Mar 4th 2013

Send in the Clowns

NEW YORK – When too many Italians voted late last month for either a louche and discredited business tycoon or a comedian, European stock markets plummeted. With no public trust in the political class, Italy might become ungovernable.

But Italians are not alone. Rage against the political establishment has become a global phenomenon. Chinese bloggers, American Tea Party activists, British Europhobes, Egyptian Islamists, Dutch populists, Greek ultra-rightists, and Thai “red shirts” all have one thing in common: hatred of the status quo and contempt for their countries’ elites. We are living in an age of populism. The authority of conventional politicians and traditional media is slipping away fast. 

Populism can be a necessary corrective when political parties grow sclerotic, mass media become too complacent (or too close to power), and bureaucracies are unresponsive to popular needs. In a globalized world managed by bankers and technocrats, many people feel that they have no say in public affairs; they feel abandoned.

Our national politicians, increasingly powerless to cope with serious crises, are suspected, often with good reason, of simply looking after their own interests. All we can do is vote the rascals out, sometimes by voting for candidates whom we would not take seriously in more normal times.

Italian elites are not the only ones in need of being shaken up. But the problem with populism is that it is rarely benign. In the 1930’s, it resulted in violent movements led by dangerous men in uniform. Today’s populists are different. They do not, on the whole, advocate violence. Some preach that Muslims are destroying Western civilization. Others think that President Barack Obama is a kind of communist out to destroy America. 

Two types of contemporary populist, however, stand out: the ultra-rich business tycoon and the clown. In the Anglo-Saxon media world, Rupert Murdoch, owner of far too many newspapers, TV stations, and movie studios, is a typical populist tycoon. But he never aspired to lead a country. Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra did – and still do.

Neither the clown nor the tycoon is well suited to being a democratic leader. The question is which is worse. 

Clowns have always played a role in politics. Medieval court jesters were often the only ones who could speak truth to despotic kings. Today, it is often comedians who claim to speak truth to power – and to the public.

In America, liberals turn for political commentary to television comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who are now more trusted than traditional news broadcasters. And clownish right-wing radio talk-show hosts now have more influence on many conservative American voters than the sober journalists of the mainstream media do.

A few years ago, a clown named Brozo, with a large red nose and a bright green wig, was Mexico’s most popular political commentator on television, actively courted by all candidates running for national office. In 1980, the French clown Coluche actually dropped out of the presidential race when one newspaper put his popular support at 16%, causing him to fear that he might influence the result too much. 

The prototype of modern European populism was the flamboyant Dutch political showman Pim Fortuyn, who was assassinated in 2002 by a fanatical vegan. Fortuyn’s outrageousness was deliberately provocative and always entertaining. His rants against the elites were often confused, but he was funny, which made the old elite politicians look like stuffy old bores – which many of them were.

And now Italy has Beppe Grillo, whose success in the country’s recent election makes him the first professional comedian to lead a major political party in Europe. 

The thing about clowns, though, is that few have any aspirations to rule their countries. Before his death, Fortuyn is said to have been terrified of the prospect of becoming Prime Minister. And Grillo cannot even aspire to the job in Italy because of his criminal record.

Clowns mostly seek to provoke, and this can be healthy. They are less likely than members of the professional political class to allow political calculations to influence their views. And, sometimes, they actually say things that are uncomfortable but true, and that need to be said. 

Political business tycoons, on the other hand, have different ambitions. They attack the old elites not to shake things up, but to take their power. Promising to spread the riches that they have made for themselves, they exploit the fantasies of those of us who have little and want more. Berlusconi understood the dreams of many Italians very well. His extravagance, clownishness, and even his girls were part of his popular appeal.

In Thailand, the self-made ethnic-Chinese media billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra was especially admired by the rural poor. Like a beneficent king, he would give them money, and promised to challenge the old elites in Bangkok – the bankers, generals, judges, and even the courtiers surrounding the Thai king. 

But tycoons are not natural democrats. Their main interest is in their own business. And they do not hesitate to undermine an independent press or judiciary when their business interests are threatened. Even though his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, is now in power, Thaksin is still trying to evade trial in Thai courts on a wide array of financial charges.

As it happens, Thaksin was overthrown in 2006 by a military coup that was largely backed by the Bangkok elites. Berlusconi was replaced by a government run by elite technocrats, whose policies had to be approved by European bankers and European Union bureaucrats. 

Neither of these responses to populism is likely to boost democracy. On the contrary, they make things worse. What is needed is mainstream politicians who understand and respond to what is fueling popular rage. Paying attention to some of what the clowns are saying might be a good first step.

 


 

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2013.
www.project-syndicate.org

 

 


This article is brought to you by Project Syndicate that is a not for profit organization.

Project Syndicate brings original, engaging, and thought-provoking commentaries by esteemed leaders and thinkers from around the world to readers everywhere. By offering incisive perspectives on our changing world from those who are shaping its economics, politics, science, and culture, Project Syndicate has created an unrivalled venue for informed public debate. Please see: www.project-syndicate.org.

