Sme: Beware of the narcissism of small differences

April 8, 2018

“Life of Brian” is a film by the British comedy troupe Monty Python. It tells the satirical story of Brian, who was born in the barn next to Jesus, and his belief that the Rome’s occupation of his homeland, Judea, is illegitimate. He joins a rebel group called the “People’s Front of Judea” — because of a pretty girl — which is different than “Judean People’s Front” or the “Judean Popular People’s Front”. In the end, the failure of these similar groups to unite, despite sharing a common goal, guarantees that the Romans keep ruling Judea and Brian is condemned to death.

The movie is absurdly funny because it accurately reflects how people with very similar political concerns can be so badly organized. Sigmund Freud called this the “narcissism of small differences”, writing: “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of feelings of hostility between them.” Slovakia’s political opposition has been losing based on this premise for years, and still is. Meanwhile, oligarchs, fascists and other dangerous actors who lack genuine political convictions — at least none they are not willing to sacrifice for greed, power and victory — form alliances of convenience.

The clearest example of a similar arrangement leading to real world disaster comes from Nazi Germany. In the 1930 election in Germany, 37 parties ran in the election, but just 10 passed the 3 percent threshold required to reach parliament (2.4 million votes went to parties that didn’t make it). The Nazis took second place. Two chaotic years later, during early elections in July 1932, things were worse, as people cast votes for 55 parties who did not reach parliament (46 of them had never run in an election before). The Nazi’s won with 37 percent of the vote, consolidated power and by November 1933, took 92 percent of the vote in another election. There were zero opposition parties on the ballot.

More recently, in Poland in 2015, the Law and Justice (PiS) party received less than 38 percent of the vote, but nonetheless gained control of an outright majority in parliament. This was because two parties narrowly missed the 5 percent threshold, while nine others received votes and did not make parliament. Meanwhile, more than 7 million Americans voted for presidential candidates other than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Bernie Sanders received 111,850 votes write-in votes by himself, and Clinton lost the electoral college by about 40,000 votes spread across three states.

There is little doubt that an election held today in Slovakia would almost certainly benefit the Kotlebas, Kollars and Matovičs of the world. But given the unpopularity, and lack of legitimacy, of the reshuffled government it is also clear the clock is ticking and elections are coming. While groups like Progressive Slovakia and Together talk about — maybe, possibly — cooperating, and tally their potential vote share in small fractions of a percent, the barbarians gather at the gates.