I once watched a documentary about Julio Cu Camara, a Mexico City civil servant who is tasked with a daily dive into the open sewers of the overcrowd metropolis in order to remove whatever debris is clogging up the system and thus preventing the free flow of excrement and waste through its natural course. While Camara was preparing to submerge, the documentary makers joked that a tradition should exist whereby once a year, the mayor of the City should be required to perform this task of swimming through the citys waste, lending a degree of enforced humility and groundedness to the entrenched political elite. In truth, this idea is a pretty decent metaphor for the peak of an election cycle, where politicians, particularly in parliamentary democracies, are forced to jump through any and every hoop that voters and media alike may cast in front of them in a bid to earn a job for the next pre-determined number of years. Election campaigns in European-style parliamentary democracies are far from the self-aggrandising egomania of a US presidential election where two candidates strut around from place to place, entering like a rock star to adoring fans in tightly scheduled rallies. No, in parliamentary democracies, everyone in parliament loses their seat at the same time, so everyone must go back to where they came from, and account for what he/she hasn’t done since he/she won the last election.
This is the average voters time to shine, as politicians who are blamed for all our problems are paraded out in the open, seemingly begging to have mud thrown at them, clean up, and then beg for more. We drag them through the mud, we blame them for everything, we call them every name we can think of, and they take it all, because in the end, they know that most people will vote. Yes we complain, we drag them through the mud, but in the end, we still give them exactly what they want, because voting is all they want us to do, and we do it because freely electing leaders is a privilege that relatively few people in history have ever had. There is good reason to be depressed about this vicious cycle, yet in truth, we are really just getting the leaders we deserve. This is because, largely as a result of our own doing, there is a fundamental disconnect between what we expect from a modern politician and the actual job of adequately running a country.
A politicians primary goal is to preserve their position for as long as possible, and if possible, in the meantime, to perhaps achieve some progress for their constituents in the process. This is all most people do in their jobs, so we can’t really judge anyone else for this mindset. However, think about how a politician goes about keeping their position, and compare it to other occupations. For most of us, simply performing our tasks to expectations is enough to get a contract renewed. Yet for politicians, performing adequately is not enough, as they are plucked away from their posts which deal with policy and negotiations, and are required to go kiss babies and have their photo taken with members of every religion and race in order to reinforce how good an official they have been, or are going to be. An election decides who makes the decisions that run a country, and election results are based often on the success of election campaigns, and there is absolutely no relationship whatsoever between the ability to campaign well and being a competent leader.
Thus we have a disconnect in skillsets between what would make a good leader, and the type of person who could actually gain a position of leadership in this system. A good, dependable leader is informed, open, intelligent, honest and good at making decisions. An electable leader has to be somewhat likeable, has to pretend to know absolutely everything, and be able to absorb as much shit thrown at them as possible through an exhausting election campaign. The skillsets of these two types of leader do not overlap much, and therefore we primarily get leaders from the latter category, and often without ticking all the boxes. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the UK, where David Cameron and Ed Miliband embody the perfect examples of the modern, drearily electable, surprisingly passable leadership candidates. The UK is an interesting example to use, as it has used my earlier declaration that politicians primarily exist to win elections as dogma ever since the first New Labour term back in 1997. Tony Blair was big into data analysis, and had teams of pollsters conduct never-ending surveys on what people liked and didn’t like, about absolutely everything in modern life. They would then use this data to construct sound bites for the next election campaign, thus giving the people what they wanted, and giving the impression he was reading people’s minds, doing a good job, and in-tune with the mindset of his people. It worked in multiple, successive elections.
Fast-forward almost two decades later, we have Cameron and Miliband, who are nothing more than empty vessels filled with survey data from their research teams, pumped full of policy ideas that tear acutely at extensively focus group-tested split hairs of the middle ground of the political spectrum, and whose every gesture at televised debates appear directed by a PR guru, just as an actor is instructed by an overly-obsessive theatre director giving instructions from backstage. These aren’t politicians, they are regurgitators of the median opinion of whatever sample group their research team analysed, desperately hoping the average British person exists out their somewhere, and not only in their data results. Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror episode “The Waldo Moment” captured this perfectly, as it showed a cartoon character running for election, voiced backstage by a team of analysts. The only difference between that piece of fiction and the election this year is that Waldo was actually charismatic.
While the use of data in political analysis is necessary given that political parties need to know what their voters require from the state, its overuse in places like the UK are dangerous, as it creates a system of purely reactive politics, with politicians like Miliband and Cameron merely clinging to whatever they are advised their constituents desire. There are no political stances, there are no ideologies, there aren’t even plans, just merely datapoints instructing careful positioning for the next election. Politicians change based on what they think you want, gleaned from opinions of people who they think are like you, which wins them an election, and once you learn to hate them, they have realised from a focus group how to appear likeable again, just in time for the next election. It’s foolish to expect change in any modern election, because you, your expectations, and the average opinion of people deemed to be just like you are part of the problem, feeding into an iterative circle of perpetual dissatisfaction. But you can’t really blame anyone for this, as it is everyones fault, for we get the leaders we want, the ones we can drag through the mud, the ones willing to dive down deep into the electorates excrement in order to cling onto power for just one more term. Thus these are the leaders we deserve, the ones who would say anything, and consequently absolutely nothing, in order to rule ineffectively, treading water until the next election comes around. There is of course a need to hold politicians accountable for their actions and to expect them to adequately communicate their ideas to us on a regular basis, however this must not be at the expense of effective leadership or even having ideas about how the country should be run, rather than just spewing out how their analysts think we think it should be.