Is politics becoming ever more of a performance art? Just days ago, senior aides to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump suggested that their boss had been playing a “part” up until now with all his name-calling and wild Muslim-baiting, Mexican-hating talk. Mr Trump, they promised, would change forthwith and become as presidential a candidate as any political party anywhere could possibly want. Sober. Safe. Slightly boring, perhaps.
Never mind the schizophrenic implications of that promise, consider the candour with which such a change is being discussed. That a politician — especially a political novice such as Mr Trump — should openly indicate he plans to change public persona like a suit, says something about the system. It suggests that we live in an age in which the politician sees himself as no more than an actor and that the public is willing to suspend disbelief during the performance.
We have it on good authority. Kevin Spacey, a real rather than pretend actor, has spent the past few years portraying the odious and ambitious American politician Frank Underwood for the popular Netflix series House of Cards. Real politics, said Mr Spacey after shadowing leading politicians in Washington as research for the show, is “performance art. I don’t believe [politicians] … I don’t think they’re being absolutely sincere. I think it’s performance art, and most of them are bad actors.”
Even so, perhaps it’s unfair to damn everyone in public life on the basis of maverick comments from Mr Trump’s political campaign. He is, after all, a former reality television star and may be expected to see everything as a staged event that is meant to drive up ratings. And the United States is emphatically not an ideology-free zone. But role-play and showmanship — acting and speaking as befits the moment — has become a more decided feature of political life in many countries.
This change has happened over at least 40 years. A 2012 report by the Centre for the Study of Integrity at Britain’s Essex University found that people consistently ranked “spin” as the trait they most dislike about politicians. By implication, the British public dislikes the evident insincerity of politicians playing a part.
A decade before that study, Australian politician and former economics professor Andrew Leigh wrote a paper explaining popular distrust of politicians in Australia and the United States. He quoted data going back to 1958 from the American National Election Studies. Leigh discerned that the main change in trust occurred from 1964 to 1980. In 1964, 76 per cent of Americans displayed trust in their political leaders. By 1980, it was just 25 per cent.
Political scientists see America’s crisis of trust as the result of the 1980s rise of political spin-doctoring, with its attendant performance-art features of exaggerated role-play and empathetic showmanship. This, in turn, prompted the media to focus on a politician’s strategy and tactics and how they said something rather than what they actually said. Reportage further weakened public trust in politicians.
This is not to say that spin — or the use of rhetoric to sell bad policies or a good war — is a 20th-century invention. It has been around from the time that politicians wore Roman togas or Grecian sandals. Plato was objecting to its truth-distorting nature 2,400 years ago. But the modern spin era — which is only 115 years old, having started with American president Teddy Roosevelt — is altogether different from the smooth-tongued orations that Plato found disturbing. It has continually evolved to the point where it creates and packages a product in full view of those people who will buy it knowing that it is not the real thing.
In his new book Republic of Spin, historian David Greenberg lays out the ways in which American politicians obfuscate and misdirect, thereby skilfully manipulating public opinion. Though Greenberg doesn’t say it, the political performance art practised in advanced democracies has found disturbing resonance in emerging countries. Not least India, the world’s largest and most populous democracy. Political histrionics was indispensable to Narendra Modi in erasing memories of his controversial record and winning the 2014 general election by a landslide. And it remains a feature of his tenure. Just a few months ago, the Indian government was caught tweeting an apparently doctored photo of the image-conscious prime minister surveying the flood-hit southern state of Tamil Nadu from a helicopter. It was meant to convey his empathy for the people but appeared to show hypocrisy instead. The doctoring prompted some comment and then the public lapsed into its long-held cynicism of politicians who behave like actors.
Even Canada’s recently elected prime minister Justin Trudeau could be said to be playing a carefully scripted role as an inclusive politician. His cabinet — exactly picked for diversity in race, expertise and gender — might have come straight out of central casting. But at least Mr Trudeau is focusing on the positives of the Canadian temperament in the 21st century. What of politicians who want to manipulate public opinion for negative ends?
Greenberg says that the facts will always outweigh spin.
Perhaps. But the dangers lie in the mutation of the political image industry. Like native advertising, which is cleverly embedded reporting, it is merging product promotion with content in a way that makes it hard to figure out reality.
Most people no longer even try. It is telling that a politician au naturel is generally supposed to be one who is artfully portraying authenticity.
But for democracy to survive, there must be some unvarnished truth.