On Populism and ‘Honest Politicians’
Corbyn has been praised for being an honest man, that rarity — an authentic politician. Yet his lack of success has brought criticism (and not just from the right of his own party and other centrists) for not ‘playing the game’. So which is it?
Neither. The surprise upsurge – if not quite political success – of Bernie and Jean-Luc Mélenchon (JLM) tell us something. They succeed with political oratory, big claims about democracy and public good(s). Bernie happens to also be imagined as honest and authentic. His record at least shows him to be honest. No such ‘proof’ exists for authenticity (thankfully). JLM on the other hand perhaps a bit less so. But so what?
The point is that the desire for honesty/authenticity from politicians was always a sort of false consciousness. A media mirage, a traduction of popular desires for representation. And representation means to carry into political institutions citizens’ collective interests. Not represent them in how they look, talk and act. Which is to say, representation is not reflection. It’s not meant to be a mirror image. People may say they want someone who is like them, a man of the people, when interviewed on TV news voxpops or in focus groups. But that is a failure of political language, an inability to fully express one’s alienation from the formal institutions of politics.
For a long time, the only way to express the gulf between political institutions and citizens, Peter Mair’s ‘void’, was through critiques of personal integrity. “These individuals look like bastards. We want someone who’s honest, real, not one of these PPE/énarque/Beltway weirdos.” [Delete as appropriate].
That’s not to say there isn’t some truth to these personality-based critiques of the political class. (One of my favourite bits in Peter Oborne’s Triumph of the Political Class is his sartorial observations on Tony Blair and his innumerable clones. Possibly because I could get fully on board with this, whereas his more political observations – Oborne is a Burkean – jarred slightly). Anyway, Corbyn meets the demand for being honest, and fairly authentic (in a scruffy North London leftie sort of way, if not quite reflecting back Rotherham). But, upsurge in Labour membership aside, he has yet to capture the popular imagination in the way Bernie and JLM did and/or have. (Bernie would’ve won, of course. And I suspect a similar fate will meet JLM.) But the latter two had barnstorming speeches. They inspired. Hell, even Obama’s early success was not due to his honesty/authenticity but ability to raise hopes. He didn’t win because ‘he’s one of us’, but because he looked and sounded how we imagined our better selves to be.
That was 2008. Today’s populists (NB Obama was not one) have infused the aforementioned ‘void’ with political content. This might be through a fetishised obsession with immigration, on the right. But left-populists too. Not by reflecting back to ‘ordinary people’ (a terrible term) their supposed ‘ordinariness’, but by inspiring them. Left-populism at its best speaks to the desire for representation, not through lame mirror image man-of-the-people politicians, but with claims about democracy and public good(s).
You might have reservations about their specific politics, but at least its putting paid to the irritating media trope of the cardboard ‘honest/authentic politician’.