How do you like your politicians? Do you prefer them to treat you as an intelligent adult and put together a rational case for their policies? Or are you happier if they behave as though they are part of the reality TV industry? Do you like them to tell you the truth, or to tell you what they think you want to hear, in the full knowledge that if it’s not true, it’s still worth it, because the rebuttal two days later will never command the same attention as the original statement?
Welcome to twenty-first century politics. Look at the United States. A great, innovative, intelligent, creative nation, faced with what looks to me (clearly an outsider) to be two of the worst candidates they have seen for the great office of President. There have been bad ones before, but not two at the same time, surely. It should have been so easy. For the Republicans, coming after two terms of a pretty mediocre Democrat administration, all they really had to do was to choose a half-way intelligent, personable candidate, able to make the case for centre-right, liberal capitalist economics - given that, most of the rest would have fallen into place. Instead, they’ve gone for a celebrity TV character with a fat inherited property fortune. The Democrats, faced with the truth of the dull nature of the last eight years, surely needed to select someone a little different, to breathe some new policy life into the centre-left ground they occupy. So what did they do? Chose a candidate who has been a senior member of that dull administration and intimately involved with machine politics for years.
Why did the voters choose these two as candidates? Well, I would suggest that it had less to do with coherent policy than the ability to cast a sound-bite. Politics has become reality TV, an endless soap opera presenting an illusion of serious debate. Before American readers get the idea that I am adopting a superior European approach to this, I’m not; the same trend is visible here. We have just had a referendum in the UK which was the most negative, pointless campaign I can recall. That vote was important for the future of the UK and the other EU countries; yet it was characterised by simplistic, blatant lies on both sides. “Take back control.” How? Of what? What does it even mean, in an interlinked world? “The economy will collapse”. No, it won’t. It will be different, but that’s as far as one can legitimately go.
In fact, I think unintentionally, it was Michael Gove - an intelligent, articulate man, formerly a good Minister (not Prime Ministerial, though) - who put his finger on the problem when he said during that campaign that “the public have had enough of experts”. Read that again, and think about it. What it says is that we, the electors, the public, don’t want to hear anything from experts. Rather than listen to and try to understand professional knowledge, we would apparently rather take the simplistic one-liners of the media. To reverse the old saying, why listen to the organ-grinder when you can listen to the monkey? So while it is fair to criticise the politicians for pandering to the lowest common denominator and indulging in reality TV politics, we should also understand that we - those listening - bear some responsibility. We want things to be nice and clean and simple.
Look at the TV debates that every election campaign now throws up. Can you recall any serious discussion? What you do learn is that the candidates are well-rehearsed, taught how to stand, how to casually sweep back their hair, whether to stare down the camera lens - showing frankness and honesty - or to get a well-chiselled profile shot of a gaze into the middle distance, showing the thoughtful, soulful side. Yet audiences lap it up, and the media plays to the circus with the spin room and the endless discussion of what has effectively been a non-discussion. We are all guilty of allowing this to happen, both the voters and the vote-seekers. We’ve sat back and let the ‘spinners’ of the media create an artificial reality where presentation trumps fact. Bluntly, we all know, for example, that economists are wrong a lot of the time - it’s an inexact quasi-science, so that is only to be expected. But rather than just dismiss them as ‘experts’ of whom we have had enough, wouldn’t you rather somebody actually engaged in a debate?
Regular readers of this column may recall my comments on #rhodesmustfall, the absurd attempt to erase Cecil Rhodes from history because his views are seen as questionable. Well, and relevant to this theme of preferring to ignore knowledge, now from the people who brought you that campaign comes #sciencemustfall. This is a movement originating at Cape Town University which would have us ignore scientific learning, because science is inherently imperialist. So, according to reports, Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is wrong, because Newton was - apparently, although I have never seen any evidence of this, even if it mattered to the basic scientific fact he expressed - a colonialist, so he must be wrong. In other words, upset feelings over-ride empirically proven fact.
And then we have the Nobel prize for literature. Now, Bob Dylan winning it may be a good thing or a bad thing, and people will have differing views (I bet Leonard Cohen is a bit miffed, by the way); but I just thought I’d mention some of the previous American winners…Eugene O’Neill, T S Eliot (although as British, I’d probably like to claim half that one), Hemingway, Steinbeck….and Bob Dylan. Still, Barack Obama won the peace prize, almost before he took office.
Who’s next? Trump or Clinton? Roll up, roll up for the circus………..