Performative politics is on trial and, for all its successes, has begun to be found wanting. Boris Johnson’s electoral triumphs that delivered the debacle of Brexit and what is now obviously a zombie government have shown the limits of theatre and showmanship over substance, reason and integrity.
However, mastery of “performative politics”, the term used by Hillary Clinton in an interview with me last week, has been until now a prerequisite for democratic success. Johnson is, or was, a master, the former US secretary of state acknowledged: the rumpled hair, artful self-deprecation and ever-present penchant to find the comic angle all a smokescreen to cover his ambition, entitlement and rightwing views. Masters also are Donald Trump, her husband, Bill, and Barack Obama, but the latter two both predated the worst of today’s social media.
Joe Biden? The issue is not content or delivery on the ground, where Biden has plenty of achievements that Clinton warmly admires – his failing is that he is no performer: “So you basically saved people from falling into unemployment. You save small businesses and you’re going to build airports, bridges and tunnels and all kinds of great things,” she says. But the larger question in 2022 remains: “What are you going to do to entertain me? He’s not a performer – and that’s a real problem.”
An element of theatre and performance has always been essential in democratic politics. People need their passions stirred, values touched and a belief – even transient – that they are part of a great transformative project. Of course there has to be an organising idea, a unifying cause and an enemy to slay, but all has to be framed in ways that inspire.
What has degraded political theatre into performative posturing, argues Clinton, is social media built on our obsession with screens – the catalyst in the witch’s brew of rightwing ideology, Christian fundamentalism, sheer greed and predatory capitalism driving the US’s political polarisation. Politics has become a subset of an alternative reality defined by an avalanche of the hype, trolling, misinformation, retweets, trending, anonymised racism and misogyny in which we now live, exacerbated by big tech and its algorithms, for whom the resulting data traffic is gold.
Politics has to swim in these currents that breed obsessive single issue after single issue and the advantage falls first to the shameless performer and then the political right. There is an inherent bias against what she calls the politics of hope: politicians who in different ways want to speak for a “we society”, a future in which we look out for each other more.
What grabs our social media attention instead is the negative – “the car wreck, the sensationalist story, the conspiracy theory” – which makes putting a case for hopeful reform harder and shameless lying politically easier.
I put it to her that progressive politics and politicians have to take a measure of responsibility. Unable to cohere around a single strong narrative or sell it well, whether in Britain or the US, they create openings for the right. She pushed back hard. Confronted by the relentless lying involved in, say, Brexit, the remainers were “kind of, you know, bollocksed. They didn’t know what to do or say and didn’t do a very good job of it. When you’re on the opposite side of shameless lying, you really are thrown off balance. I mean, how do you respond to that?”
Progressive politicians certainly had to do better, but she wasn’t going to indict them. It’s a tough hill to climb, she argues, a new way in which raw capitalist power, particularly in the abuse of tech, and its accompanying ideology are being configured and new waters created in which showman politics flourishes. Government must rein it in for the public good.
Yet there is, as the Tory party and Johnson are discovering, a reckoning with reality. In his recently published small masterpiece, Chums, Simon Kuper describes how Brexit was a fantasy crusade by a small group of Oxonian former public-school boys to keep Britain free for their caste against the imagined enemy of an EU superstate. It served no interest group in the country except themselves and their Tory ilk, enlarging their prerogative to rule but framed as an epic struggle for freedom.
Details – peace in Northern Ireland, 21st-century trade being dependent on common standards set by giant trading blocs, security on our shared continent – came a long way behind extravagant gesture politics. Now the omissions are there for all to see and we live through the impoverishing and diminishing consequences. Slowly, too slowly, it is becoming possible to call out Brexit for what it is.
Political leadership in the 2020s needs to be recast, but old truths will out. Alternative reality may have allowed performative politics to trump content for a period, but for all the collective appetite to be entertained, citizens also want to be governed well. That means a firm grasp of what does and doesn’t work and how matters can be improved.
That in turn requires a viable political philosophy backed by evidence and turned into a programme that can be consistently applied across government, taking on power, privilege and vested interest where it is plainly necessary.
It’s palpably not what we have, but it’s obviously what we need and the wheels are already spinning to deliver it. Keir Starmer’s lack of dash in Johnsonian or Trumpian terms may suddenly be an asset; instead of aping them – in any case both undesirable and impossible – he needs to cultivate a form of counter-performativeness. Talking straight and honestly is the show that the public is increasingly ready for, supported by a clear philosophy of government and ambition for the country. It is doable.
Remain an optimist, but worry a lot, urges Hillary Clinton. Not a bad way to think about progressive political leadership.
Hillary Clinton’s interview is available from 13 June on the Academy of Social Sciences’s We Society podcast series, presented by Will Hutton, launching tomorrow
Will Huttton is an Observer columnist
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