Should you want to support Project Syndicate you can do it by using the PayPal icon below. Your donation is paid to Project Syndicate in full after PayPal has deducted its transaction fee. Facts & Arts neither receives information about your donation nor a commission.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Mar 12th 2019
Allegations of Russian meddling in the affairs of Western countries have been a persistent feature of Western politics since the Cold War. Claims of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election are only the most recent in a long series of suspected conspiracies across the past century or so. But Russian political discourse is also riddled with conspiracy theories. Everything bad that happens in Russia is traced back by some to one or another anti-Russian plot hatched in the West.
Mar 10th 2019
My Soviet school built a mesh fence around its yard. Every week, tardy kids who wanted to cut through the yard tore a hole in the fence. Every weekend, the administration fixed it. But the hole would reappear the morning after. This went on forever. I wish US President Donald Trump, the fence builder of the West, had gone to my school. The Soviet Union was a country of fences, barriers, and walls. Everything was prohibited, locked, and guarded. Warning signs were phrased in no uncertain terms: “Do Not Enter: Death!” “Strangers Are Forbidden.” “The Border Is Closed.” Barriers didn’t stop people from ignoring the warnings. But they complicated things.
Mar 8th 2019

 

WASHINGTON, DC – It seems that every time I write about Donald Trump’s presidency, I pronounce it to be in more trouble than ever. This time is no different: he and his presidency are indeed in more trouble than ever. And yet that may not prevent him from winning again in 2020.

