Taking life philosophically.
23 April 2011
The True Finns’ (Perussuomalaiset in Finnish) victory in the Finnish parliamentary elections last week is clouded by hate in more than one sense. There are people who accuse the True Finns of advancing a politics of hate. These accusations are largely based on the idea of the True Finns’ views on immigration as being xenophobic.
On the other hand, the True Finns themselves appear to be the most hated party in the country: in a recent poll (in Finnish), 2000 voters were given the opportunity to vote not for but against a party, and the True Finns received the most negative votes.
Machiavelli famously wrote that it is better to be feared than loved; somewhat less famously he added that it is even more important not to be hated. In democratic politics fear can no longer be used like a Renaissance prince might have used it, because the democratic structures guarantee a high level of safety, but hate and love still play an important role in politics.
What would Machiavelli say about the hate the True Finns attract? First of all, he would point out how the party leader Timo Soini often wears the scarf of Millwall FC, the football team he supports. In their chant, Millwall fans openly proclaim that “no one likes us, we don’t care”. In reality they do care of course: they believe they are the nimble little David courageously facing the Goliath of the world’s injustices. If the world did not hate them, they would lack a suitable enemy. Undoubtedly Millwall’s underdog status is part of what appeals to Soini, and it is not difficult to see the True Finns themselves using the same kind of dynamic to their advantage.
Machiavelli would go on to say how the True Finns craft a coarse, unrefined image of themselves to trigger the hate of the sophisticated elites. He would perhaps say that even small details from the awkward language of their election manifesto to the clumsy graphical design of their website are all part of a deliberate strategy. Naturally everything about this happens on the level of appearances. Just like a Google search of “I hate Chelsea” gives fifteen times the results of that of “I hate Millwall”, the True Finns are not really all that hated either: they have just been successful in appearing to be hated, which at least in this case is even better than actually being hated. Soini’s brilliance is in that he has found a way to push the buttons of a vocal minority, while not actually offending the majority of the voters.
What would be Machiavelli’s rimedio against the strategy of becoming a David through being hated (or more accurately, through appearing to be hated)? Perhaps there is no single remedy. The strength of the strategy is that it makes use of a common gut reaction: an open-minded, educated person is easily offended by the crude simplifications of the populist. Therefore the populist will inevitably succeed in offending many people and getting angry reactions.
In retrospect, many of the True Finns’ opponents got caught up in opposing Soini’s populism instead of arguing for their own ideas. One experienced politician (in Finnish) even admitted that he decided to become a candidate just to offer a hand in the fight against the True Finns. The True Finns have also been successful (if that is the right word to use) in getting unsympathetic portrayals in the Finnish media, which has helped their message of fighting for the common man against not just the big political powers, but also against the biased journalists.
There are many people that could have kept their heads a bit cooler during the campaign, but these things are not under the control of any single person, even if he is a party leader. Still, a more constructive attitude towards the True Finns’ proposals might have led to a different outcome.