Western media does not cover much about Mongolia. Most Americans likely know about Chinggis (Genghis) Khan and the Mongol Empire, yurts, and Central Asian steppes. Geopolitically, they might know about Mongolia’s having been a Soviet satellite state, or its long history of Russian and Chinese domination. Most Americans do not know much else.
If they read major Western news publications in the last year, they might know about Mongolia’s new president, Khaltmaagiin Battulga. Specifically, they may know about his former martial arts career.
A Google search of Battulga’s name reveals a flurry of articles about Battulga’s 2017 victory from prominent Western news sources—New York Times, BBC, The Washington Post—all of which prominently discuss Battulga’s former career as a sambo wrestler. Most of these articles actually mention Battulga’s martial arts career in their headlines.
Why this focus? For one, it does make for an eye-catching headline, and might be appealing to Western readers who know little about the region. The image of a wrestler-turned-politician is certainly dramatic.
It also seems to sum up Western fears about Mongolia’s possible democratic backsliding. A defining feature of populists, according to Pippa Norris, is their identity as “maverick outsiders.” Battulga’s former career certainly makes him fit this image. Many of the Western articles hint at Battulga’s populism by focusing on the nationalist rhetoric in his campaign. The heavily gendered imagery, moreover, depicts Battulga as a populist strongman. This is a particularly salient image to Western audiences who associate authoritarians with militarism and hypermasculinity. Although not all populists are authoritarians, Battulga’s image does summarize some Western concerns about Mongolia’s possible democratic backsliding.
There are certainly real questions about the state of Mongolia’s democracy, and a tide of nationalism is one of several reasons for concern. But focusing on Battulga’s wrestling career is a misstep, for several reasons.
1. It conflates the causes of populism in Mongolia with the result of it, ignoring the real issues.
Populists don’t just rise from the ether, and there are many long-standing reasons that a populist candidate was poised to succeed in Mongolia. These reasons include, but are not limited to, widespread poverty, failed foreign investment projects, disillusionment with political corruption, and periods of suppression of indigenous culture. The real area for concern is less about Battulga himself and more about the reasons that Battulga was an attractive candidate.
This alarmist rhetoric about Battulga’s victory could lead to the conclusion that removing Battulga from office or otherwise limiting his powers would solve the problems in Mongolia’s democracy. In reality, this is not true. Battulga does not need to become an authoritarian for there to be valid concerns about democratic backsliding; regardless of his political future, the reasons behind a populist’s success will remain.
2. It applies a problematic double standard.
Most Western media’s depiction of Battulga and his former career has undertones of criticizing Mongolian voters for electing him. This judgment, however, overlooks the value of wrestling in Mongolian culture. Traditional wrestling is important both in Mongolian folklore and in contemporary society, to the extent that, according to a World Trade Press report, “many Mongolian fathers would rather have sons who are wrestlers than doctors or lawyers” (17). Many Americans saw Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon, as a legitimate presidential candidate because careers in medicine are so highly valued in the U.S., even though success in neurosurgery has as little a connection to politics as wrestling does. The U.S., as well, has not exactly proved itself immune to the allure of celebrity presidential candidates. The implicit judgment of Mongolian voters, therefore, applies a double standard to how Mongolians esteem wrestling careers.
There is a danger to this argument, however: depicting Mongolians as obsessed with sambo wrestling can play into standard depictions of the country as backwards or barbaric. This is not my intention. Rather, I claim that Western media should not assume that Western notions of prestige automatically apply to Mongolia. It is quite possible that many Mongolians think that Battulga’s wrestling background makes him very qualified for elected office.
3. This implicit judgment could further fuel nationalism in Mongolia.
Mongolian nationalism has long been defined in opposition to dominating foreign powers—specifically Russia and China, but also Western-led international organizations. Misplaced Western criticism about Battulga could backfire by fanning resentment to Western institutions.
It is yet unclear whether this nationalism is always harmful to democracy in Mongolia. There is evidence that nationalism actually increased domestic support for the pro-democracy movement in the early 1990s. That said, nationalist rhetoric has also been tied to exclusionary movements, like misogyny and Sinophobia, that have marginalized groups of Mongolian citizens. Regardless of nationalism’s net effect on Mongolian democracy, heavy nationalist rhetoric can lead to isolationism, and will likely be dangerous to Mongolian democracy. Although Western media sources can and should take advantage of their press freedom, if they continue to discuss Mongolian politics in such a monolithic way, it will likely push Mongolian voters toward more extreme nationalistic candidates who capitalize on anti-Western sentiment.
Hannah Arendt, in The Origins of Totalitarianism, claims that a key element of authoritarian regimes is their ability to buffer members from the outside world. This occurs through manipulating populations’ resentment and fear. Nationalist language, if taken too far, can lead to such democratic backsliding and the growth of totalitarianism.
It’s true that Western media is not going to suddenly begin covering Mongolian politics in depth. In the articles that they do publish, though, Western sources should pursue a higher standard. Especially given the small number of Mongolian publications and the relatively low journalistic standards for many of these sources, Western news sources with the resources to do better could significantly improve the information flow about Mongolian democracy. They should use the resources they have to depict Mongolian politics beyond implicit judgment and clickbait headlines.
Photo by Office of the President, “Battulga Khaltmaa, President of Mongolia.” (http://www.president.mn/eng/president/biography.php)