Friday, 22 July 2016

The Rise of the Celebrity-Populist

The recent rise of “rock-star” anti-establishment politicians ranges across the ideological spectrum of 20th Century politics. In developed world democracies such as the United Kingdom, both conservative and labour have endured the rise of anti-establishment figures, with Jeremy Corbyn winning the leadership of the Labour Party, and Boris Johnson effectively carrying out a mutiny upon the sitting prime minister – and the Conservative Party leader David Cameron – by leading the now successful campaign for the UK to leave the European Union (i.e. “Brexit”). In the democratic contest for presidential nominee, Bernie Sanders campaign had such impact, that his rival in the contest, Hillary Clinton, was forced to adopt more left-leaning anti-Wall Street rhetoric in her campaign in order to bridge the gap between new, younger democrat voters and the establishment-oriented democrat base from whom she enjoys great support.

New anti-establishment figures emerging from society is a good thing; it ensures that society continually questions itself, identifies its weaknesses and inadequacies, and works towards improving itself. And as society itself increasingly questions the status quo, and the establishment that enforces it, the more it moves towards a critical mass that can drive the transition to a better future. Yet, capturing anti-establishment sentiment, and wielding the power offered by that kind of political mandate – when it reaches critical mass – is a very serious responsibility. If you run on a ticket to bring about change, then that is exactly what people will expect, and if you do not satisfy them adequately you are bound to endure harsh scrutiny and treatment in turn. 

Today, significant frustration and anti-establishment sentiment exists in the US (as well as in societies across the world), yet there is an equally significant political vacuum; there is a scarcity of viable political options and alternatives for voting citizens. At the same time, celebrity has permeated every facet of modern existence. Celebrity, is increasingly playing a role in politics as well, as it shares the media base off which politicians access and influence their networks of supporters i.e. television, movies, social media, internet, and so forth.

In a sense, celebrities can be regarded as a “monarchy” of sorts in the popular imagination; in that they are ranked as equivalent to the political class and political elite, and occupy the political sphere, even though their membership stems from celebrity, wealth, fame and social status – i.e. they are those who have celebrity status in the entertainment media, who are wealthy, and who have amassed or inherited both in great quantity. They can mobilise funds for humanitarian causes, they can attract attention to worthy humanitarian, environmental and spiritual campaigns, and they can become politicians. From Ronald Reagan to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the transition from entertainment to politics has often worked out for those willing to take the gamble.   

The "celebrity-populist" is only one special category of rock-star anti-establishment politicians. The celebrity-populist, however, is a phenomenon that threatens to emerge in greater numbers early on in this new Century, precisely because of how media works in this era. What then, is this celebrity-populist? How can they be better defined?

The celebrity-populist entertains the electorate successfully, and through a variety of media platforms, but in the quest to keep the drama alive, and the converted focused on them, the drama can turn ugly, especially when it becomes about targeting imaginary enemies. By preying on the fears of ordinary people and amplifying them by using their celebrity as a platform to amplify fears, the celebrity-populist corrals ordinary people who are frustrated with the world they live in, and who harbour significant anti-establishment sentiment, in order to obtain power. Once laagered in, they look to the leader with greater hope and dependence, rendering them vulnerable to exploitation. The celebrity populist therefore offers them a competitive, protectionist and isolationist vision of the world, rather than one that values cooperation, diversity and inclusivity.

In the end, it is a simplistic politics that the celebrity-populist offers, but they can get away with it because they are not from within the existing political establishment and are oblivious (even disrespectful) of the political conventions of the establishment. In the end the equation of power, for the celebrity-populist, is a blunt, linear one. People are easily controlled when they are in a state of fear and anxiety about the world, so the drama revolves around existential threats and imminent crises, and they do not have to connect in any meaningful way to reality. That, after all, is what entertainment is all about; drama does not have to be real for the drama to be captivating. It is easy, in such fertile terrain, for alarmism to grow to outsized proportions, as it is the most basic dramatic ploy, and easily adapted to the political stage.

