I had watched this documentary on Netflix a couple of years ago called Wild Wild Country. For those of you who are not familiar, the show is about Osho and his followers (popularly known as Rajneeshees) and their attempts to transform a remote US town into a haven for themselves. I was extremely intrigued by the blind devotion shown by the members. I wanted to try and understand what drove them to make these choices in their lives. These people seemingly would fit the definition of the word cult like a glove. Oxford dictionary puts the meaning of the word cult as “a small group of people who had an excessive amount of admiration for a particular person and had practices that were regarded by others as strange or sinister”. How many times have we read reports of cult leaders being arrested for criminal behavior? Despite that people refuse to believe that their leader can do anything wrong. I am thinking about the riots in northern India that unfolded after the conviction and arrest of the DSS leader Ram Rahim Singh. He was convicted of rape, and murder yet many chose to reject the judiciary systems verdict and rallied in support of the self-styled Godman. I do not like the general idea of dismissing these incidents as aberrant behaviors of the few and would like to think about what makes people do these things. I had written earlier about the importance for humans to embrace broader identities based on interests. I do believe that this does promote a sense of oneness, but I do now have a sense of foreboding around this.
Ever since the early days of human civilization, it is not uncommon knowledge that that human evolved together as groups or tribes. Humans are social animals. We thrive for connections all the time. Our social connections seem strongest with the people who are like minded and with the ones who share the same interests as ourselves. We look forward to joining groups and clubs that offer us a chance to meet like-minded people and also chances to expand our social connections. Being part of social groups makes us feel that we are part of a community and makes one feel belong. What happens when groups form not on basis of things one likes, but on the idea of things we hate? Instead of having a group that lets you expand your sense of ideas and knowledge you are now falling into the trap of bias and ignorance clouding free independent thought. Cults originally thrive around this idea. The primary focus is to enable groupthink and eliminate individualistic thought. Irony is that the members many times accuse others of groupthink. So, when a charismatic personality steps up and calls out things that he hates in the system, this resonates with multiple people and see in their leader someone who voices their deepest concerns aloud. As you gain support, then the onus shifts on building something that is in line with that they like. This is exactly what the Rajneeshes wanted, they wanted a small haven where they could do what they wanted. Unfortunately, for them things unraveled when the local people turned up in massive numbers to vote them out. Rajneeshes were in the minority and did not have enough numbers to flip the script, but what if they had the numbers? Would they have been successful in establishing a town just for themselves? You bet.
Think Nazi Germany. The Nazi socialist party had tried to take over the Reichstag by contesting in the national elections and each time they only managed to get about 30% of the vote. Twice they came close to being the single largest party, but they did not enjoy national level popularity to win the clear majority. Once they made their way to the Government (via a coalition), they used state machinery to create mechanisms where they ended up being the only political party in Germany and then take over complete control of the Reichstag. There were no elections to lose after that, the rules enabled the party to be in power, crush any form of dissent and brutally oppress the people based on their race. While it is definitely possible that many Germans did not agree with the state policies but were just too afraid to go against it, it is still worth noting that the party had consistently increased its vote share from a shoddy 7% to a whopping 49% while proudly touting the policies it would enforce when in power. To say about half of the people in a country were approving of the propaganda says that a lot.
Well, if you thought the comparisons don’t hold up, then fair point. One was responsible for the death of 2-3 million people while the other caused food poisoning for a portion of the town population. It is not the scale that I am trying to equate, it is the intent of the parties, it is how a common goal bought together a band of people and how the small group used the elections system to gain power. It is at this point the two tales diverge. But I cannot help but compare these to what is happening in the world today. Several populist leaders have won elections around the globe citing problem in how things are. Almost all of them have risen to power using a template, blaming the failures of the government on a small set of foreign people/religion, promising the masses that they are the true savior that will return the country to the glory of the past. If you look at the polling numbers they do not ever win with outright majority, but they do seemingly enough to gain at least 50% of the vote.
The approaches to disenfranchise voters are not as blatant as they were in 1933, but parties employ several unique approaches to make sure they win. Election outcomes are decided not by the power of the people, but based on how coalitions are managed, on how seats are traded, and on how electoral maps are drawn. It is unsettling to see parties and leaders using divisive rhetoric to ramp up an Us vs Them narrative. I worry that if we don’t snap out of the stupor, we are we will find history repeating itself. I wanted to finish this essay with a quote from Henry Ford
The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.– Henry Ford