There are some striking and uncomfortable similarities between populism as it is expressed in Thailand and the United States. Since 2000, we have all been made familiar with the map of the United States that shows red, blue, and purple areas, and given that we are here on a site called “Red State” it is (or should be) very clear which side we are on. What may not be as obvious is that a similar divide and a similar color scheme exists in Thailand, where the red stands for the populist supporters of ousted and controversial ex-Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (whose younger sister Yinluck Shinawatra is the current Prime Minister of the country) and where the yellow stands for the elites who support the military and palace establishment.
To be sure, there are some profound differences between Red State and the red shirts (which is why I am not a supporter of the red shirts). The Red Shirts are a cult of personality, centered around the ex-Prime Minister (though, to be fair, the yellow shirts are a cult of personality as well around the aging and very frail 84-year old King Bhomipol). Additionally, the policies of the red shirts are pretty standard socialist prescriptions for what ails society, a Obamacare-esque “30 baht card” that will cure any disease for 30 baht (roughly a dollar), increased minimum wages for the poor unskilled laborers, anti-American rhetoric (in all fairness, we do arm and train Thailand’s highly repressive army), and plans to subsidize technology for tots by providing an ipad (or similar high-tech educational item) for every schoolkid. Very few people here (except maybe for those enamored with Romneycare or who found Ron Paul’s anti-American rhetoric persuasive) would find much to support among these policies.
On the other hand, though, there is a substantial and worrisome area of common ground between Red State and the red shirts that shows deep divides within the democratic orders of both nations. For one, the politics of Thailand and the United States are highly regional. The red shirts have won every free election since 2000 (elections are usually held every three or four years, though not with our scheduled regularity), even though they have twice been removed from power by military coups (in 2006 and 2008). The base of the support for the red shirts is in northern and northeastern Thailand. Northern Thailand is where I live, and the Shinawatra family is based out of Chiang Mai (on whose outskirts I reside), the old capital of the Lanna Kingdom. Northeast Thailand is largely inhabited by Isan Laotian-Thai inhabitants who are the poorest people of Thailand and whose ancestors were captives/slaves of the earliest Chakra dynasty of kings (during the time of our early Republic in the late 1700′s and early 1800′s) who once ruled over Laos. Neither of these groups of people, even though together they make up a (slim) majority of the entire political body of Thailand’s notoriously fractured political system, are given full respect or legitimacy by the Thai elites and establishment. Rather, these areas are considered “Flyover country” by the elites who are centered in the South of Thailand (where Thailand fights against a Muslim insurrection and whose people especially support the military for understandable reasons) and especially in Bangkok.
The United States has a similar political order. America’s cultural and political elites are largely “blue state” dwellers, whether we are talking about Washington DC, New York City, New England, or California (or the corrupt city of Chicago). Likewise, the rural and Southern core of the Republican party does not have a great deal of legitimacy with these elites who sneer at those who believe in God, oppose infanticide, disbelieve in Darwinian evolution, and prefer personal responsibility to top-down socialist mandates. For such elites the areas where Red Staters are most at home are “flyover country.” Those of us who, like myself, are very sensitive to such matters find this extremely offensive.
The problems that exist are ones that elections alone cannot solve. Winning political power does not grant Republicans legitimacy–that must be fought for, as our politicians must be reminded over and over again that we don’t elect them to roll over and play dead for the scraps offered by Pelosi, Reid, and Obama. We elect them to fight for what is left that is noble and good about the American Republic, something they do not seem to remember well, preferring the cowardly ways of compromise to a principled struggle for the soul of the United States of America. The same is true in Thailand. Elites do not care that the populists from the North and the Northeast win elections, because in their mind those politicians are still “peasants” who can be put in their place whenever they get too uppity by a military coup.
Clearly the situation is serious. For a republic to endure there must be a common identity and a legitimacy given to the will of the people within those grounds where majority rule is to reign. Matters of conscience are not up for vote, but matters of policy are and ballots ought to be respected over bullets. Where this legitimacy of the circumscribed will of the people is denied, elections are either shams to pretend as if the people have their say while nothing ever changes or are virtual wars fought for spoils and corrupt gain, where politicians can choose winners and losers based on holding offices.
Eventually, if respect within a society declines to a point where both sides in a conflict see the other side as the enemy of the people, then an actual civil war is on the way. I am deeply concerned that the politics of both Thailand and the United States are approaching that sad fate. There are only two ways to avoid that fate–for those who are disrespected to surrender all goals of holding legitimate power and an acceptance of a permanent position of second-class status, or for those selfish and corrupt elites to voluntarily give up the offices that they have so shamefully abused for the preservation of the Republic that they claim to serve. The first is unacceptable, as it means surrendering our principles and accepting the domination of Pelosi and Reid and Obama and all of their ilk. The second requires that our adversaries love the American Republic more than their own power and position. Clearly, given such odds, I am deeply pessimistic for the long term health of my beloved country, as well as the country in which I now reside, which faces a very similar and equally insoluble dilemma.