollar would buy a six-pack and some change.
Most families knew personal losses from the war and carried a collective pain from defeat. Historians suggest that the German people knew they had to work hard to recover and investors, especially from America, saw the opportunity and poured money into the country. Then the Wall Street crash of 1929 hit and the decade long depression that followed scrambled everyone’s options.
The conventional wisdom is that these setbacks resulted in economic and social unrest, specifically inflation and high unemployment, a pattern that was repeated across Europe and the US. These were trying times everywhere.
The census of 1933 had the population of Germany at over 65 million people. In the previous year, there was an election. Many adults thought it wise enough to cast their vote for National Socialist German Workers’ Party who had made their ideology to strengthen the Germanic people, the “Aryan master race” perfectly clear. A third of the German electorate voted for the Nazi party in 1932.
Millions of sane people voted for “racial purity and eugenics, broad social welfare programs, and a collective subordination of individual rights, which could be sacrificed for the good of the state on behalf of the people”. What were they thinking?
Presumably, they were in a similar space to societies who allow crazy people with warped ideologies to lead them. Maybe they were a little lost. Scared, maybe given they had lost a world war and were struggling with the aftermath and a global economic downturn.
Perhaps they thought that the government could solve their problems. Maybe that gave them some hope.
Whatever they thought would happen not many would have predicted where the society would end up 13 years later.
In 1965, when the first electronic computers entered offices, Eric Hoffer warned in the New York Times that “a skilled population deprived of its sense and usefulness would be the ideal setup for an American Hitler.” That did not happen. Instead, people listened to Kennedy and went to the moon.
In the 58th quadrennial American presidential election in 2016, Donald Trump was elected president with 62,984,828 votes, 46.09% of the votes cast, even though his main rival received 2.1% more votes.
According to the electoral commission, the republicans spent $303 million on the election, less than half the democrat spend of $640 million. Presumably, this means you can’t buy happiness. It also means that nearly 63 million people though that what Trump had to offer via Twitter was what they needed to improve their lives and the fate of the country.
In 2019 there was another vote, this time in the UK to replace the prime minister.
Boris Johnson received 92,153 votes from Conservative members, a group that collectively accounts for 0.13 per cent of the British population and have far more men than women, are overwhelmingly white, and significantly more right-wing than the average voter. Handy for Boris and a bit of a nightmare for everyone else.
It would seem that money may not buy power but a minority will.
Each of these brief historical descriptions is a salutary lesson for democracy. It is quite easy for a sequence of events that appear of little consequence to reach far into very dark places.
Obviously we are in another of these historical moments.
Everyone should pay serious attention and become that engaged electorate. We all need to vote with extreme care each and every time that we can and, where it matters, speak out on the streets, on the web, and around the kitchen table.
The Germans didn’t see it coming, nor did the Americans or the British.
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