A few weeks ago, in an interlude bizarre even in this time of badly broken politics in the Western world, one of President Barack Obama’s top advisers explained boastfully how he had managed to fob off a deliberately misleading picture of the nuclear agreement with Iran. It was the equivalent of an Olympic medal-winner reading out his steroid prescription on the podium, or a magician calling up his shill for a round of applause. It was also an insight into how the political process has become so broken and why, for instance, it is no longer fantastic to imagine that Obama’s successor may be the rude, crude and previously unimaginable President Donald Trump.
Pundits, pollsters and political scientists have identified a range of destabilising phenomena on the political landscape of the United States and Europe: populism, neo-nationalism, isolationism, a wholesale rejection of established institutions, and raw anger. They have posited causes: globalisation, a sloshing tide of refugees and immigration, austerity and the aftershocks of the world financial crisis. They have rightly drawn parallels between politicians on both right and left who have been tapping into the corrosive popular mood: Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France, Norbert Hofer in Austria. Or movements like Alternative for Deutschland in Germany and Syriza in Greece.
But the more profound, more deeply unsettling and probably more enduring change may be the infantilisation of the political process: the notion for some politicians, and for an exponentially larger number of voters, that dealing with national and international problems is child’s play. And the belief, shared by all children everywhere, that simply saying something makes it true or that simply screaming is an effective means of communication. Back in the mid-1970s, the news presenter in the Oscar-winning film Network urged every one of his viewers to throw open their bedroom windows and shout: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” But that was Hollywood. We are now facing the unedifying spectacle of politics imitating black comedy.
On first hearing Trump talk about building his “beautiful wall” on the Mexican border, Boris Johnson extol about how the rest of Europe would salivate its way to grant whatever post-Brexit deal Britain wanted, or Jeremy Corbyn describe his Kumbaya-like vision of how talking and hand-holding among the nations of the world would defeat ISIS, I remember shuddering and thinking: they sound like me…circa 1968. I was born and raised in Washington DC and went to a high school that had an institution called the Government Club. It was modelled on the Mother of Parliaments, and we presented bills on a range of contemporary political issues that would be voted on at the end of the session. Since this was America, the parties weren’t Tory and Labour, but Conservative and Liberal. I was at one stage the Liberal Party leader, following in the footsteps of an older student, named Al Gore, who also never became President of the United States. Both Gore and I, and indeed our opposite numbers on the Conservative side, presented our bills and made our speeches in a way that implied a certainty that the issues were simple and that the equally monochrome prescriptions we proposed were unassailably right. The difference was that we were just teenagers. And once our gladiatorial encounter was over, even we were capable of realising that the issues were actually a bit more complicated than we pretended.
The extraordinary recent remarks by the Obama aide pointed to one important reason for the infantilisation of our ostensibly grown-up politics: the dramatic change in the media over the past couple of decades, especially the near-death of serious newspaper inquiry and analysis. “All these newspapers used to have foreign bureaus,” said Ben Rhodes, a member of Obama’s national security team. “Now they don’t. They call us to explain to them what’s happening in Moscow and Cairo… The average reporter we talk to is 27 years old, and their only reporting experience consists of being around political campaigns. That’s a sea change. They literally know nothing.”