How authenticity became our politicians' Holy Grail

17 Sep 2018

 

Had fields of wheat, Mexican waves, and a P45 at conference not already immunised us against Theresa May’s capacity to induce cringes, then the PM’s brief boogie during her trip to Africa might have seemed almost too funny or embarrassing to be true.

 

Alas, we are amply predisposed to a Maybot PR gaffe, and this one proved particularly popular, inspiring an abundance of hilarious tweets and memes from a British public that is almost (but not quite) feeling sympathetic enough to cut her some slack.

 

On this occasion, her team managed to diffuse the invective by good-naturedly tweeting "Get in touch if you need any tips...#Strictly."  Many commended her humour and willingness to take the comments on the chin. Indeed, many commentators have suggested that the blunder has actually had a positive impact on her public image, humanising a character who all too often seems joyless and robotic.

 

Humanising politicians has become a technique designed to win favour with the public, distracting them from the more odious aspects of their past or their current policies, while simultaneously boosting their ‘in-touch’ credentials.

 

Boris Johnson famously acts like a bumbling buffoon so that his many controversies and incompetence as a Foreign Secretary are not in the limelight. For example, his strategy to offer tea to journalists after his burqa comments was seen by many as funny and quintessentially British - it was nevertheless a purely strategic move to regain some favour and popularity.

 

It's a persona that most believe is affected and with which he has succeeded for years – it is, after all, very hard to dislike someone who can make you laugh.  This would appear to remain the case even when the person in question holds the keys to power – Johnson remains more popular than May despite the fact that he is brazenly sabotaging her Brexit policy.

 

 

Ultimately, in a democracy, what matters is winning favour with the public and securing votes. Whilst the everyday voter has a limited detailed knowledge of the country’s political scene, they will be affected by how the media presents a leader. Thus, 21st century political campaigning is all about spin, as parties and factions vie to present their preferred candidate as the most funny/down-to-earth/honest.

 

The political climate has undoubtedly changed with Jeremy Corbyn seemingly trying to project the public image of a kindly elderly uncle. This contrasts to Blair's 'New Labour' where voters were encouraged to look to Blair as someone who they aspired to be rather than someone who was necessarily like them. This equally explains why billionaire Donald Trump’s self-assured persona won favour with Americans.

 

Much of John F Kennedy's likeability was because his family embodied a seemingly perfect American family. Adolf Hitler's popularity was in part because the Nazi Party portrayed him as a Nietzschean superhero – his insistence on appearing faultless extended as far as refusing to have photos taken with spectacles on.

 

In the past a political leader was seen as someone who in some way surpassed the general public. This fed into the aspirational mentality of the voter who would instinctively vote for someone who appeared to be successful. However, in modern Britain there has been a noticeable shift, and politicians now seek to appear as ordinary as possible. 

 

It is undoubtedly a positive thing that politicians are now seeking to project their humility and normality, as the Blair and Cameron years of spin and perpetual electioneering had a disastrous effect on the public’s trust in MPs. However, we would do well to remember that these projections of an authentic personality are likely to be just as, if not more, disingenuous than the ‘uncorrupted’ façade preferred by politicians of previous eras.

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