In late April, Ukrainians overwhelmingly elected a sitcom star, who plays a president on TV but has no actual political experience, to be the president of their country.
In 2018, Italy’s “Five Star Movement,” a party founded by a famous comedian, became the most successful party in the national elections.
And of course, in 2016, the United States elected Donald J. Trump to the presidency, a man who had no political experience but who had played a successful businessman on TV.
Now maybe these and other, smaller, examples (the election of Al Franken to the Minnesota senate and James “The Body” Ventura to the Minnesota governorship; Arnold Schwarzenegger to the governorship of California) are simply isolated incidents and not really part of a larger, accelerating, pattern. Both politics and mass entertainment rely to some extent on charisma and so there will always be some crossover. It doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
But … it also seems to me that in a time of unprecedented mass media, in places where trust in institutions and credentials is at a severe low but elections are still broadly free and fair, it makes sense that we would increasingly see voters judging candidates on the basis of their star power, rather than their experience with institutions and their achievement of credentials.
If true, this would certainly explain the reason why no Republican candidate in 2016 could touch Donald Trump, and why today such obviously inexperienced and third tier candidates as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg are so competitive with such clearly qualified and experienced candidates as Elizabeth Warren. But the larger importance of this shift isn’t in the handicapping of today’s political horse races, but on what politics, and democracy itself, comes to mean when Hollywood and D.C. — the Athens and Rome of our era — are in the process of a historic merger.
The reasons to panic are obvious: Charisma has no connection to competence. And government, not to put too fine a point on it, is hard. It is vitally important than the people be able to elect their government, so as to hold it accountable — but it is also true that the skills needed to govern effectively and the skills needed to campaign effectively have relatively little overlap. So the more time is required to campaign, and the more campaigning is open to anyone regardless of their qualifications to govern, the less able to do its job government is going to be.
Similarly, charisma and character have very little connection to one another. Someone who can appear relatable and authentic in a speech is if anything more likely to be a grifter with no sense of ethics who will raid the public funds and imprison his political enemies on trumped up charges.
A move to star power-based politics is very likely to enhance these problems. After all, when politicians are more accountable for the way they make us feel than they are the results of their policies or their adherence to democratic norms, effective policies and effective democracy are going to be driven out of government. By neglect if not outright hostility.
We’re seeing that now.
But by the same token, it’s crucially important to understand that one of the reasons we’re here is that expertise and credentials have failed to live up to their own hype. The age of experts in the Pax Americana had a solid run — at least for a few decades — but it has led to massive income inequality, social unrest, environmental devastation, fears of technology-based annihilation, and a deep rooted concern that the future — if there even is one — has no place for any of us.
Put simply, we’re turning to star power not because star power’s so wonderful, but because the experts and the institutions that served as our gatekeepers failed to create a world that most of us want to live in. Having an advanced degree or an elite credential, or a successful track record at anything, did not actually make you any more likely to improve the world for other people. And sometimes became synonymous with screwing it up.
Frankly, experts and institutions have failed to convince a shocking number people that a multicultural democracy is a better option than Nazism. That is not multicultural democracy’s fault. We’ll miss it terribly if it falls. But consider just how many institutions and highly educated people have had to fail at a basic mission of culture to reach this point.
President Trump likes to periodically bust out with some version of “if you’re so smart, why aren’t you president?” This is evidence of a lack of character, nevermind a grip on reality: Rich people like to assume that because they can buy things, they’re good at things. But it actually does articulate the fundamental challenge to the world that Trumpism is trying to replace: If the experts are so smart, why don’t people like living in the world they’ve built?
Can the experts and the institutions that accredit them actually come up with a better world? They were given a chance, and they failed pretty badly, in no small part because they eschewed the idea of public service and community and embraced elitism as they feathered their nests.
Right now it looks like the Democrats in America, and their counterparts in Europe, are beginning to embrace the idea that to fight Trumpism they need to embrace star power. They can do that — and eventually, they might very well win. But we need to understand that if that happens, it still represents the twilight of good government. Because expertise and institutions will not have rescued themselves, let alone the rest of us, from the world they created. Instead, we will all be beholden to someone who plays an expert on TV.
Benjamin Wachs archives his work at www.FascinatingStranger.com. Email him at Benjamin@FascinatingStranger.com.