They are the clowns who shall inherit the earth – and for Trump, Johnson, Morrison et al, the jokester act provides the perfect political cover, writes Morgan Godfery.
(This essay is extracted from new essay collection Public Knowledge: Radical Futures and is heavily abridged. Godfery goes on to argue for a revolution by degrees, beginning with properly shoring up publicly-funded media).
After almost a decade in media and politics I can tell you one thing with certainty. If you give the voters a joke option, it’ll win every time. Call it the Boaty McBoatface rule. I mean, how else do you explain President Trump? In Britain politics is taken so lightly that a Fleet Street diva like Boris Johnson can win the London mayoralty, a seat in the Commons, and even the keys to 10 Downing Street.
It’s wild to think that only four or five years ago politicians like Trump and Johnson were more punchline than serious contenders. For liberals and leftists, it was all a terrific gag. Trump? Vulgar. A know-nothing. Johnson? Deeply unserious. Good for a hoot and not much more. But for conservatives and others on the right, it was all deadly serious. Trump’s vulgarity – “my fingers are long and beautiful [as] are other parts of my body” – and his apparent stupidity – climate change is a Chinese-run hoax aiming to make American manufacturing uncompetitive – were always part of his appeal. Johnson’s circus act, like the stump speech where he pretends to forget where he is, was never a disqualification. It was the qualification.
Our own chief joker, former prime minister John Key, knew as much, regularly appearing on commercial radio to play up. Dancing ‘Gangnam Style’ on Radio Sport. Slaughtering Mariah Carey’s ‘All I Want for Christmas’ on The Edge. ‘Picking up the soap’ on The Rock. You have to hand it to any prime minister doing it for the ‘bantz’, and for Key, a good many people really did. At the 2011 election Key made easy work out of former Labour leader Phil Goff, yelling a Jerry Maguire punchline – “Show me the money!” – at the hapless Goff and ‘winning’ the debate, according to the commentators.
The comedy set piece came to the rescue again and again for Key, even when it really shouldn’t have. At a tourism conference in 2010 the then prime minister told a ripper about a recent dinner with an East Coast iwi. “The good news was that I was having dinner with Ngāti Porou as opposed to their neighbouring iwi, which is Tūhoe, in which case I would have been the dinner.” It was quite the insult, and in the end Key made a very rare walk back, apologising to “anybody who was offended”. But the remarkable thing is there was almost no public pushback. One Ngāti Porou rangatira told RNZ it was just a joke. National Party pollster David Farrar played it down on his Kiwiblog. To paraphrase a good deal of the coverage at the time, it was just another case of John Key being, well, John Key. And that reputation for hamming it up meant Key could get away with cracking a funny his predecessors likely never could.
This is part of what makes the comedic persona irresistible to politicians. It’s a form of political cover. In a just world Boris Johnson’s “joke” about “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, his crack at Pride’s “tank-topped bumboys”, and his quip about burqa-wearing women as “bank robbers” and “letterboxes” would bar him from high office. But for the Tory MP’s flag wavers it only seems to reinforce his suitability. “It’s not as if he really means it.” Of course, he does mean it, and he knows that beneath the customary denials (“I’m not racist”) is a spoken or unspoken qualification (“but”). And this is Johnson’s telling advantage: the ability to say absolutely anything depending on the audience and occasion.
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister who cultivates a ‘daggy dad’ image, is in on the act too. Before taking up the top job the former treasurer had a reputation as a ‘hard head’. But almost as soon as he took office ‘ScoMo’ went from the local tough guy to embarrassing dad, suddenly dropping classics like how he’s going to Canberra to “give the boys a bit of a rev up” in an effort to sound extremely normal and relatable. What was suitable in one job – treasurer – wasn’t necessarily suitable in another – prime minister – and so the former New Zealand Tourism boss underwent a marketing “makeover”. It’s counterintuitive, but these personality 360s apparently help make politicians who undertake them more “relatable”. But why is relatable seemingly the gold standard in political communication? I think it has something to do with the state of politics and public knowledge.
It’s no coincidence that 7 Days is the most popular political show on television. In one way that’s a worry, but when the Doomsday Clock is at two minutes to midnight, who can blame viewers for getting their news from a comedy panel? When the stakes are so high and disaster apparently so close, it seems like there are only two choices: check out of serious politics, or wholly commit to it. I don’t blame anyone who opts for the former, especially when the state of the latter is so dire. Even in progressive democracies like New Zealand, politics can seem trite. On TVNZ’s Q+A, the country’s leading traditional political show, the debate often turns on clairvoyance, with that week’s expert panel debating questions like how voters might respond to politician X or policy Y. It’s a strange situation for viewers. Their own thinking is outsourced to a rotating commentator who imputes thoughts and intentions on voter Z. It’s a favourite format for other shows too, especially in the international cable media. The same principle, if not the same format, increasingly applies in wider politics too. So much of what passes for politics today seems to settle on simply cracking the right incentives or cracking the right interventions, as Andrew Dean once put it. This is as true for Key’s government – think of the “social investment approach” – as it is for Jacinda Ardern’s coalition. As of 2019 the government had run or was running 182 working groups and reviews, outsourcing many of its political and policy functions to subject-specific experts and technocrats. Of course, this is fine as far as it goes, but it does reinforce a rather dubious message: that politics is too important to be left to politicians.
