Our democracies are always imperfect, split between structures that enable the application of power over others, and the structures that prevent that application being limitless. Some of those structures are fallible: the redrawing of constituent boundaries, the pork barrelling of influence, the varied mechanisms of electoral colleges or models of representation, but there has at least been a degree of predictability to it all. The one certainty on the day after you are elected is that you will be removed from office in one day to come.
But recently more than ever it has felt as thought the political process itself has shifted: not so much in the formal structures of power, but rather in the move towards opposition, and the broader feedback loops and synchronicity of storytelling. Driven, of course, substantially by technology: micro targeting, foreign influence, and fake news are all possible, or amplified, by technology.
Whilst technology has shifted the ways that political stories are aggregated, distorted, and amplified, there has almost certainly been a second, and somewhat stranger, force at play: the culture of performance, and the act of parody that has shifted political operation into the realm of political theatre. Politics was not always dignified, but it historically tended to be held in the political sphere, whilst today it is most certainly undignified, and transferred into a weird realm of reality tv and choreographed spectacle.
For sure the underlying force that drives or permits this is technology: the earliest tv broadcasting of politics mitigated against the great orator who looked jaded and dusty, towards todays ultimate expression of pupated leaders who are held in a one dimensional parody of themselves.
And this parody of political leadership has shifted the locus of power into ever more tribal structures: the response to any political statement is to shout “he’s behind you” with a wicked tinge of glee as we expect the baddy to rise up with twinkling eyes, an evil moustache, and black cape.
Possibly the centre of power has shifted more easily away from geographic distribution to ideological, and away from a centre around political axes, and into one of the interpersonal. Possibly power has collapsed from a nuanced and three dimensional model into a decidedly one dimensional one?
Whatever the cause, we are destined to an eternity of opposition if we are unable to explore alternative models of power, models where sharing is winning, and even humility is recognised as a leadership trait that we desire. Which may sound like weakness in a strongly partisan and culturally fragmented court of public opinion.
Which it may be: absolute power is appealing, meaning we lack accountability, but absolute power is misguided precisely because it lacks checks and balance.
At risk of falling into a trap of liberal nativity, we may need a politics of kindness, and a political landscape of interconnection. If we wish for a healthier model of democracy, we may have to give away some aspect of absolute power, in favour of a more moderated, and nuanced, model off consensus and negotiation, alongside a broader societal narrative of collaboration and cooperation.
Which is not an impossible goal. Just a very hard one.
Perhaps ultimately it is a question of how one views political power: is it an expression of unity and effect, is it a mechanism of self enrichment and unabashed control, or is it a responsibility to all, even weak voices, and is it about stewardship and legacy, accountable to a broader audience than simply your adoring fans?
Put simply, do we need a politics of reconnection more than we need a politics of wicked performance? And if we do, then can we find the space to negotiate this new truth?
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