Mar 7th 2019
The Brexit process has exacerbated many of the disunities within the UK’s territorial constitution................polling in England suggests that many people think breaking up the UK is perhaps a price worth paying to deliver Brexit.......... At the referendum, only two of the four component parts of the UK – England and Wales – voted to leave the EU. This was enough to swing an overall UK-wide majority in favour of leave, but it went against the will of the Scottish and Northern Irish electorate. In both these parts of the country, significant majorities voted to remain – 62% and 55.8%, respectively.
Mar 6th 2019
Watching Michael D. Cohen, US President Donald Trump’s former lawyer and self-described “fixer,” testify to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform was a remarkable spectacle to behold. Here was a man who was hired by Trump to behave like a gangster. And he did that to perfection. When The Daily Beast was about to report on allegations by Trump’s first wife, Ivana, that her husband had raped her, Cohen barked at the journalist working on the story: “So I’m warning you, tread very fucking lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be fucking disgusting. You understand me?” That journalist was hardly alone. Cohen’s job was to threaten anyone who got in the way of his old boss. He lied to congressional committees, paid off prostitutes to stop them from talking about their affairs with Trump, and much else. Cohen, who will soon begin serving a three-year prison sentence, has become what Mafiosi (and Trump) call a “rat.”
Feb 27th 2019
Extracts: "Some political catastrophes come without warning. Others are long foretold, but governments still walk open-eyed into disaster. As the possibility of a no-deal Brexit looms, most analysts agree that there will be severe economic and political consequences for the UK and the EU. And yet a no-deal Brexit still remains an option on the table....." ".......Although the consequences of a no-deal Brexit will be much less terrible, there are similarities in certain patterns of thinking and political behaviour, from the few who embrace disaster to the systemic pressures which prevent compromise. Avoiding disaster in 1914 would have required framing the stakes of the July crisis in less zero-sum ways and refusing to rationalise a general European war as an acceptable policy option. It required leaders with enough courage to compromise, even to accept defeat, and for states to offer rivals the prospect of long-term security and future gains in exchange for accepting short-term setbacks."
Feb 25th 2019
US President Donald Trump’s administration has underestimated China’s resilience and strategic resolve. With the Chinese economy slowing, the US believes that China is hurting and desperate for an end to the trade war. But with ample policy space to address the current slowdown, China’s leadership has no need to abandon its longer-term strategy. While a cosmetic deal focused on bilateral trade appears to be in the offing, the sharp contrast between the two economies’ fundamental underpinnings points to a very different verdict regarding who has the upper hand.
Feb 21st 2019
Extracts: "......after three years of referendum-induced turmoil, there is finally a new move, a brave move, by the eight Labour MPs and three Conservative MPs (and counting)......There are no policy announcements, no real statement of principles, and there is no leader or political platform. And yet, this policy-free political movement is of incredible political importance........this is an act of direct action, based on the concept of prefiguration. That is, the actual policy statement at the heart of the formation of this movement is the formation of the movement itself. There is no need for grand policy statements right now."
Feb 21st 2019
There is a fascinating chapter toward the end of Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America titled “What Kind of Despotism Do Democratic Nations Have to Fear?” in which the author attempted something truly extraordinary – to describe a social condition which humankind had never before encountered. We find him trying to put his finger on something which does not yet exist, but which – in his extraordinary political imagination – he was able to foresee with startling clarity.
Feb 20th 2019
From Trump’s very inauguration day speech, written for him by the fascist gadfly Steve Bannon and man still without a prom date Stephen Miller, it was apparent that the 45th president was a constitutional crisis waiting to happen. And now, without our realizing it for the most part, the constitutional crisis is here.
Feb 11th 2019
The first step to defending Europe from its enemies, both internal and external, is to recognize the magnitude of the threat they present. The second is to awaken the sleeping pro-European majority and mobilize it to defend the values on which the EU was founded. Otherwise, the dream of a united Europe could become the nightmare of the twenty-first century.
Feb 7th 2019
Watching a sophisticated democratic society knowingly walk into a predictable and avoidable national disaster is a rare and alarming experience. Most British politicians are well aware that leaving the European Union with no agreement on the post-Brexit relationship will cause enormous damage to their country. They are not sleepwalking into the abyss; their eyes are wide open. A minority of deluded ideologues doesn’t mind the prospect of Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal. A few chauvinist dreamers on the right, egged on by sections of the press, believe that the bulldog spirit of Dunkirk will overcome early setbacks and Great Britain will soon rule the waves again as a great quasi-imperial power, albeit without an empire. Neo-Trotskyists on the left, including Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, seem to think that catastrophe will spur the British people to demand true socialism at last.
Feb 4th 2019
We’re off to the races - the 2020 presidential races, that is. Since the beginning of the year, at regular intervals, new candidates have been coming forward to announce their intention to compete for the presidency. Some are interesting and/or exciting, while others frankly leave me scratching my head and asking “What are they doing? How on earth do they think they’re going to be elected?”      
Jan 29th 2019
Extract: "As it happens, on that Friday night when Trump buckled, I was at a restaurant where Pelosi and her husband, Paul, were dining with another couple. When the House Speaker left her table, customers and staff alike applauded her. A waitress standing beside me was nearly in tears. She choked out, “We need someone who will fight for us.” "
Jan 28th 2019
Recognizing that opinion in Parliament is moving strongly against leaving the EU on the terms proposed by May, with a growing number of members even in favor of a second referendum to test whether we should leave at all, some right-wingers have flirted with the idea of trying to close down the House of Commons for a time. They want the government to be able to get its own way without any democratic opposition. It is a sign of their desperation to get Britain out of the EU whatever the constitutional or economic cost. Is May prepared to get to grips with this? If she runs away from the task, despite growing Parliamentary unease about the path we are on, Britain is in big trouble.
Jan 25th 2019
At the end of last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia had completed final testing of an “invincible” new hypersonic nuclear-capable missile, the “Avangard,” calling it “the best New Year gift” for his country. With Putin seeming to up the ante on his increasingly frequent doomsday rhetoric, should the world be bracing itself for a nuclear conflict?................In recent months, popular support for Putin in Russia has declined sharply, with his approval rating falling from over 76% to 66% in the second half of last year. At the same time, a kind of neo-medieval thinking, focused on the restoration of autocratic monarchy and the supremacy of the Orthodox Church, has been gaining prominence in Russia. Putin’s fire-and-brimstone rhetoric may actually reflect the mindset of these fundamentalists, who view nukes as a “practical solution” to the world’s problems.
Jan 24th 2019
Over the past three decades I wrote more than two hundred articles about Israel, envisioning it to be a democratic state, independent and free, a champion of human rights, a force of unity for world Jewry, united in its citizenry, admired by its friends, envied by its detractors, and above all at peace with the Arab states and especially with the Palestinians. My vision about Israel was founded on my deep sense of the Jews’ turbulent and tragic history and their yearning for a home of their own in which to live in peace and security. As the years went by, I became increasingly disillusioned with Israel’s endemic political disunity, its inability to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, the growing public complacency, the loss of the country’s unity of purpose, and the abandonment of its moral responsibility.
Jan 22nd 2019
China’s strategy for economic growth has been a work in progress since Deng Xiaoping launched the country’s “reform and opening up” in 1978. While the last 40 years of reform have been far from error-free, the government has displayed a willingness to adapt, as well as a capacity for navigating complex transitions, supported by a healthy internal policy debate. But how is China’s development model likely to evolve in the future, as external conditions pose new challenges to economic growth? A defining feature of China’s four decades of reform has been the state’s evolving role in the economy, about which there is still significant domestic disagreement. Some argue that the state – and, by extension, the Communist Party of China (CPC) – must retain a prominent role, in order to uphold the social stability needed to sustain economic development. Others claim that spurring the innovation needed to reach high-income status requires the state to be less like a market participant and more like a referee, regulator, and arbiter of economic and social priorities.
Jan 16th 2019
Consumer studies academics have been picking up on changing habits for a number of years. This includes an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people are buying less often and less overall. This is particularly true in the clothing industry, where research shows that millenials are especially unforthcoming – even after you factor in the shift to online retail. A lack of bricks and mortar did not, for instance, prevent online fashion retailer Asos from shocking the City with a profit warning shortly before Christmas. The American car industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people seem less interested in ownership. The average age of a new car buyer in the US was 50 in 2015. Or to give one more example, witness Apple’s recent trading problems. People are not only opting for cheaper smartphones, but they are keeping them for longer. If the world’s first company to pass the trillion dollar value mark is showing signs of struggling, we ought to take note.
Jan 15th 2019
[Eurozone] trades mainly within itself, re-invests its own savings, and doesn’t rely on large transfers into or out of other regions. So if another financial or commercial shock sends the rest of the world running backwards, the unloved single currency area may defy gravity as stubbornly as it resists reform.