Something’s gone wrong with politics. It’s becoming nasty and weird and the old rules don’t seem to work anymore.
What’s to blame? Or, rather, who? Writing in the Guardian, George Monbiot points the finger at the cult of personality. It’s easy to see why. The rise of populism has gone hand-in-hand with the rise of the attention-grabbing outsider-politician. Donald Trump is the prominent example. Others include Matteo Salvini, Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage.
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However, Monbiot’s argument goes well beyond the natural affinity between populism and demagoguery. He sees the celebrification of politics as a general phenomenon – with the cult of personality being thrust upon political leaders who are clearly uncomfortable with it:
“Neither May nor Jeremy Corbyn can carry the weight of the personality cults that the media seeks to build around them. They are diffident and awkward in public, and appear to writhe in the spotlight. Both parties grapple with massive issues, and draw on the work of hundreds in formulating policy, tactics and presentation. Yet these huge and complex matters are reduced to the drama of one person’s struggle.”
Indeed it’s not just politicians – the media happily looks elsewhere for personalities around which it can frame political stories – so much sexier than the boring old issues! As Monbiot observes, “an issue is not an issue until it has been voiced by an actor… Climate breakdown, refugees, human rights, sexual assault: none of these issues, it seems, can surface until they go Hollywood.”
It used to be said that politics is showbiz for ugly people; but that was before the two industries began to merge. One can imagine no other era in which a celebrity like Taylor Swift, a blameless purveyor of crossover country-pop, could come under sustained pressure to proclaim her political opinions (or the ‘correct’ ones, anyway).
If my calculations are correct, Ms Swift will be old enough to run for President in 2032. Perhaps she’ll face her old adversary Kanye West (or whatever he’ll be calling himself in 14 years’ time). And why not? After all, we have a star of reality television in the White House right now.
Trump epitomises everything that we might fear about personality politics: not just its limitless power of distraction from more meaningful matters, but also its association with what Monbiot calls a politics of “symbols, slogans and sensation” (which he characterises as irrational and even fascistic).
So is this what’s gone wrong with politics – the relentless media obsession with personality?
No, it isn’t. At least, not primarily.
For a start, there’s absolutely nothing new about personality politics.
When the enemies of Jesus tried to trap him with a political question – i.e. whether the Jewish people should or shouldn’t pay taxes to the Roman authorities – he held up a coin bearing the image of Caesar and said “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”. 1 Even in an era many centuries before anything we would recognise as mass media, personality and images of personality were of huge significance.
Elevated persons not only served as the apex of a hierarchy, they also symbolised its legitimate authority. And over a lifetime – or, in the case of a dynasty, several lifetimes – they embodied the continuity of a state or a society or even a civilisation. In short, the cult of personality served an institutional purpose.2
What is different about personality politics in the modern era is the purpose that it serves.
Modernity consumes institutions. It can do so suddenly and destructively as in the case of totalitarian modernity, or gradually and carelessly as in the case of liberal modernity. Either way, the regimes of the modern era have frequently attempted to replace old institutions with new ones; but because these are artificial, not organic, in their origins they typically fail to engender a sense of heartfelt belonging.
Politics isn’t always rational – and I don’t see anything wrong with that. Others would disagree. George Monbiot sees something fascistic in replacing “substance, evidence and analysis” with “symbols, slogans and sensation.” Jamie Bartlett, in a must-read article for UnHerd, argues that the spontaneity, subjectivity and tribalism of social media lends itself a “fascist style of politics”.
There’s a lot that’s true and timely in these warnings, but we also need to remember that reason alone does not, and should not, govern our relationships with others. Respect, loyalty, compassion, love: each of these things requires that we engage with our fellow human beings on a deeper level. If politics is to achieve something more than mere administration, politicians need to do the same.
But how? With the institutional structures of society in decline or dead altogether, how can leaders connect with their people? Well, there is a very different means of engagement: narrative.
