Monday, 31 October 2016

Politics is becoming little more than a game show.

The major problem there is that game shows are actually hugely popular. They seem to be what 'the people' actually want, to a large extent. Politics is becoming the game show, because the game show sells. The way to attract the 'popular vote' isn't necessarily to have the best policies, or even the most popular policies (in terms of those that are thought through and sensible, and might actually work), but to reach the mass audience with easy answers presented in the most emotively appealing way (preferably by someone who looks like a slick, 'perfect' game show host, or at least 'nice'). That is a relatively new phenomenon - it's probably no accident that it's grown up at the same time as 'TV voting', either. Now everyone is a 'voter', every week from their arm chairs, but what they expect from politics is now much more the same as what they get weekly from the X-Factor or whatever.

Many people aren't interested in policies - in fairness, to a large extent they probably never were. Not in the finer detail, anyway - relatively few people sit down an examine policies line by line to see what they will mean. They want a more general 'direction of travel', and a few snippets of something that sounds good to them, and that in itself is fine. What has changed is what that means - they no longer seem to want something that sounds reasonable and sensible from someone they feel they can respect. Now they want something that tugs at their emotional heart-strings from someone that they actually like (in just the same way as they don't really want the best singer on the X-Factor, but the good looking one who comes across as 'nice' and has a really good emotional back story). They used to want a 'leader' who they thought had good judgement to exercise on their behalf (because that's what representative democracy is about). Now they seem much more to want a 'mate' who will do everything that they want all at the same time, and who will keep them entertained while they do it.

It's easy to blame 'politicians' for that, and especially someone like Tony Blair, who saw what was beginning to happen and capitalised on it (and yes, in turn contributed to it). It's not that simple, though - they are only dealing with the hand that is dealt to them, and doing what they have to do in order to survive and get into a position where they can actually do some good. We can see what's happening to Corbyn - the public and media attacks really aren't just about policy, or even effectiveness (as much as I personally think there are questions on all that, and as much as I'm certainly no fan of his). There's more to it than that in terms of 'image'. Think back to what happened to Ming Campbell, too - he was destroyed politically, almost purely because of his age and 'image'. Experience used to be a good thing for a politician - not any more, and that's not good when we're deciding who is going to run the country. Politicians haven't helped the downwards spiral, of course, but they aren't (well, certainly not all of them, anyway!) responsible for the rise in immediate and emotional-reaction voting that's come partly from the way that TV game shows have developed over recent times (and partly from the press too, though in fairness they as a group have always had one foot (at least) in the gutter).

It's all 'audience participation', of course, which sounds like a good thing on the face of it, but actually direct 'audience participation' isn't necessarily always a good thing at all. Obviously we want a population who feel engaged with the political process, but that doesn't necessarily mean they should expect to be directly interfering with it on a day to day basis, and demanding that it bends to every whim that each of them individually feels ought to be 'popular'. Elected representatives do have to get on with their job - they are elected to represent the best interests of their constituents, and that does sometimes mean having to make decisions that not everyone likes . You can engage with a Shakespeare play, and feel invested in it and emotionally part of it, without having to engage in constant 'audience participation' shouts demanding that Hamlet does a cheery song and dance routine instead of a soliloquy.

What we should have is a serious and thoughtful play, and that is what many of the performers on the political stage have been trying to get on with doing. Unfortunately, a large and vocal (and apparently expanding) chunk of the audience, fresh from their game show armchairs, seem determined to turn it into Panto, because they think Panto is much more 'fun'. A few of the performers are egging them on, too, so that they can get themselves the leading roles even though they aren't remotely suited to performing in the kind of serious and thoughtful production that running a country ought really to entail. We should have 'To be. or not to be....', but what we are getting is 'He's behind you!'. We should have Olivier and Burton, but instead we're getting the Chuckle Brothers and Biggins. As Foreign Secretary.

Perhaps a big part what has changed is the science of manipulation. It's no accident that game show back stories are presented in the way they are, with the emotional music and the neatly placed sniff of 'genuine' emotion as the contestant talks about what's gone wrong in their life and how winning this will solve it all for them. It's all very carefully constructed according to years of very detailed research about how to make people invest emotionally into something (so that they pick up those phones and get voting, keep watching the show, keep buying the records, and keep the lovely money pouring in). Likewise, politics has become far more sophisticated in the way it uses emotional appeal to attract supporters. They use it because it works, of course - they know it works, and you can't take that knowledge away.

Anyone who stops trying to use it now will inevitably disappear, and there will always be someone unscrupulous using it in a way that is designed to promote their extreme emotional view because they know they can (even though it may make no real sense as a way to deal with the real problems faced by the world). Not everyone seeking political power and advantage has nothing but the most noble of intentions, unfortunately (and not everyone is scrutinising what they are saying to see whether that is the case) - it has always been thus, of course, but at the moment they have particularly potent weapons to employ gain the advantage (and they do have an advantage - they know that what they are saying doesn't have to make any sense, but just has to be emotionally appealing). Those who do have genuine intentions and genuinely sensible ideas have to overcome that emotional clamour, knowing that their facts and logic are still likely to be seen as 'boring' anyway.

The Panto stars are now playing us, and they have the carefully researched methodology to allow them to do it very effectively indeed. They are drawing people in. They are working their emotions, because they know exactly how to get the reaction they want from at least enough people to make the gang shouts build up until they can claim that it's almost everyone doing it (which it never is, of course). They're getting the crowd to shout down the thoughtful soliloquy with a frenzy of meaningless but enthusiastically noisy 'Oh no it isn't!', 'Oh yes it is!'.

Bums on seats, old loves, bums on seats.

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