They say the meek will inherit the earth. Ha. These days, extremists are decimating democracy and allowing needless deaths before the meek clear their throats.
Is it any wonder countries with leaders on the far-right of the political spectrum are seeing the most rapid rises in coronavirus cases? The US has the highest number of Covid-19 cases and deaths in the world. Brazil is in second place.
US President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro refused to acknowledge the virus' danger earlier in the pandemic. Both claimed it was "just a little flu" that would go away. Their fantasies have cost tens of thousands of people their lives. Bolsonaro has been diagnosed with Covid-19 after experiencing a high temperature and a cough. He has attended public events without a mask, even when local rules required him to wear one.
Populist leaders like Trump and Bolsonaro, with their anti-migrant, anti-female, anti-anyone who doesn't fawn over them like drunken love puppies may appear charismatic and plain-spoken to a segment of the electorate, but both have proven themselves inept and paranoid through failures to act and via their own words.
They've refused to listen to scientists. They've shunned responsibility, allowing local governments to do what they should've done long ago at the federal level, including mandating lockdowns, mask wearing and expediting dissemination of personal protective equipment, test kits and erection of field hospitals.
Instead, they insisted the pandemic was overblown and placed the economy ahead of citizens' lives. But no economy thrives when people are sick, dying or afraid to leave their homes, lest they get sick and die.
Compare the US and Brazil's paths with that of New Zealand, South Korea, Germany and other countries where leaders placed residents' wellbeing at the top of the priority list. Aotearoa has had no documented community spread for more than two months (as of this writing).
Perhaps it's not the meek who should inherit the earth, but moderates who need to govern. A healthy society requires people who are neither boiling with passion nor frozen with apathy about important issues. We need leaders who value logic and compromise over fear-mongering and division.
One reason political scholars say populists like Trump and Bolsonaro win elections is they ignite a base of zealous supporters. They exploit an erosion of faith in institutions and experts by directly appealing to people who decide the populist will benefit their cause or at least damage the cause of his/her opponent.
Extremists on either side of the political spectrum are bad medicine - those who would let capitalism flow unfettered, spewing toxins into waterways, and those who believe government can solve every problem, such as lack of desire to work or engage in personal responsibility.
Fringe ideas and conspiracy theories send me slumping into my keyboard, muttering: "How can anyone be so gullible?" Leaders who believe global cooperation is for the weak, that most government is bad government or who seek to enshrine a theocracy also get a virtual dunce cap.
People who vote for populists have a rainbow of reasons for their decision: they hated the other candidates; they thought their guy would improve their lives; the candidate aligned himself with their side on issues most important to them. In some cases, keeping people with higher levels of skin pigment from crossing the border is reason enough for them to vote for a candidate with extreme views.
Political website fivethirtyeight.com says people who call themselves "moderate" and "independent" are all over the ideological map.
An article last year quotes political scientists who poured over five decades of opinion research, finding, "the moderate category seems less an ideological destination than a refuge for the innocent and the confused". Also, even though terms like "extremist" and "moderate" are like modelling clay - vague and squishy - voters respond to labels.
Research cited by the Washington Post following the 2016 UK election found survey respondents perceived moderate parties as more competent — even when voters were not especially moderate themselves. Some observers said Labour lost not just because of Brexit, but also because Jeremy Corbyn and his party's left-wing manifesto undermined Labour's credentials as a party capable of governing.
What if you don't identify with parties or ideologies? Study the candidates, then vote. If you value science and community wellbeing, don't choose someone who's anti-public health, a vaccine sceptic, or both. If you want city councillors and MPs who are quick learners, experienced and collaborative, do more than skim their brochure. Don't assume a candidate's popularity will let them sail into office. If their positions align with yours, give them an actual tick rather than a metaphorical one.
We only have to look at America to see how one-quarter of the electorate opened a Pandora's box of narcissism, corruption and ineptitude.
This is what happens when good people skip elections, decrying the lack of choices at the polls: too often, the most divisive, least collaborative candidate wins. Sometimes, he wins because of a symbol next to his name. It's not about the party. It's about the person. Every political party is a grab bag of members who are intelligent and moronic; kind and vicious; virtuous and corrupt.
We can't afford to sit out elections. The pandemic is once again showing how a leader's choices can affect whether we live or die.