In the hours that followed the passing of Rama IX, the long-serving Thai monarch, Thai Facebook users removed their profile pictures, leaving walls filled with hundreds of black squares of mourning. This was only the beginning of a heartfelt pageantry of grief that will seize the East Asian nation for weeks and months. While the scope is more limited geographically, the intensity of the social emotion had not been observed since the 1997 passing of Diana Spencer, the erstwhile Princess of Wales.
Those historical paroxysms of social emotion expose the reality that politics is not all about calculations of personal utility, about rational choices for the self—higher wages, or better schools, increased security or fewer immigrants. Politics is also about idolatry and reverence, about superstitions and fantasies, about all sorts of feelings toward order and authority. The personal rigor and austerity of Rama IX spoke to a Buddhist nation for whom self-effacement is a moral virtue that elevates above the human condition. During his long rule, the Court operated like a monumental Buddhist temple, using billions of dollars of Royal assets to simultaneously deliver garish pomp and charitable work. Awed, subjects imagined their monarch enlightened, and wished him immortal.
Collective delusions about the greatness of particular mortals go a long way to explain why unorthodox regimes, like those of North Korea, Iran and Russia, can be more resilient than their performance at governance would lead to believe. By the same token, it becomes easy to understand the disenchantment with politics in long-standing democracies. Decades of free press, dirty campaigning and biting satire have desacralized politicians. And the political class, mocked as a caricature, as something devoid of human qualities, has lived up to the stereotypes by recruiting intellectually, emotionally, and often ethically stunted candidates. It takes a good degree of blind narcissism and power envy to endure the scrutiny and vilification democratic politics expose to on a daily basis. Normal people, smart and talented people with empathy and sensitivity, will find less painful ways to earn a decent living.
It is against this backdrop that “populist” politicians have risen in the United States and most countries of the European Union. The recent drift to the extreme is not simply a reaction to the economic breakdown of 2008, a rejection of traditional policies. It is also a deliberate embrace of the taboo—of the forbidden. In the profane universe of bland, calibrated, uninspiring yet loathsome politicians, venomous firebrands and anti-systemic demagogues ignite a new fervor for democratic politics by turning against the system. Free from reason and competence, even free from classic morality, they can stir popular passion in a crusade against the status quo. Vilification, instead of bringing them down, is the fuel that elevates them above the fray.
Alone against this populist wave stands Angela Merkel, the last technocratic politician to enjoy a fair amount of respect. Yet, her vulnerability was exposed in the summer of 2015 when, at the peak of the refugee crisis, she embraced the wave of Syrian asylum seekers. She stood accused of political deafness, for speaking against the sentiments of the German people. But her failure was not a failure to read the mood of her electorate; it was the failure to convince them that open borders was the right thing to do. Leaders should not be shifty implementers of public opinion. They should be shapers, able to mobilize, to command respect for their judgment calls and to shift the paradigms of those at first inclined to think otherwise.
This is what Rama IX has mostly been for the Thai people, albeit with no real political power—Thailand is a constitutional monarchy—and to an excess. Royal whispers could resolve acute political crises, and the virtue of the King redeemed the sins of the nation—the inequality, the treatment of Burmese refugees. But now his death leaves a void. A quasi-divine cult of personality has asphyxiated any other source of legitimacy. The Thai police are universally despised. The army, which has ruled on and off since 2006, is suspect. The democratic exercise has been discredited by corruption, factiousness, and inability to resist military coups. As for the Crown Prince, soon to be King, erratic, self-indulgent behavior has earned him generalized popular contempt. Reverence was for the deceased, not for the monarchic institution, and political order in Thailand now rests only on a unanimous desire not to taint national grief with factional squabbling.
The new digital age has a way of quickly desacralizing leaders and politics. Embarrassing pictures and videos leak continuously, and Vajiralongkorn, the future Rama X, has had his fair dose of embarrassments. His father, the late Rama IX, truly belonged to a past generation where the political realm was still sacred, and where leaders could rely on a modicum of respect from the ruled in order to guide the nation forward. The tumultuous democratic politics of the West; the turmoil in the Middle East, where radical theologians can command more legitimacy than elected representatives and hereditary monarchs, are a signal that political order in the 21st century will not look like what has come before. No one has yet figured out how to craft an efficient political regime for our times. The passing of the King of Thailand, and of the obsolete kind of charisma he alone commanded, reminds us it is time to get to the drawing board.