What is going on? Donald Trump got confirmed as the Republican presidential candidate at a bizarrely chaotic political convention… and promptly received an upwards bump in the polls to where he’s now rating ahead of Hillary Clinton, for only the second time this year. Likewise, John Key’s government had quite a bad month – yet in the latest Roy Morgan poll, National has been rewarded with its biggest lead over Labour in over a year.
Go figure. The current gap between the commentariat and public opinion is downright embarrassing.
Obviously, Trump and Key are quite different political personalities, but they’re alike in one obvious respect. Namely, their popularity runs deeper than the issues that fill the headlines, week after week, such they can afford to ignore the transient nature of the news cycle. God help them – and us – but a majority of voting Americans like Trump and what he’s saying deep down, more than they like Hillary Clinton and what she represents. New Zealand is much the same story. Neither of the centre-left leaders (Andrew Little, James Shaw) seem able to project anything like the political personality of Key and Winston Peters. And politics – as has been noted for years – is increasingly a personality-driven process.
In itself, this still explains nothing. Nor do terms like ‘Teflon’. The striking thing is that the government’s apparent disinterest and/or incompetence at resolving chronic social problems – homelessness, the housing price bubble, income inequality, the flatlining productive economy, the high levels of unmet health needs, sluggish wage growth, the student debt mountain etc etc – is neither sheeted home to Key personally, nor blamed on the government he leads. Impotence has never been more popular. Rather than a policy wonk refereeing out in the middle, voters seem to prefer the friendly guy chatting ineffectually to them on the sidelines.
Again, how come? People are not stupid. And they still care about the future of their kids, even if their own horizons may have shrunk, somewhat. While the following is not exactly an explanation… the most illuminating thing I’ve read recently about the current political process was based on something written back in the 1950s, by a French linguist/philosopher called Roland Barthes. In an essay contained in a volume called Mythologies, Barthes set out to explain the difference between our experience of boxing and wrestling. You can read the whole essay here.
What I took from Barthes is that the commentariat tends to treat politics as a boxing match – i.e. a linear process that proceeds via point by point accumulation and bodily wear and tear, and which is narrative-driven over 8, 12 or 15 rounds. The public, however, seem to experience politics as the static pageant of a wrestling match, in which (according to Barthes) individuals typecast for their moral values act out variations on the same process, over and over again. Keep that distinction in mind as you read these quotes from Barthes’ essay:
A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function… Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.
Basically… while the commentariat sits at its Parliamentary boxing match measuring the sparring and jabbing of policy point scoring and speculates about when the next knockdown/knockout will surely arrive, Trump just pulls everyone’s hair and hits his opponents with a chair, repeatedly. Because that’s the Trumpish thing that everyone watching expects him to do, over and over again. He’s Trump in the red corner, gleefully stereotyped as the good and fearless rule breaker bent on whomping the elites by any means available. Its not about what he’s done, it is – at most – about waiting for the next version of the same old thing he’s going to do next. He looks like he’s having fun, which is more than you can say of his earnest opponent.
Ditto for Key. He’s the thing we hired to divert us from the bad stuff, even if that routinely consists of little more than tripping over his laces and coming up smiling. Who believes a thing that he says or does? Yet when problems are seen as intractable, no blame is attached to those who fail – provided they look like they’re trying to do something or other, whatever it is. Here’s Barthes again:
The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees. Even hidden in the most squalid Parisian halls, wrestling [politics] partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve.
And, even worse:
…. Such a precise finality demands that wrestling should be exactly what the public expects of it. Wrestlers, who are very experienced, know perfectly how to direct the spontaneous episodes of the fight so as to make them conform to the image which the public has of the great legendary themes of its mythology. A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the public expects of him. In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively. Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature…..What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations, and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature…..without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.
Very French, even in translation. Yet Barthes’ argument does at least address the essentially static moral pageantry of the political process. The rich and the privileged do what they always do – and competently, if you accept the built-in skew in their governance as being the natural order of things. Conversely, a higher standard of unity and purpose is required of those knights seeking to supplant them. In the meantime, much of the detail of politics consists of new examples that mainly serve to confirm a set of static perceptions. Bill English is always modest and competent. Steven Joyce is always energetic. Judith Collins is always the steely crusher. The Greens are always idealistic but impractical. Labour is always disunited. Winston is always the cranky uncle. The rest is illustration.
You could look at this situation and argue that change has to be convulsive, not incremental. Not a job perhaps, for the likes of an Andrew Little or a James Shaw, middle managers both.
This Melbourne trio Camp Cope is largely a vehicle for lead singer/writer Maq, and their self-titled debut album is an interesting mixture of her indie cynicism on one hand, and her engaged emo energy on the other. “ Jet Fuel” for instance, uses 9/11 truther arguments about the Twin Towers as a jumping off point for a song about a whole range of lies and social indoctrination, from the NRA (“the only thing that can stop a bad man with a gun is a good man with a gun”) to more personal stuff :
So, you turned and walked away
Forgot everything they taught you ’til that day
And started arguing eloquently
As to whether jet fuel could melt steel beams
Hearing cat calls from a construction yard
They’ll say, “Take it as a compliment, they’re only being nice”
Yeah, it’s a far too common lie
And you’ll carry keys between your knuckles when you walk alone at night
“West Side Story” also lines out a sobering life mission :
I wanna do whatever you wanna do
I wanna find every truth with you
And it all comes down to the knowledge that we’re gonna die
Find comfort in that or be scared for the rest of your life So I sing and I scream and I strum and I try to help out Till I can build a little house
That the government doesn’t know about