Can you guess which prominent head of state is counting on his political base to weather the growing scandal about his personal behavior?
Who would be surprised to hear the following account of a political drama that has recently dominated headlines?
It goes like this: A political professional who preferred to remain anonymous recently described to the press his meeting with the leader of a powerful nation. This head of state in question has been prominently featured in the news because of an investigation into possible crimes he is suspected of having committed. The powerful billionaire leader in question claims that there is nothing to the accusations. It is all fake news.
An international news agency quoted this unnamed professional’s description of the leader’s state of mind: “As long as his base is secure, he feels that nothing can harm him.”
The reader could be forgiven for supposing that the leader in question is Donald Trump. In fact, the man described is not the US president, but someone very dear to The Donald’s heart: the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, often referred to as MBS.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
An imaginary group of likeminded people who are believed to be capable of thinking simply because they show up at polling places to vote for a particular candidate in an election
The term base has been defined in the Encyclopedia of U.S. Campaigns, Elections, and Electoral Behavior as “the group of voters who are most likely to support a candidate within their own party because the candidate holds the same philosophical and political views as both the party to which they belong.”
Some might find it paradoxical to talk about a “base” in reference to a hereditary monarchy. Why should the man who holds the reins of a solidly built authoritarian monarchy need a base?
Could this be political conformism or simply lazy thinking on the part of pundits? Everyone who has been exposed to history lessons at school knows that monarchs can occasionally be overthrown, exiled or beheaded. They tend to fear factions, but in some cases it’s the people themselves who massively rise up against the monarch.
That has always seemed unthinkable in Saudi Arabia, a nation created around one family, the House of Saud. With the help of the Western economy, its business leaders and lawyers, the Saud clan succeeded in monopolizing the wealth of their nation, immensely rich in oil and poor in everything else. And, in the past few years, more than ever before, they concentrated the nation’s political power in one ambitious man: MBS.
If, only six months ago, you had asked anyone in Saudi Arabia what MBS’ base of power was, they would have replied: the economy, stupid! Meaning not the economic situation of the voters that James Carville once referred to in the US, but the wealth made available through various means to non-voting Saudi citizens.
As the world is now aware, the Jamal Khashoggi affair has rattled the absolute authority of Mohammed bin Salman as a leader. The international community has begun, as politely as possible, shunning the crown prince, distancing themselves from his most ambitious projects. Even columnist Thomas Friedman has gone silent after glorifying MBS as an Arab messiah, who dared to challenge Islamic clerics in Friedman’s own scripting of the crown prince’s message: “You don’t have the right interpretation of Islam. I have the right interpretation.” Long live theocratic monarchy, Tom! Thanks for selling us its “upsides.”
The word “base” as a political concept has acquired new meaning in recent years. Over the last century, pundits traditionally applied the term to stable segments of the population, most often defined by a mix of socio-professional class and geographical tradition. These demographic strata could be counted on to vote consistently for candidates of a single party.
A base could, however, be hybrid, even to the point of contradiction. For more than half of the 20th century, the Democratic Party in the US assembled its base around the industrial working class in the North, white Southerners and blacks, each of whom as a group was suspicious of the others and none of whom shared the same philosophical and political views with another.
With the advent of scientific political marketing in the second half of the 20th century, politicians in democracies have turned to crafting or constructing their base, increasingly relying on simplistic ideas and slogans that gain traction in the media. In 2016, Donald Trump understood the PR logic better than the Democrats, who relied on their “scientific” belief in demographic inevitability, as the traditional white majority was continually declining and identity politics — which even attempted to define women as a minority — seemed to work. Instead of relying on actual identity instincts, they turned it into an ideology, failing to anticipate the backlash that would provoke from the white middle class, who suddenly felt threatened.
Similar distortions in the use of “scientific” political marketing in the UK led some enterprising Tories to begin crafting their “base” around Euroskepticism, leading to the current fiasco of Brexit. And while Jeremy Corbin has given some life to a more traditional approach based on the working-class values that had been betrayed by Tony Blair’s ill-defined but temporarily successful “third way,” the Labour Party is left struggling with the emotional contradictions of Brexit.
Now that tribal monarchies are also busy crafting their base and as marketing science supersedes and neutralizes political and social values, the distinction between autocracy and democracy has become increasingly blurred.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.