Stories are old – as old as the oldest institutions. It’s reasonable to suppose that our institutional instincts (to band together for mutual support) coevolved with our narrative instincts (to make sense of unfolding events). The philosopher Alex Rosenberg argues that our hardwired interest in plot, character and motivation was critical to human evolution. These things enabled a ‘theory of mind’ – i.e. an ability to recognise others as separate beings with emotions and intentions independent of our own: always handy when you’re hoping to live long enough to reproduce.
But our narrative instincts have a fatal flaw – they enable us to construct a false representation of reality. Rather than a useful interpretation of events, we can satisfy our compulsion to understand with a possibly dangerous delusion.
Luckily, even this capacity can be turned to good use. Over the millennia we’ve elaborated our stories into myths, fables and parables that express an essential truth in a form that can be communicated down the generations. Typically, these would be constructed in such a way as to make clear their distinction from everyday life (for instance, by featuring fantastical elements like talking animals). Even the down-to-earth parables of Jesus contain deliberate exaggerations designed to draw attention to a transcendent reality. An example is the amount owed to (and forgiven by) the king in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant 3, which was “10,000 talents” – an unfeasibly large sum (equivalent at the time to 200,000 years of wages), but clearly meant to illustrate God’s great mercy.
Other religious stories are intended to be taken as absolute rather than allegorical truths. However, these are meant as a glimpse into spiritual realities beyond human understanding. Whether one chooses to believe them or not, their nature is clearly signalled.
Furthermore, such narratives were contained within a tradition, whether religious or cultural, that not only propagated the stories, but also explained how they should be told and understood. In the pre-modern world, the power of narrative, like the cult of personality, served an institutional purpose.
Modernity, however, has ripped the power of narrative loose from these moorings – and thereby changed its very nature.
Most obviously, narrative is now free to serve no other purpose than pure entertainment. And given our evolutionary predilections for plot, character and motivation, we can’t get enough of it. Or rather, we can, because fiction is available in quantities and varieties that our ancestors could not have imagined.
Unbound narrative can be used for other purposes too – including political purposes. In the absence of strong institutions, politicians connect by telling stories that they hope people will buy into. The problem with that is that real life doesn’t work like a story. Aspects of reality can be explained using stories, but trying to fit the whole thing into a narrative structure involves simplification at best, or, more likely, outright distortion. The life of a nation has a cast of millions, which for narrative purposes has to be narrowed down. Hence the focus on a few personalities – especially those most adept at generating their own drama.
Therefore, personality politics now serves a narrative not an institutional purpose. This matters because while institutions are about satisfying the human desire for continuity in the face of a complex and uncertain world, unbound narratives cater to the human appetite for novelty and easy explanations. They purport to give us an insight into places we’ve never been, events we haven’t witnessed, people we’ve never met. And furthermore, they do so in a way that is always compelling, never confusing and continually moves the story along. Politics as narrative means that instead of journalists and leaders, we have dramatists and performers. Or, as Monbiot puts it, the problem isn’t fake news but “news about a fake world”.
I’m conscious that in trying make my argument in 1,500 words I’m telling a story of my own – one inevitably full of simplifications, not to mention distortions.
But that’s not the twist in my tale. Rather, it’s that the storification of politics is no longer something just being done to us. Increasingly, we’re becoming the authors of our own deception.
In the digital age, people aren’t content to be passively entertained by narrative. As if to regain that long-lost sense of belonging, they want to be personally involved in the stories they consume. The expanding fake worlds of fan fiction, fan art, cosplay, online gaming, reality TV and social media are testament to this impulse. Yes, these audiences are being manipulated in the process, but they are also the manipulators.
Politics is being disrupted by politicians who understand this – who are willing to submit to a process of co-creation by their most ardent fans.
“Yes we can”, “Take back control”, “Make America Great Again” – these aren’t just narratives, they’re an invitation to participate.