For renowned broadcast journalist Carol Off, the current crop of populist strongmen elected to power in democratic countries is a symptom of deeper problems which the world should not ignore.
On Nov. 16, the Western alum presented the Clissold Lecture at the university, with the title ‘The Autocrats Are at the Gate!: And we are busy watching cat videos’, in which she said there was a feeling that the rise of leaders with autocratic tendencies was a passing phenomenon, but she did not agree with this view.
“Following last week’s mid-term election results in the U.S., there is a feeling that democracy has dodged a bullet,” she said. “But hundreds of candidates in that election claimed that the Biden victory was rigged. The Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection was waving to people that systems in functioning democracies are fragile.”
The presence of autocratic leaders, Off said, went against the foundational principles of democracy.
“Democracy relies on compromise and complex structures. Power is not, or should not be, concentrated in the office of a single leader,” she said.
The rise of autocratic leaders in different countries has also been aided by troll farms, extensive manipulation of social media and by the growth of fake news outlets, said the veteran journalist, citing the examples of populist leaders in Brazil and India, as well as the Philippines.
“Most autocrats today do not have to send in the tanks to crush dissent or opposition. They have trolls on social media. Who needs the fear of the gulag, when you have the tools of Google?” said Off, BA’88, who co-hosted the acclaimed show As It Happens on CBC Radio One from 2006 to 2022.
To understand the success of these leaders, Off said one must understand the fears and uncertainties fueling the feelings of their supporters.
“Political uncertainties and the economic implications of climate change are important factors. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated these fears. The problem is we no longer have facts which we can agree on,” she said, adding that autocrats took advantage of these uncertainties to claim that they had solutions for voters.
“Populism as a political movement is now spreading like wildfire,” said Off, adding that in Canada, Conservative leader Pierre Poilievre too was a populist.
“He very effectively uses the internet to speak about dark international conspiracies and says he will make grants to universities conditional on how institutions respond to free speech on campus,” said Off.
“There is a human tendency to look for the magic man, the messiah. Everyone senses we are in unstable times. The rise of autocrats would have happened more slowly if these uncertainties did not exist, but it would have happened,” said Off, in conversation with Western News on Nov. 18.
Off also felt that the rise of anti-intellectualism had been continuing for some time. “I have lately been studying a lot about Germany in the 1930s, and it is astonishing how much the educated elite were a part of the process behind the rise of Nazism. I do not think universities have a monopoly over tolerance. Political ideas that fuel the growth of populism must be contested on campuses as well,” she said.
Off ended her lecture at the university with an appeal to her listeners.
“I urge you to stay engaged and to face the changes. Not because you need to be there yourself, but because others need you to be there,” she said.