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The rise of the politics of cool
If politics is a popularity contest, then as in life, the vote often goes to the cool guy. But to what extent are public displays of personality a calculated ploy for public support? Salient chief feature writer Elle Hunt looks at the rise of cool in politics.
One of the most surreal moments of last year’s election had to be John Banks, then ACT’s candidate for Epsom, taking a contingent of ACT on Campus to the cinema for what he claimed was just the fourth time in his life. The film was Johnny English Reborn—the first he had seen since Spice World in 1997.
“I find it difficult to sit still for more than an hour,” he said, as his “Killer Beez” shuffled behind him, looking pained.
It’s hard to tell to what extent Banks’ interview was a misguided attempt at humour: he expresses surprise that a trip to the movies no longer incorporates a rendition of ‘God Save the Queen’, nor an intermission. But no matter his level of self-awareness, that he invited Nightline reporter Ali Ikram along to share in the spectacle is testament to the playing field of politics today: the new currency is cool.
Rather, it’s cultural capital: the knowledge, behaviours and literacy that promote social mobility, and confer power and status. The Prime Minister’s appeal to David Letterman to come “hip-hop with the hobbits”; Phil Goff’s arriving at the 2009 Labour conference on a motorbike; David Parker heading a press release with “Nek minnit”—all stunts, no matter how misjudged, intended to showcase their subjects’ cultural awareness, charisma, and, above all, what political commentator Colin James termed their “one-of-us-ness”.
“In New Zealand, we want our political leaders to be congruent with our lives,” says Dr Jon Johansson, lecturer in Comparative Politics at Victoria University. “Where Banks fell down was that he came across as being not quite one of us.”
This focus on personality politics is even more prevalent in the United States, where image defines presidential elections. Campaigns are built around publicity stunts and media appearances: bowling, basketball games, Ellen. In April, President Obama appeared on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon to “slow jam the news”, where he spoke about his student loan agenda to a groove by The Roots. The stunt was decried by the Republican National Committee as “#NotFunny” (the use of a hashtag their own attempt to be relevant), but the response to the skit indicates that the average viewer, unconcerned with the finer points of the presidential race, were won over by Obama’s affability and good humour.
“Some of it’s just spontaneous behaviour that meets some sort of test of cool,” allows Dr Johansson. “But to be honest, of the more conscious efforts to appeal to the zeitgeist—the way I’d describe that zeitgeist is, we live in unprecedentedly shallow times. I think there’s an appreciation by our political elites, just as there is with marketers, that shallowness is cool.”
Dr Johansson attributes the advent of these “shallow times” with that of television, when image became as important as ideas. “That’s the turning point, with the prime ministership of Robert Muldoon, where he spoke directly down the camera, to ordinary New Zealanders,” he says. “When we started seeing political leaders face each other in televised debates, man to man.”
Political discourse in New Zealand and elsewhere, says Dr Johansson, is now “very much leader-centric”—a natural consequence of the rise of personality politics. This was obvious in the lead-up to last year’s election, when National’s bid to secure a second term in Government was reduced to a head-to-head between Key and Goff. Indeed, Labour’s attempt to de-emphasise their leader, keeping Goff’s image off billboards and promotional material, was roundly criticised by political strategists, and is one of the reasons given for their poor result on election night.
The news media’s focus on ‘infotainment’, too, has led to the increasing importance of cool in politics. “Our political elites just pander to that,” says Dr Johansson, pointing to Prime Minister John Key’s “cringeworthy” appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, where Key listed his top ten reasons to visit New Zealand.
“But the thing is, it was quite popular because Kiwis can place themselves in his shoes: ‘Of course I’d fuck it up and it would be a bit embarrassing’,” says Dr Johansson. “That’s how Key’s cool—most Kiwi blokes imagine they’d make the same sort of lame effort. That’s what people respond to; it’s not the actual act itself.
“We’re in the era of the ‘new dumb’, public discourse is that facile. Key is the apex of shallowness in my mind—he responds to a perfectly shallow era. The perfect candidate for perfectly shallowness.”
But at least New Zealand’s proportional representation and our parliamentary system precludes us from placing quite the same emphasis on personality as is the case in America.
