The evolution of political leaders since the second world war can be described in three logical stages, following a sadly predictable pattern of decline.
First, there were statesmen with values and convictions. Then came the media-savvy generation of gradually decreasing amount of conviction and vision. But they still followed the rules and still wanted to be loved. If you think they are deplorable, wait for the third generation: the logical endgame of the evolution of political elites.
If generations even exist, they are always a reaction to the ones that came before them. They are a collection of lessons learned and mistakes to be avoided. It also applies to political elites. Their evolution since the second world war forms a long trend of ever less vision and ever more veneer.
Generation #1 – Statesmen with conviction
– Offer what you have and see if they elect you –
First, there were statesmen with values and convictions.
The first generation of politicians coming out of the second world war understood what happens when political leaders let themselves indulge in irresponsible nationalism and belligerent grandstanding. They remembered vividly how easily the crowds can be agitated and made to support even mass murder. They understood that their words and actions have consequences.
Their views were value-based and more coherent than anything that came after them. The post-war ideological divide was being formulated and defined by these statesmen and their convictions set out the battle lines for decades to come. No wonder they became reference points for later generations of leaders.
If people didn’t like their policies, they may have been sad, but didn’t turn. They may have tried to convince people – but ultimately expected their results to speak for themselves.
The transition between phases came at different times in different countries, and it was more of a trend than a linear change. Yet, the next generation of politician was eventually born everywhere.
Generation #2 – Rule-obeying, media-savvy politicians
– Offer what they want to hear –
The logical next step of evolution is for politicians to realize that there can be only one priority: and that is getting elected. And if their little views stand in the way of that, which one should they lose: their opinions or the elections?
Marketing is never about the greatness of the product. In fact, the product hardly matters. This is what the new generation discovered. And while obeying the rules of the game, such as constitutionalism, the law (more or less), the need to compete in elections, etc., they hollowed out their positions as leaders – in favor of electability and popularity.
After all, there was too much at stake to risk it on some ideas. They realized that only old-fashioned people think that your conviction will sell. But those people all live in the past.
The next generation of politicians were no longer statesmen. They were media whores who refused to leave it to voters whether they take it or leave it. Instead, they made sure to offer whatever the voters wanted to hear. And not just their own voters, but undecided and swing voters.
So they polled and polled religiously and vomited your opinion back at you. Instead of convincing you, they tried to read your mind. Didn’t it feel great? Didn’t you feel important? Didn’t you feel empowered?
Well, as long as you were in the majority, they were trying to cajole. They were all after the most populous, central voter base. This is part of the reason why the number of parties always tended to two – even where a two-party system was not carved into electoral law like in the UK.
With time, campaigning became 24/7 and there was less and less space for policy for policy’s sake. Everything had to be polled and focus-grouped before being rolled out, posture and appearances mattered more than actual impact, the public good was paid lip service to – but sustainability already started to fade out of consideration. If there were more than one priority, sustainable policies wouldn’t have made it the top 10. But there weren’t. The only priority was to get elected and to stay that way.
Generations after generations have internalized that there simply wasn’t a policy irresponsible enough to oust them from power. (This applies to both politicians and voters.) But if it wasn’t popular, that was the end of their career.
When it came to constitutional rules, they followed. They were always within the limit of the law, and when they were not, they were discreet. When they were busted, they resigned. A scandal used to be the end of a political career. Changing the laws to fit their purpose did happen, but it was a shameful thing to do. They could be called out on it and labeled a crook. Don’t even try to compare it to today’s empty legalism.
As of ideology, they kept using the ready-made panels. They paid lip service to the increasingly outdated concepts of left and right because the dichotomy suited them. It was simple and it mobilized voters.
They used ideology not to inform but to justify policy.
Politicians of conservative label justify a policy with conservative-sounding argument. Politicians with a socialist label justify it with socialist-sounding ones. The policy is the same.
It is not necessarily a bad thing. Just pointing this out because many still gobble up ideological justifications as if their lives depended on it – while fail to evaluate policies by any other means.
When looking at fiscal patterns, economists couldn’t find an ideological pattern in state spending in western countries. When you are not whether that government is “left”or “right”, you won’t be able to tell it just by looking at it’s policies and spending. The only thing that can be told from fiscal patterns is the election years. When elections come, “left” and “right” all spend.
Even though these politicians weren’t really doing much, they still had to look competent. Even their ties had to exude stature. Everything was optimized and fine-tuned to that solid, dependable image, possibly a residue of old statesmen of the past.
They also had to be civilized. After decades of cold war and seeing what the absence of dialogue and human rights did to the continent, people were vary to support those who suggested the elimination of fellow humans in any way.
But media whoring comes with a catch. If popularity makes or breaks your political career, you must stay popular. You must stay supported. You must stay loved. And ever since Machiavelli every student knows that love is in the hands of the voters, they decide whom they give it to. By striving for voters’ affection, politicians exposed themselves to voters’ whims. And what kind of amateur lets it to the voters to decide?
The transition from media whores to pure disgrace is gradual and not simultaneous. But the logical next step is always the same:
If there is a single lesson learned from the fate of media whores, it is that only an amateur leaves it to the voters to decide whether they love him. A pro will put an end to this exposure.
Also, who said those rules were sacred?
The media-savvy, substance-free type is the politician we are most familiar with.
We grew up with them. Their ascent was gradual and not completely linear, not even in the west. And in Eastern Europe the whole evolution came much later and was much quicker. But the ultimate cumulation of what was wrong with the media-whores can be personified in David Cameron. All he knew was PR and marketing – it was even his profession – but there was no substance behind it. He was the ultimate product of spin doctoring and decades of deteriorating standards of directionless leadership.
