May 27, 2001

Celebrity sells as voters yawn

Posted in People ·
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On his lecture tours, what do you think Bill Clinton talks about in countries that do not have ethnic divisions? In Northern Ireland, Bosnia and the Basque region, issues of identity, nationality and borders make a statesman’s job pretty easy.

The themes are big, the stakes are high and the rhetoric (sometimes) illuminating. On such turf, a politician doesn’t have to be a schmoozer par excellence like Clinton. Even the likes of James Molyneaux can earn a crust as long as the electorate is partisan. Willing electorates focused on a number of critical issues are food and drink to politicians.

What happens to politicians when the electorate switches off? This is the single most important issue facing the political system in the western world. Electorates are disengaging at a serious rate. It is expected that less than 65 per cent of the British electorate will turn up to vote on June 7 and, among voters under 30, this figure is likely to be much lower.

Here, the Nice Treaty turnout will be similarly underwhelming. In the United States, less than 50 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in the presidential election. Similar trends are being observed all over continental Europe.

Western politics have failed to recover due to a combination of a decade of relative economic prosperity, the emergence of a smug, affluent and, naturally, self-serving society and the end of ideology.

In the past we had right and left, colony versus empire, liberal and conservative, black versus white, Russia versus America. These conflicts throw up great and controversial leaders like Martin Luther King, Eamon de Valera, Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin.

As a result, these times were also defined by big events such as the building of the Berlin Wall, the Cuban missile crisis, Solidarity, the end of apartheid and so on.

With contrasting ideology, a Cold War and some great leaders, politics was relevant. In its heyday over here, Keynesian economics promised that if you voted left, you would be looked after for life. The same economic philosophy implied that if you didn’t vote for the right, you’d be taxed out of existence. Insurrectionists, traitors and fifth columnists were a feature of our political landscape.

In Europe, socialist parties were financed by Moscow, Christian Democrats by the CIA. Economics, politics and national security all converged on party politics such that one’s vote said something about the type of person one was — or thought one was.

Now all this has almost disappeared. Voters are no longer left-wing or right-wing or liberal or conservative. There has been a rush to the centre, instigated by Clinton, perfected by Blair and Ahern and mimicked by Schroder.

Identities have blurred to such an extent that even in France, a right-wing president and a leftwing prime minister preside over agreed plans to cut the budget deficit and dilute national sovereignty.

As these divisions disappeared, so too did political news. Not too long ago small bush fires in Africa had the potential to start a nuclear showdown. Local post-colonial struggles in Asia became an opportunity for the superpowers to flex their muscles and kill their own civilians. Divisive politics made news.

When Russian jets shot down a Korean airliner, the world trembled and newspaper sales rocketed. Now there is precious little political news. In its place the media has had to create something else to capture our imagination.

That something is celebrity. Now we are supposed to read stories about the Irish `First Family’. I don’t care whether Bertie’s daughter is married to the bloke from Westlife or not. Do you? Yet I know who they are and what they do on their holliers.

Spin has replaced substance; personality has replaced politics. Last week, Tony Blair donned new glasses and this became big news, as did Geri Halliwell’s defection to the Labour party.

What next? “Why I vote Fianna Fail by Keith Duffy”? Politicians, realising that celebrity sells, have been only too happy to embrace the new trends. But even the spinmeisters can’t prevent the electorate from turning off.

As people get richer, we become less reverential. Ironically, the prize for economic growth and affluence that politicians so often trumpet is not re-election, it is political apathy. If I can afford a car and a holiday irrespective of what the Taoiseach says, what do I care whether it’s Bertie, Michael or Rory in power?

Even those folk who do vote do so out of habit, not conviction. These days, with so many of us in debt, our relationship with our bank manager is of considerably more importance than that with our TD.

It is not corruption that alienates people from politics — although it hardly helps the cause — it is prosperity.

Politicians have also been actively writing their own P45s. By appealing to the electorate with promises of lower taxes and more privatisation the political class is loosening its own grip on our wallets and incomes, while at the same time making us richer.

Contrast, the US electoral reality with the very high turnout in India, where the state is deeply involved in the economy and local politicians operate an ingrained system of clientelism, doling out favours in return for votes.

So where is all this leading the political process in the west? In recent weeks Italy may have provided us with a few pointers. The emergence of Silvio Berlusconi is very interesting. The problem with western politicians is that, in an effort to rebrand themselves, they have adopted the language of the boardroom without any real business experience.

They have elevated the entrepreneur, while leaving themselves open to the accusation that they have never been entrepreneurs themselves. When faced with a Berlusconi-type character, a career politician will always come off second best in the `so what have you done with your life’ stakes.

A path has been opened to rich business types whose central appeal is the `I’ll get something done here’ approach.

Berlusconi, like Ross Perot before him, has this constituency sewn up, and if the party machines are at all weak these men have the money and contacts to win elections.

It is highly likely that new political movements will emerge over the coming years, spearheaded by charismatic, successful businessmen.

For the rest of us, unless the world experiences the second coming of Karl Marx, apathy and disillusionment with existing politicians will ensure that Silvio Berlusconi model of politics becomes the norm rather than the exception.