“Presidentially, yes, personality politics is inevitable, but at this level, a politician’s personality can completely detract from their policies,” says Boston-based journalist and former Salient editor James Robinson. “What do you remember of the 2004 election? That John Kerry honourably said that he would finish the war in Iraq because America started it? Or that he was a stiff, effete Boston liberal that looked like a Dachshund?”
Image plays such an enormous part in American politics that coverage of the upcoming election, to be contested by Obama and Mitt Romney, can be articulated as “the smooth candidate” versus “the grumpy guy”. To a lesser extent, this characterisation is also the case in New Zealand. “We have had some very odd people as political leaders but it’s usually on the back of their gravitas, their competence, that we accept that,” says Dr Johansson. “Otherwise, our preference is always for someone we could imagine having a beer with—which is shallow, but very enduring here.”
But in America, media platforms exist that have the popularity and, therefore, the power to make or break a candidate: an appearance on Letterman can count as an endorsement of a candidate for those who have no more than a passing interest in politics, while Banks’ trip to the movies, as publicised by Nightline, is unlikely to influence New Zealanders to vote for him or not.
“What New Zealand-made media platforms carry enough cultural cache that young adults and grown-ups alike will feel inherently more favourably disposed to a politician by association?” says Robinson. “New Zealand politicians don’t have the Fallons to exploit; they have to create the avenue and the cool themselves, and that’s where it can fall over. Think Goff and the motorbike.”
Though he acknowledges the appeal of Obama’s appearance on Fallon, Robinson is critical of such a calculated ploy for public support. “Yes, it was a pretty good platform to remind people that student loans might increase, but it was also a pretty easy and lazy way to remind a whole load of generally politically disinterested people to vote for Obama.
“His media people know what they’re doing. They know full well that it’s tough to separate that genuine reaction of ‘hey, I like that guy’ from a ‘hey, should I vote for him? No-one wants a guy they like to lose his job.”
But isn’t it refreshing to see Obama show some personality?
“Yes, and no,” says Robinson. “It creeps me out slightly to think of politicians letting go in a calculated way—like with the obsession with bowling on the campaign trial. Do you think Obama or Santorum were like ‘fuck yeah! Bowling!’ Or dog tired, and wanting to go home?”
In politics, as in life, being cool is about being seen to be effortless—as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s recent increase in street cred shows. Ever since TIME photographer Diana Walker’s photograph of her using her Blackberry aboard a military plane went viral on Tumblr, Clinton’s cultural capital has skyrocketed. She has participated in her own meme; engaged in Muppets-related correspondence with actor Jason Segel; and even defended her right to party at a Colombian salsa bar.
But, as Dr Johansson points out, it wasn’t long ago that Clinton was perceived as being distinctly uncool. “You’ve only got to remember the primaries back in 2008 to see how ‘ambitious Hillary’ was treated,” he points out. “There was no ‘cool Hillary’ back then, but she tried. She went up to the back blocks of Pennsylvania and drank whiskey chasers, trying to show all the poor white trash that she was one of them, and of course it just looked ridiculous.”
The key difference, Robinson says, is that Clinton didn’t author her own meme: “She just had the good graces to endorse it.
“What’s interesting again about Hillary’s perceived upswing is that I don’t think she has had a hand in it. I don’t think she’s ever going to run for president again, so she has nothing to gain from it—which makes it all the more endearing, and shows that she’s really probably very likeable.”
Clinton’s newly-minted cultural capital, then, is a result of her rising to the occasion, rather than a calculated ploy to come across as cool, and, as Robinson notes, part of the reason is because she has no real reason to court the public’s approval. But to see all expressions of personality in politics as publicity stunts is an overtly cynical viewpoint.
“Politics should always have an element of fun,” says Dr Johansson. “When you see our elites enjoying themselves or having fun or whatever, that’s another way of how we wish our state to be.”
What Robinson is against is politicians manipulating public perception of them through flashy, hollow displays of charisma, and this is a lot less frequent in New Zealand than in America, as our politicians’ botched attempts at coming across as cool go to show. “It happens in New Zealand; it’s just always weird to watch” he says. “Maybe the fact that we notice it when it happens means our politicians are not that good at it. Or maybe we’re just not comfortable enough as a culture to let people show us that side of themselves.” ▲