At the end, he used a referendum not in the public interest, not even to gain advantage over Labour – but only to deal with challengers within his of party. Even when he knew that one of the options offered was catastrophic and not in his country’s interest. How much lover can you get?*
Chances are, you are still thinking about politicians as people who need your approval. You still think that the public’s little opinion counts, that outraging the public would hurt a politician’s reelection, that a scandal would make him resign.
Now, you’re the one who lives in the past.
– Make them want whatever you have to offer –
If you think that media whoring is the worst that can happen to you, let me describe the logical next step of politicians’ evolution: when they no longer want to be loved. This will make you nostalgic for the kinds of Blair, Cameron, Hollande or any attention whore soft-populist of yesteryear.
When gained enough support as saviors, Generation Disgrace transcend the phase where they need to appear good for you to stay in power. They can openly despise you and treat you with contempt. They also don’t regard the rules as sacred. Whether they come from the very heart of the establishment (such as Orbán) or outside of it (Trump) they can pose as outsiders who kick the rules and “shake things up”. Those who are fastest down the slippery slope of losing their inhibitions gain a momentary advantage. For themselves, not for their countries – and that is what you have to keep in mind when trying to understand them.
Generation Disgrace is a generation of strongmen, with religious following in their core voter base and religious rejection by the opposite camp.
In this phase there are always two, irreconcilable voter camps.
And parties become the center of power – leaving traditional checks on power toothless to balance them.
In the circle jerking bubble of political camps a flippant burn of the enemy gains more applause and more valuable support than a sound policy proposal. Outside appeal doesn’t matter when parties become kingmakers. Power leaves parliaments and parties become the center of policy and power. The old checks and balances are powerless against them.
And this is why the kinds of Cameron and May could put more emphasis on support within their camp than the interest of the nation. This is why even the minimal consensus is missing and partisanship clouds our minds to the point where everything MUST be divided into two opinions, and even false questions generate irreconcilable warring camps. Demography, migration and gerrymandering may change voter outcomes, but nothing changes minds.
But that’s not the worse because these new leaders truly don’t deserve your vote. No one who gets close to power this way does.
During the heady years of unprecedented growth, voters and politicians alike have learned that actions no longer have consequences. You can promise, you can take on debt, you can steal, and nothing obvious ever happens. In the world of deferred consequences, we all came to think that we can do anything, any stupid thing, we can lead drunk, we can vote high, that voters and politicians alike can make decisions based on short-term feelgood and never face reality. And Generation Disgrace is the master of this school of thought.
So if you don’t change your mind from one candidate to the other – it doesn’t really matter. The worst thing is that there is no one who does deserve your vote anymore – and has a chance to win. And that pushes you even deeper in the sense of helplessness. The incumbent parties became so entrenched, that their in-fighting has more impact on the country than disagreements between them.
And this is how Generation Disgrace ushers in the era of the strongman.
Having been socialized during the boom decades when no irresponsible decision had an immediate, negative impact, they have grown extremely cynical and forgot why they should be the first fiscally responsible politician in decades. And not just in fiscal issues. These politicians forgot why could go wrong if they don’t contain their egos and stop serving the peace and the public. They forgot what happens once someone stokes nationalism and/or promises free money to stay in power. And finally, they really don’t feel they should be slaves to fickle voters anymore.
If a politician really wants to serve voters, it feels unjust when they vote him out. So the only reason ever to enter elections is the hunger for power. They tell you whatever you want to hear in order to get elected – then they do whatever they want. In their view, that’s what voters deserve for being so stupid. Digital technologies in the hands of these insufficiently backboned and poorly principled politicians proved to be even more of a threat to human rights and the rule of law than any mechanical invention they could squeeze out of their government-employed engineers. A full-blown digital police state is possible without much fanfare – unlike its pre-digital predecessors, like the Stasi.
Populists who manage to maintain religious following in their voter base long enough to cement themselves in power become autocrats with no counterbalance within the elite.
All these suckers need is the Matthew effect to win. Voters whose minds have been enslaved by generations of training into learned helplessness, either by welfarism (overwhelming state power) or by a strongman (overwhelming state power) genuinely want to vote for the eventual winner. And the one who can save them. Take care of thing. They want not to “take back control” but to give it to a strongman who will hopefully wield it to their satisfaction.
Today your opinion is manipulated more than it is listened to (the holy grail of PR and advertising is not to find out what you want next, but to make you want what they have), outrages serve to widen a strongman’s room for maneuver and push you deeper into internalized helplessness masked by wisecracking resignation.
You may still believe that a politician would go down with a scandal – but would Watergate even register on the radar today? What should Orbán do to lose his religious following? Show his dick or rape someone on camera? It would just get them a roaring applause of a “traditional society”. Kill someone? It would be called a set-up. Spy for Russia? Americans are no longer squeamish about it. Selling your country out to Russian interests? 28 years after Russian tanks left the country, Hungarians are protesting for Putin. A genocide? After years of agitating and demonizing foreigners and migrants, it would just be the logical next step and we would be as powerless against it as we are against the state propaganda likening humans to rats.
This new generation of politicians hasn’t arrived everywhere yet. To some places, they never will. Trump is on the verge of going over – or fail. But if he passes, he will successfully graduate from the pinnacle of empty media whoring to Real Existing Putinism. Because this erosion of standards may be a logical reaction to the popularity-obsession of yesteryear, but the process is also facilitated by bad examples and the spreading of worst practices, by the dissemination of dangerous relativism and value-free nihilism, by the appeasement of strength and the relinquishment of rights and values. After all, fear is in the hand of the prince. Love used to be in yours.
Once you feel helpless, you, too, will learn to love them.
*Correction: you can get lower. Observe the next misjudged elections by May and see what happens when even the veneer is missing.