Democracy or Entertainment for the Masses?

London, United Kingdom (SCF) – I have always found American politics far more exciting, consequential and charismatic than British politics. This is in part due to the status of the United States among the democracies of the world as the leading Superpower. The world has for almost 70 years turned on the American axis. Yet, it is more than just power with a capital P. The United States – politically, aesthetically and culturally – is a far more vibrant and glamorous country than Britain, and thanks to the creative power and influence of the American entertainment industry with its citadel of Hollywood, churns out American politicos who run political campaigns as if they were producing blockbuster movies. The American political process – with the myriad of domestic and international policy issues involved, passionate civic organizing & quirky public engagement along with the cast of larger than life political characters – has always had a stronger grip on my imagination and attention than the dreary, trivial, boring and deeply parochial political village of Westminster. Dipping into pop culture, if American and British politics were to be compared to television soap dramas, the US polity would surely resemble an episode of CBS’s 1980s global mega hit Dallas which dominated American and World TV ratings for much of that decade – and the UK polity a cross between EastEnders meets Emmerdale.

Only in America could a Head of State have his regime brought down by a newspaper with the saga turned into a film «All the President’s Men» while only in Britain could the current Mayor of its Capital City simultaneously sit in the lower house of its National Parliament – supposedly able to carry out two publicly funded jobs at the same time – without so much as a howl of protest from the British electorate (or media) due to the fact that when compared to the rest of the grey British political class Boris Johnston is considered a colorful character. One wonders what the reaction in New York City amongst the voters and press would have been if Mayor de Blasio had followed Boris Johnson’s greedy example and announced he was running for the House of Representatives and would still carry on as NYC Mayor. Something tells me – unlike Londoners – New Yorkers would not have taken such a proposition lying down. I also wonder if the Mayor of London claims two publicly funded salaries and two publicly funded expense accounts for the two jobs he performs as if he were Superman, though without the awesome splendor of Henry Cavill’s Superman physique.

The old adage that democratic, electoral politics is acting for ugly people rings true when one casts one’s eye over the green benches of the British House of Commons. British MPs – as a body of people – are not exactly the easiest on the eye, putting it politely. The vast majority of Members of Parliament, both in the Commons and Lords, are physically underwhelming and ascetically un-photogenic, yet ironically this seems no restraint on many of them posing for the television cameras and seeking out publicity at the drop of a hat. This may sound superficial; however, it goes to the heart psychologically of why many people stand for Parliament in Britain and other democratic political systems – not out of any high minded ideological, intellectual principles and convictions – rather a burning desire to achieve the personal recognition and attention to massage their swollen egos which eluded many of them throughout their lives prior to becoming an MP. A very senior British politician once told me when it came to the fickle voting public the most important attributes of appealing to a democratic electorate in a 24/7 mass media/consumer/entertainment age was not your political beliefs, policies, strategic vision, intellect, rhetoric or life/professional experience – rather how you look and how you sound – than anything you actually say, do or believe in.

This also goes a long way to explaining the rivalry that exists within political parties. The majority of politicians in a democracy have to go out of their way to artificially attract attention to themselves and generate interest in their persona among the public while a tiny minority of democratic politicians attract attention naturally through the effortless way of their being. From an anthropological Darwinian perspective, in a society and political system of mass democracy, you have people who stand out of a crowd due to the dominance of their physical presence, personality, style and charisma. Then you have the majority of people who are the crowd and blend into each other forming a sea of unremarkable and forgettable faces. You have a tiny minority of people who can turn heads by just walking down a street or command the attention of a room full of people simply by entering it as they are blessed with the natural ability to captivate others just through being themselves. However, this blessing can also be a curse, as those few politicians who do possess natural star power must contend with the envy of other politicos (and the voting public) who are forever trapped within the confines of the supporting cast yet crave to be the lead actor.

"Uscapitolindaylight" by Kevin McCoy.

“Uscapitolindaylight” by Kevin McCoy.

Indeed, the world could be soon presented with an American Presidential Election reminiscent and worthy of one of the greatest television shows ever to grace the small screen – the fantastic Dallas mentioned above. If it is to be Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats come November 2016, the contest for the White House would be like Trump as the ruthless, megalomaniac (but entertaining and loveable) scoundrel JR Ewing (played to perfection by the masterly Larry Hagman) doing battle for control of the Southfork ranch (White House) with the wise, regal, compassionate (yet steely) Miss Ellie (played with equal perfection by the brilliant Barbara Bel Geddes) in the form of Mrs Clinton. Americans and American politicians are heavily influenced by Hollywood, so if it is to be Trump vs. Clinton, it will be intriguing to see if Americans would rather have JR Ewing calling the shots in the Oval Office or Miss Ellie. This in a nutshell explains why Donald Trump has taken off the way he has within the American body politic and the Republican Party. Trump, unlike the rest of the GOP field, is entertaining and compelling precisely because of his controversial charisma. The overlap between American television programs, music, films and plays with its politics is institutionalized. The multi-billion dollar American Presidential Election cycle is, in a way, an extension of the multi-billion dollar Los Angeles entertainment industry. Why else did Mrs Clinton turn to Hollywood movie mogul Steven Spielberg to recommend media consultants to help coach her with her public oratory and stump speeches? Why else in US Presidential election campaigns is so much money spent on television advertising, so much time and resource spent on television interviews and television debates, social media outreach, the courting and roll out of celebrity endorsements, make-up, clothes, hair styles et al.

Western democratic publics are not the most politically aware and educated, policy astute and erudite of peoples with most of the western democratic consumer masses more interested in the latest reality TV show, pop band, goings on of the grotesque Khardashian family, shopping at the mall, the latest gadget, internet trends, talking about what they had for dinner on Facebook/Twitter, taking selfies or decorating their suburban homes. Of course non-political types would retort that this is what «normal» people are interested in, however I always remember what the inspirational American Army Ranger and motivational fitness guru Greg Plitt said about normality: «Normal is what weak people call living… I call it death.» Therein lays the rotten truth of the Western democratic capitalist model. It is nothing more than a facade and charade in order to keep the weak and feckless masses entertained and distracted rather than truly politically, intellectually, culturally, physically and economically empowered while the elites exercise real power, furthering their own policy agendas and interests alongside manipulating the masses through the false language and corrupted institutions of so-called democracy. Western democratic publics moan and complain incessantly about their democratically elected leaders. Yet these democratic leaders are merely reflections of the democratic systems and democratic publics who elected them in the first place. Democracies deserve the leaders they elect. The idea that Western style democracy is the most superior system of government perfected by humankind is a dangerous fallacy and nonsense. After all, Weimar Germany boasted one of the most democratic constitutions and systems of government ever engineered in the democratic West and we all remember (or at least some of us do who are historians) what that led to – the democratic election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Many people who know little of history forget Hitler came to power through a democratic election.

This report prepared by Matthew JAMISON  for Strategic Culture Foundation.