You just have to check out the hair. Full, lyrical. Check those steady, penetrating eyes. OMG the skincare regime. Compile media grabs of Macron and Trudeau – and Ardern – and you have images of successful people who are fun and interesting and want to do good. All Trudeau has to do is go surfing, strip down a little and show us what he’s made of. People say politics is superficial, like that’s a bad thing.
And then they open their mouths: words flow: policy-informed, passionate as well as polite.
There is a successful way of fighting populism: with a lighter populism that has even better media penetration than rage. There’s a whole taxonomy to populism that diverges from policy content, and whorls deep into the vortex of the image economy. It’s about how you see them, when you see them, in which media you see them, how often, in what context, at what speeds; faster and faster until the blur becomes a stable form, like paged animation.
I give a fair share of common intelligence to the French that – unlike the United States electorate – they took the threat of negative populism seriously. They went for the guy who married his high school French teacher. His success raises the question of whether centre-left regimes are foundering under the weight of unpopular reform, or simply unpopular leaders.
The guy who had it all to play for and got the Socialists in power for the first time in a very long time – Hollande – started to be undone by a haircut and a minor affair. Normally largesse and affairs are basic qualifying conditions for high political life in France. But Hollande cocked it up and made it all look ugly. They laughed at him. It would be great if he lost it over poor policy, but actually he lost the media and simply never recovered.
Jacinda Ardern’s beau is Clark Gayford. You can look him up anywhere but he’s a Man About Town, MC and entertainer, media darling, hard core fisherman, ruggedly handsome. The trick for Ardern is to get into the media being both bright and to look good, and be surrounded by people who attract positive media coverage.
If you can’t really fake it, substitute it and you achieve the same ends in the media. Trump deployed his spectacularly photogenic daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared. Andrew Little has appointed Jacinda Deputy Leader. It won’t be long.
The other standard point beyond charisma is language. Macron’s party En Marche! Is usually translated as “forward”, but it’s really closer to “turned on” or “on the march”. It’s not that Macron has fooled voters into thinking he’s a bomb-throwing revolutionary. Macron might not sound totally believable when he calls for smashing the system, but change-hungry voters still appreciate the feeling of being targeted. Authenticity isn’t the only thing that’s rewarded in politics; linguistic effort is rewarded too.
Macron’s gambit won’t be really clear until parliamentary elections in June, so En Marche! better have its full slate of electable candidates and the full party machine ready by then. But he looks like he has defeated any chance that a new form of Thatcherism, or ethnic fascism, or a communard has of getting into the Elysee Palace.
Whether you are Hilary Clinton or
David Jeremy Corbyn, major swathes of voters will evaluate you not on whether they’ve read the policy manifestos, but on whether they get a stable and appealing glimpse of you on the tv news or smartphone screen. What if voting consisted of “swipe left” or “swipe right”: before you laugh, it may come to that. Not only do most people not read past the headline, they don’t read past the photo.
After Trump’s first year floodlights the wreckage that occurs when you vote anger into office, we will also look across the wreckage that used to be the left; across Europe, the United States, Canada, and beyond. The temptation will be to continue to re-jig policies into more extreme forms. That will remain largely ineffective.
There are many reasons why Democrats had a poor showing in 2016, but an important reason is that they were angling for young voters with septuagenarian leaders who had been wounded over decades by billions of dollars of negative advertising. They won’t revive until they have a leader who looks and sounds fresh.
There’s a few notes that are instructive for our Labour and Green Parties here. In the U.S., leaders of the Democratic Party control nothing and are even more unpopular than the woefully unpopular Republicans. And yet the Democratic Party platforms on health care, education, and immigration are progressive and popular. Labour is bang-on policy wide, but their vote is flat despite the tide going out on the current lot.
Macron’s success, and Trudeau’s success, suggests an obvious response. When leaders are unpopular, get fresh ones who say things in a fresh way. For older politicians, unpopularity can accumulate over time like barnacles on a ship.
In this sense it’s important that Ardern has been unscathed by any major Parliamentary battles. It’s important that she looks great. She sounds great. She has appeal, and charisma. Her charisma is necessary. Not sufficient, but necessary.
Democrats and Labour and Socialists alike complain about dirty tricks and unfair attacks, but instead of foolishly litigating the loser-truth before the court of popular opinion, major world electorates are showing that they would do better to hand over the scalps of their tired leaders, and choose new leadership that has charisma, coherence, and largely undamaged track records. With whom they will win.