Paul Thomas: The raving loons are crooning, but don't let them call the tune

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Barack Obama. Photo / AP
Barack Obama. Photo / AP

We've been warned to expect a vicious election campaign, but let's hope it doesn't descend to the depths plumbed this week by a candidate in Britain's local body elections.

Gordon Ferguson, who stood for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) in Southport, Lancashire, believes the three main parties - Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat - have "conspired with a foreign power, the EU, and are all thereby guilty of treason. They have illegally sold Britain into increasing slavery inside the EU dictatorship".

You'd almost think hanging's too good for them, but Ferguson wouldn't go that far: in his considered opinion, representatives of these parties should be "hung by the neck until dead". What's more, those who voted for them are guilty of treason by association and should also pay a heavy price.

As a strategy for gaining and maintaining power, it has the virtues of extreme simplicity and leaving nothing to chance: execute your political rivals and imprison their supporters.

Students of history will be aware this is pretty much the blueprint followed by totalitarian movements of the left and right throughout the 20th century.

Ferguson himself identified the flaw in his plan: the British police and judiciary are unlikely to go along with it, not because it's deranged, but because those institutions are controlled by freemasons and in the EU's pocket.

At this point it's tempting to dismiss UKIP as nothing more than a bloodthirsty reincarnation of the late, lamented Screaming Lord Sutch's Official Monster Raving Loony Party, but the reality is less palatable. Its performance in the 2013 local elections was described as "the biggest surge for a fourth party" in British politics since 1945. Some commentators are predicting it will hold the balance of power after next year's general election. And while Ferguson is obviously a lunatic, he also personifies a discernible trend in democratic politics: the tendency to demonise those across the aisle as the enemy within.

The most obvious recent example is the so-called Birther movement which, disregarding all evidence to the contrary, continues to insist that Barack Obama wasn't born in the USA and therefore isn't eligible to be president. The Republican Party has tried to have it both ways: neither explicitly endorsing this unsavoury exercise in dog whistle politics, nor emphatically condemning it. As a result, the notion has been planted in many admittedly receptive minds that America's first black president is alien, unAmerican and illegitimate.

Now Congressional Republicans are seriously talking about impeaching Obama - that is, staging a political show trial with the aim of evicting him from the White House. While teams of lawyers are no doubt burning the midnight oil to trump up a case for Obama having breached the Constitution, it's really just a matter of the Republicans not accepting the outcome of the last two presidential elections and wanting to restage them, only this time without the electorate getting involved.

Once again, the justification for what would be little more than a parliamentary coup d'etat would be that Obama is an aberration and his conduct in office a betrayal of the national interest.

The essence of democracy is that participants in the electoral process abide by the people's verdict as delivered at the ballot box, even when that goes against the interests of their support base and their perception of what constitutes the national interest.

This in turn is based on an acceptance that, however much you disagree with your opponents, they have the same broad goals as you do.

The nature of democratic societies is such that they're roughly evenly split between left and right, liberal and conservative, capital and labour. Over time, the wear and tear of governing means both sides will have periods when they run the show and periods when they criticise the way the other mob is running the show.

But when you call your political rivals traitors, or "the Jimmy Savile of New Zealand politics" (as Winston Peters did this week to Brendan Horan), or suggest they're concealing brain damage (as George W. Bush's eminence grise Karl Rove accused Hillary Clinton of doing), you drain away the reservoir of tolerance upon which democracy floats.

In effect you're telling the electorate that these people can't be trusted; that if they get their hands on the levers of power, all our comfortable assumptions will be under threat. You're leading the electorate into a cul de sac of cynical disengagement where debate is replaced with vilification and analysis swamped by conspiracy theories.

And if a force arises that does pose a threat to our freedoms, chances are the electorate will shrug its collective shoulders, like the villagers who disregarded the boy who cried wolf.

- NZ Herald

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