In America, for example, the emergence of the tea-party within the conservative Republican Party, and the recent rise of Donald Trump in the run-up to the US presidential elections are a case in point. In this fearful new world, migrants and minorities are once again relegated to the realm of the threatening “other”. Urgency and fear are the key messages, not hope; and progressive aspirations to a diverse, inclusive society are deemed to be a “liberal” threat to traditional values and the American “way of life”.

To be fair, there was also a great sense of urgency during the Obama campaign in 2008, but it was entirely justified; the US economy (as well as the global economy) had collapsed under George Bush. The dearth of regulation in the financial sector led to risky financial propositions being rated as safe as blue chip investments, and the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage crisis effectively brought the easy liquidity bubble of the early 2000s to a crunching end. America had blundered into an ill-advised war on Iraq, at great cost, and with little success to speak of, destabilising the region and energising the Sunni jihadist base in the region and across the world. It was also over-extended in Afghanistan. US debt had risen to staggering proportions, and the dollar’s role as a global currency was being questioned. Obama inherited a mess from the republican government, yet ironically, his presidency effectively took the blame for it from the very first day of his presidency, and continues to. As far as securing US interests are concerned, Obama’s presidency did far more than George Bush’s to revive and consolidate America’s economy, its place in the world, and its role as a global superpower. However, the radicalisation of the conservative right, has done everything it can to create the impression of an America under siege from terrorism, migration, minorities and the rest of the world.

Good political leadership for a modern society is in stark contrast to that practised by the celebrity-populist. When people assemble behind a vision that they can believe in and work towards as a society more freedom is required, and less direct control of society is necessary. Real political leaders navigate change and uncertainty by galvanising society and increasing its confidence in itself, thereby strengthening it in the face of change, making it more resilient, adaptive and innovative. They help society achieve what it may consider impossible, and enable society to transition to greater cohesiveness, unity and sense of purpose and belonging. Good leadership increases freedom in society because due to its cohesiveness it self-regulates more effectively. Moreover, it is a mark of civilised politics that leaders can debate and attack each other’s ideas and track record without necessarily attacking each other.

Good leadership is not about demonising minorities, building walls, professing “greatness” or bullying neighbours and competitors around the world. All nations and societies in this world cannot escape the fact of migration and socio-economic change; that societies are more diverse, fluid and interconnected than ever before. It is a fact of 21st Century existence; one that can only be undone by the collapse of global civilization in its entirety; an end of 'civilisation' scenario from which no recovery is possible.

Every nation state draws its boundaries, yet it is not necessarily isolationist and inward looking as a result of it. Its boundaries are there to regulate the fluxes into and out of it (i.e. whether demographic, commerce, trade, finance, energy, raw materials, species, etc.). Its boundaries are best negotiated, not imposed, or extracted under the threat of protectionism or aggression. Every nation is, in some sense, defined by the nations around it and by the existence of other nations around the world; being a nation state necessitates recognising others. They need to look to each other, not only for their own survival and prosperity, but also for their existential rationale. Simply put, we exist as a nation or country because others do; the same is true of individuals, communities and societies.

Amnesia about the fragility of nation states, regionalism and cooperation is perhaps a consequence of the distance that contemporary society enjoys from the horrors of the World War II. Yet those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. Sowing division, amplifying fear and caricaturing those who do not look and sound like us, are precedents for serious conflict and instability. This is especially the case when individual and group fears of imaginary threats and enemies extend to the leadership of the nation state.

Whether countries are drawn into trade wars, violent wars conducted to secure resources such as oil, water, land, etc.), currency wars and other forms of conflict. Loss of life and livelihoods are never far off when complex and intricate relations – whether internal or with the rest of the world – are forgotten by the leaders of nations. With this in mind, it is worth casting a careful, considered eye upon the words, actions and policies of the celebrity-populist. After all, as entertained as we may be by the celebrity-populist, the last laugh may ultimately be on us!

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