It’s not hard to find examples in extremis of outsourcing politics. In November 2011 outgoing Italian president Silvio Berlusconi put a cabinet made up entirely of unelected experts in charge of his country’s government in an effort to deal with the European debt crisis. That same month and year the European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund threw their weight behind the Greek economist and unelected prime minister Lucas Papademos after his country’s historic bailout. I suspect most people would agree the brief technocracies in Italy and Greece were a disgrace. Yet it’s increasingly fashionable to argue they were an example of the perfect form of government.
In Against Democracy Jason Brennan argues most political questions are too complex for most voters to comprehend. We mistake our adaptive preferences for common sense. Our status quo bias helps maintain support for inefficient policies. And some of us are just irredeemably stupid. This is how we get Trump. In other words: can we trust ourselves with democracy? In a trite sense the question is a fair one. I make ideological claims and assumptions all of the time that evidence and events expose as nothing more than wishful thinking. But the answer to that apparent stupidity, contrary to what Brennan insists, is not a technocracy. Instead it’s a stronger public knowledge.
Without a strong public knowledge politics functions as an insiders’ club, from day-to-day debates – try discussing a capital gains tax without knowing specialist shorthands like “the bright-line test” – to front-facing institutions. Securing entitlements from the Ministry of Social Development, for example, can sometimes require an ‘advocate’ or ‘Whānau Ora Navigator’ to help sort out a person’s ‘client number’, the relevant thresholds that apply in each application, and any agreed ‘outputs’ or outcomes. The same goes for immigration, where an increasing number of prospective migrants are engaging ‘agents’ to help navigate the Byzantine immigration instructions, rules and criteria applicants must meet before the government will grant a visa. I suspect this is what a moderate technocracy looks like in practice: knowledge is outsourced, and politics and policy are reduced to a series of particular specialisms. Economics for the economists, legislation and regulation for the lawyers, and infrastructure and design for the engineers. In theory, intermediaries like political commentators should cut through this conceptual complexity. In truth, they likely add to it, pushing their own agendas and views, which may or may not align with certain politicians. In this kind of world is it any wonder that voters would back a ‘relatable’ politician promising to ‘take back control’ or simply ignore the so-called experts?
But what does a public knowledge mean? At its simplest it’s knowledge that is, well, public. In its institutional form it can include the media, trade unions, local and national clubs, schools, universities, and more. On this understanding public knowledge is embodied. And this is one reason it’s in a rather sorry state. Collapsing revenue means media organisations across the country are shutting up shop. With each paper’s closure goes a little bit of public knowledge. With savage cuts to certain university departments (think history) that same public loss is happening at a national level too. The average person is more likely to read, watch, or listen to a bank economist’s view on the mortgage market, interest rates or GDP than the view of a university economist or trade unionist. You might claim that as a partial win – the bank economist is still performing a public service – but I’m a little more cynical than that.
For the people who imagine ideas are things we pick and choose from the marketplace there is a ready-made answer to a declining public knowledge. Debate. Conservative politicians often insist the way to win over climate change sceptics (that is, if the politician is not a sceptic himself) is to engage in a speech-off. Mano a mano, or one on one, to borrow a formula from American pundits. In John Milton’s famous telling debate is where truth battles falsehood, exposing the frauds, fools, and charlatans.
It’s a wonderfully seductive argument, and you can use it for anything from opposing hate speech laws – they “stifle debate” – to arguing for a national media platform (excluding me from this platform stifles debate). Still, I suspect most people know it is all bunk. In a political debate the ‘winner’ is not necessarily the person with the better argument or the best facts. Often the winner is the person who best exercised power. In a parliamentary debate that might mean the politician who carries the day is the person wielding their identity (white man?) and best using it to build camaraderie with the audience. Others might turn to their qualifications (economist?) in an appeal to authority. This is not exactly how an ideal debate should work. But for a decent rhetorician the facts are never fatal. They know debates usually just end up reflecting the power relations in wider society.
When people find out the idealised debates they have heard so much about are, in fact, elaborate set pieces, is it any wonder they prefer ‘comedy’ in their politicians instead?
Public Knowledge: Radical Futures edited by Emma Johnson (Freerange Press, $30) is available from Unity Books.
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