What’s the opposite of these PPE/Énarque/Beltway weirdos?

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].

identikit politicians clegg

Off-the-peg, but tailored to your needs

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’.

Featured image is George W. Bush’s ‘Wounded Veterans’ (c.2014)

Democracy, Corruption and Trust

On the municipal election results…

Brazil’s first elections since Dilma’s impeachment are already being reported as a ‘slap‘ to the Workers’ Party (PT). This was always going to be the case. The governing party bore the brunt of anti-corruption protests, the Lava Jato investigations, and responsibility for recession. More interesting is the rise of another force – anti-politics. None-of-the-above may turn out to be the biggest winner.


In Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, millionaire businessman João Dória won an unprecedented absolute majority, heavily defeating PT’s Fernando Haddad. Dória’s appeal as successful businessman, non-politician and former host of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice did him favours in the current climate. But equally notable was that nul or white votes beat Haddad into second place. Indeed, the story was similar in mayoral elections across Brazil.

Four of the country’s five largest cities saw nul/white come in second place. Likewise in eight of the 20 biggest. Most remarkably, the protest vote came in first in three significant municipalities (all in the top 30 nationally): São Gonçalo (pop. 1m) and Nova Iguaçú (pop. 800k) in Greater Rio, and Osasco (pop. 700k) in Greater São Paulo. And this is without counting abstention rates that hovered around 20%. There were regional disparities, with abstention and blank votes in the Northeast region generally lower, while much higher in the metropolises of the Southeast.

This deserves further exploration later this week. But for now, a broader lens on trust in democracy. Brazil’s political crisis and anti-political wave seem like a part of global trends.

Yet Brazil operates on a different timescale. Attempts to fit it into ‘universal’ periodisations are mistaken. While democracy was being hollowed-out across the West in the 2000s, Brazil was living perhaps its greatest democratising moment (in a history hardly ennobled by them). While left critics rightly point out social movement and labour demobilisation during the PT’s period in office, by the standards of formal liberal democracy, this was a peak of institutional representation of popular wishes. At least at the executive level, a majority of Brazilians voted for representatives who promised improvements in standards of living for the majority and these were duly delivered. Yes, there was graft, vote-buying and so on, while oligarchical politics carried on as usual. But it still presented a contrast to the European or North American pattern of promising nothing and getting even less in return. So what happened?

The protests which erupted in June 2013 were testament to rising expectations coaxed from the previous decade’s success. The failure of public institutions to match up to these new aspirations then crashed into a severe economic downturn and resulted in the political crisis we see today. For all the ins and outs of political manoeuvring, the primary dynamic here is undeniable.

Indeed, for all that this is ostensibly “about corruption”, the defining feature is a loss of trust in establishment politics. Witness data about support for democracy from the latest Latinobarómetro:

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If we chart net support for democracy (pro-democracy, minus authoritarianism and ambivalence) alongside GDP per capita, the results are unsurprising: support for democracy accompanies GDP per capita figures.

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NB: Survey data on democracy is from the early part of the year. Therefore GDP per capita data has been taken from the preceding year (i.e. 2015’s democracy score is presented alongside 2014’s GDP figures). 2016 GDP per capita data is not yet available, but it will likely accompany 2016’s steep decline in net support for democracy (-23%, down from+22% in 2015).

This isn’t to suggest that support for democracy is inherently fickle and dependent on it ‘delivering’ economically. But they are not unconnected. And opinion surveys likely magnify this relationship (you’re struggling to get by, you see institutions not operating as well as they might, and you tell your interviewer you’re unsure about this whole democracy thing.)

Today’s election results should be seen in this light. But the deep impact of the anti-corruption crusade led by Judge Sérgio Moro should not be underestimated. Lava Jato is not just an investigation into massive graft. It’s also a media event, whose impartiality is deeply questionable. Even if its intentions were not partisan, its effects on the broader culture are. This is seen in the fall in PT candidates’ popularity – both in polling and in these municipal elections.

But worse than delegitimising the PT, the anti-corruption investigations (and the wave of protest they rode and helped direct and sustain) may be in the process of de-legitimising politics as a pursuit in itself. While political corruption is a betrayal of trust from those holding public office, anti-corruption politics (as opposed to anti-corruption policies) are themselves corrosive of trust. Moro, one notes, benefits from high approval ratings and even figures in putative 2018 presidential election surveys. But even he has seen his standing fall in the past months as his tactics seem to fall foul of the ethical high standards he ostensibly demands. If corruption seems to be everywhere, who can be trusted?

Trust is a fungible property. Loss of trust in one area can mean it gets displaced onto others. As representative institutions get called into question, people can displace trust into counter-majoritarian institutions, such as the judiciary.

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There is thus far no evidence of this in Brazil, and in fact the judiciary seems to have suffered from the same loss of trust affecting representative institutions. This may be a small mercy. A fully fleshed democracy requires trust in representatives, whatever the institutional configuration may be; and rule by judges is not that. But abstention and blank votes do not presage a re-engagement with politics. Anti-politics continues the winner for now.